Can cyberbullying laws really work?

In the wake of the Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy, Nova Scotia enacted a new cyberbullying law aimed at protecting future victims and holding online bullies, and even their parents, responsible. But legal and social welfare experts question whether this is enough.

Nova Scotia's law in wake of Rehtaeh Parsons tragedy only 'a first step'

Nova Scotia's new cyberbullying legislation was introduced less than a month after the April 7 death of Rehtaeh Parsons of Cole Harbour. (Facebook)

Nova Scotia's new law to counteract cyberbullying aims to protect victims and hold young perpetrators — and even their parents in some cases — responsible. But legal and social welfare experts have their doubts that the law will have a significant impact in the fight against the insidious online behaviour unless much more educational groundwork is laid.

The legislation that came into effect last week was introduced less than a month after the April 7 death of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old from Cole Harbour who was said to have endured harassment and humiliation after a photo of her being sexually assaulted was circulated around her school and online.

She attempted to take her own life, and died a few days later after being taken off life support.

People hold photographs of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons during a memorial vigil at Victoria Park in Halifax on April 11. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

While those professionals who study and work with many of the issues around bullying and cyberbullying find hopeful signs in the Nova Scotia initiative, they caution that fundamental change will only come only through a multi-faceted approach involving parents, educators and others, to create a new sense of responsibility around online behaviour. 

Faye Mishna, dean of the Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, says she doesn’t want to sound negative about the kind of legislation Nova Scotia has adopted. But she rejects suggestions the new law shows that the issue is now really being taken seriously.

"It means that we're starting" to take it seriously and deal with it, she says, "but it's not enough."

Using the law as a form of intervention can be effective only "as long as we have all the other forms of prevention and intervention and education in place," Mishna says.

'Destructive behaviour'

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry has said elements of the new law — it includes protection orders that can be obtained against cyberbullies and offers the ability to sue the parents of a teen who engages in the practice — are "tools that help put a stop to this destructive behaviour."

But he also appears to acknowledge that the new Cyber Safety Act is only one part of a larger effort to tackle this phenomenon.

'This law and this legislation we put forward here isn't the panacea for this issue. It is a step forward.'—Ross Landry

"This law and this legislation we put forward here isn't the panacea for this issue," he told CBC Radio's The Current.

"It is a step forward."

Marvin Bernstein, the chief policy adviser at UNICEF Canada who served as Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate from 2005 to 2010, considers it "positive" that Nova Scotia has looked at the situation surrounding Parsons' death.

But he, too, cautions against considering this new legislation — or any legislation, for that matter — as a panacea, rather than merely one component in an overall approach.

"I think the more important and more impactful approaches really relate to prevention and education," he says.

"And before we vilify the cyberbullies, I think we need to recognize that a good number of the cyberbullies are really children or young people themselves, and that when they carry out this kind of behaviour in many instances they don't understand the impact of what they are doing."

Perennial record

Bernstein places great stock in the role education can play.

"Education can be very helpful in preventing this kind of behaviour by emphasizing that when you post something on Facebook, when you send a text, when you use the internet, there is a perennial record of those actions, and the reputational kind of damage that you're doing to others is not a responsible way to behave."

As he sees it, "the jury is still out" on whether legislation like Nova Scotia's is necessary.

"When we have looked at the Criminal Code and looked at a number of offences there, we've been able to determine that really there are ample provisions … that sometimes come into play."

He points to laws against child pornography, sexual exploitation of children, criminal harassment, uttering threats and intimidation. Civil court remedies exist through defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of mental suffering.

But, he says, those laws are not always enforced (though RCMP in Nova Scotia have now charged two 18-year-old men with child pornography in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, for allegedly distributing a photo of what happened to her).

While more antibullying legislation is starting to emerge at the provincial and territorial level across Canada, Bernstein sees one of the difficulties being a lack of co-ordination and consistency among the statutes.

"Cyberbullying is not just a provincial issue. It's a national issue. It's happening across the country."

Holding parents responsible

Nova Scotia's new law includes provisions to hold parents responsible, but both Mishna and Bernstein question how effective that might be.

Mishna says it might be helpful in some cases, but the broader need is for parents to understand that cyberbullying is a problem and provide support.

Bernstein also notes that many families are now single-parent, with that parent busy working and not always monitoring what his or her child is doing online.

'I think we need to make it easy for them to tell adults even when it's a not a big deal because by the time it's a big deal a lot of damage has been done.'—Faye Mishna

'I would think that there would be very few cases where parents know specifically what's going on, that have had detailed conversations with their children, and then say it's OK.

"And I think that there are many parents who may be new immigrants to this country and have language difficulties," when it comes to monitoring what their children are doing online.

While introducing a new law is one thing, both Mishna and Bernstein point to a need for broader changes in society's outlook toward cyberbullying.

Mishna says it's important that the concern extend from the most extreme cases all the way along to much less severe instances of cyberbullying.

Kids don't like to tell others if they've been a victim and don't like to make a big deal out of it.

"I think we need to make it easy for them to tell adults even when it's a not a big deal because by the time it is a big deal a lot of damage has been done," Mishna says.

Not just a rite of passage

Bernstein sees a need to move beyond anyone thinking that cyberbullying is the kind of thing that's just going to happen, like a rite of passage, and that kids who are victimized should just get over it.

Rehtaeh Parsons' parents, Glen Canning and Leah Parsons, arrive to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on April 23. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

He also sees a need to move beyond any sense that there's any one sector or system in society that could solve the problem.

"Sometimes there's a sense that it's the criminal justice system or it's the child protection system and really, it requires a multi-tiered approach.

"It requires a sense of collective responsibility that all of us as responsible citizens can do something to take steps to address the problem of cyberbullying."

For her part, Rehtaeh Parsons' mother says the legislation is a "great step in the right direction."

Leah Parsons told CBC Radio's The Current she was thrilled the legislation was able to be put in place within four months.

"I'm sure there's going to be some issues surrounding it and other things in place to catch up with the legislation for the police to do their job and for service providers to also join in and help, but it's definitely a step in the right direction."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from CBC News and The Current