Nova Scotia

YWCA Halifax tackling cyberbullying with federal crime prevention dollars

With texting, snapchat and instagram becoming more and more influential among young people, the YWCA is taking programming directly to them in schools to try to deal with violence and hate online.

The project, Open New Tab, helps young people create safe spaces online

Miia Suokonautio says young people are online a lot and addressing cyberbullying is vital because there are examples of it every day. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

With texting, Snapchat and Instagram becoming more and more influential among young people, YWCA Halifax is taking programming directly to them in schools to try to deal with messsages of violence and hate.

The program, Open New Tab, has already talked to as many as 1,500 young people between nine and 17 since starting in 2019.

It's a multi-layered approach including discussions with kids in schools and community programs. Young people help design some of the programming and are also involved in an Instagram page as well as a podcast addressing the issue.

"Online, a lot of people feel less fear to say negative stuff,'' said Emma Macaskill, a Grade 9 student at J.L. Ilsley High School in Spryfield. "It can have a really big impact, especially with cyberbullying, because it's not just at school, it can be at home."

Macaskill is one of the youth leaders in the program and was at the YWCA Wednesday alongside the federal minister of public safety, Marco Mendicino, who announced funding of more than $1.8 million over six years to support the project.

Emma Macaskill says negative comments shared online about grades in school as well as friends and family members can have a damaging impact on young people. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Mendicino described it as empowering for young people.

YWCA executive director Miia Suokonautio said the program is "vitally important" given that young people often experience problems online.

It follows years of work about cyberbullying with young people in Nova Scotia in the years following the death of 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons. She died after attempting to take her own life when explicit photos were shared without her consent and led to her being tormented.

"Similar things continue to happen all the time," Suokonautio said, adding Open New Tab talks about things like the sharing of intimate images online and how young people can report cases of that.

"That's where they are all the time," Suokonautio said. "If there were three kids having a fight on my street, I would intervene as an adult, but that can be happening in a bedroom and I have no idea."

Marco Mendicino said Open New Tab will focus on building healthy relationships and better decision-making in young people. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

The crime prevention funds from Ottawa pay for four full-time positions and other part-time jobs allowing the organization to provide programming in eight schools in Halifax and Dartmouth and in several other community groups at the moment.

Macaskill, who is 15, said she is involved as a mentor for other young people who might not know where to turn when facing online abuse.

"I think it can make a huge difference knowing you're not alone in the way that you are feeling and someone can support you."