Cyberbullying bill won't stop online taunts, critics say

Although child psychologists and youth activists support increased attention to the issue of cyberbullying, they say C-13 is unlikely to stop online intimidation.

Bill C-13 needs 'better understanding' of how young people think

Child psychology experts say that the anti-cyberbullying legislation tabled by Justice Minister Peter MacKay on Nov. 20 doesn't look at the causes of online teasing. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has called Bill C-13, the anti-cyberbullying legislation he introduced last week, a key tool in "ensuring that our children are safe from online predators and from online exploitation.”

Although child psychologists and youth activists support increased attention to this issue, they say C-13 is unlikely to stop cyberbullying.

They feel the bill follows a narrow definition of cyberbullying and doesn’t address the underlying misogyny and homophobia that inspires so much online teasing.

“I would hate for the public to be misled into thinking that this is what will deal with cyberbullying, because I think it’s [only] a partial approach,” says Jane Bailey, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

I would hate for the public to be misled into thinking that this is what will deal with cyberbullying- Jane Bailey, law professor, University of Ottawa

Bill C-13, also known as the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, is largely seen as a legislative response to the deaths of Canadian teens such as Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, who endured years of torment online.

Under C-13, anyone who posts or distributes an “intimate image” of another person without their consent would face up to five years in prison.

According to the wording of the bill, an "intimate image" is one that "depicts a person engaged in explicit sexual activity or that depicts a sexual organ, anal region or breast."

Shifting definitions of cyberbullying

The legislation would give police enhanced powers to investigate incidents, including the ability to seize — with a court order — computers, phones and other devices used in an alleged offence.

The bill would also give law enforcement easier access to metadata, the coded information contained in every phone call or email, which has raised concerns among civil liberties groups that C-13 is giving police greater surveillance powers.

Andrea Slane, a law professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, says these new measures will help police investigate “reports of a person extorting a young person for sexual images or threatening to expose them.”

The perpetrators of these sorts of offences usually do so anonymously, but Slane says this type of behaviour doesn’t really describe cyberbullying, which is more about taunting than coercion, and is very much in the open online.

“When it comes to the social fallout that Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons suffered from their peers, most of the time, they knew who those people were,” says Slane.

'Environment of vulnerability'

Bailey says C-13 would be more effective if the government had sought greater input from youngsters themselves.

She says that in its fact-gathering stage, the standing Senate committee on human rights “actually brought in kids to talk to them about what they thought was needed to protect them [online].”

The death of Halifax teen Rehtaeh Parsons, seen here with her mother, Leah, was one of the things that prompted the government to table anti-cyberbullying legislation.

The bottom line, Bailey says, is that the people most affected by the problem of cyberbullying need to inform the solution.

“We really need to consult the kids more often,” she says.

According to the Department of Justice, the measures in Bill C-13 were based on the findings of the Cybercrime Working Group. The ministry has not specified what individuals or organizations make up this group.

The legislation was also partially informed by a Senate standing committee report on human rights released late last year.

Entitled Cyberbullying Hurts: Respect for Rights on the Digital Age, the report called on Canada to meet its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which means taking steps to protect young people from all forms of physical and mental violence.

Understanding teens

The problem with the bill, says Bailey, is that it focuses on criminal and punitive measures instead of the attitudes and actions of cyberbullies themselves.

“We need to have proactive strategies that get at the underlying prejudices that contribute to an environment of vulnerability” to bullying, says Bailey.

Shaheen Shariff, a law professor at McGill University and director of the cyberbullying research project Define the Line, says that legislators also need to have a better understanding of how people, and especially teenagers, view and use social media sites such as Facebook.

As well, she says that not all sexually suggestive images are posted without consent or with malicious intent. Shariff says there also needs to be an acknowledgement that sexually provocative language that can seem derogatory and hurtful is often used affectionately between friends, or in hopes of gaining admiration from peers.

“A lot of time [young people] are just going to be part of a peer group and entertain each other and test the social boundaries and their sexuality,” says Shariff.

Legislators need to have “a better understanding of how young people are thinking these days,” says Shariff. “This has become simply part of their communication, especially when they’re teenagers.”