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Defining the Lines on Cyberbullying: Navigating a balance between child protection, privacy, autonomy and informed policy

Defining the Lines on Cyberbullying: Navigating a balance between child protection, privacy, autonomy and informed policy

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Published by Unicef Innocenti
A brief commentary by Shaheen Shariff, Ph.D. Associate Professor, McGill University, published as part of the 2nd edition of Research Watch.
This commentary examines the global phenomenon of cyberbullying.
A brief commentary by Shaheen Shariff, Ph.D. Associate Professor, McGill University, published as part of the 2nd edition of Research Watch.
This commentary examines the global phenomenon of cyberbullying.

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Published by: Unicef Innocenti on Dec 08, 2011
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UNICEFInnocenti Research Centre
Research Watch – Child Safety Online (No. 2/2011)
Defining the Lines onCyberbullying:Navigating a balance betweenchild protection, privacy,autonomy and informed policy
Shaheen Shariff, Ph.D. Associate ProfessorMcGill University
The digital age facilitates easy access to information for children and teens (“youth”)globally, while creating new challenges for parents, educators, and society. As the use of digitalmedia such as cellular phones and social networking sites proliferates, the lines between freeexpression, privacy, safety, supervision and regulation are increasingly blurred. Educators, policy-makers and parents concerned about child protection and safety are finding it difficult to navigate abalance that respects children’s rights to free expression, autonomy and agency while attempting toreduce the negative impact of on-line harassment and demeaning postings that can socially excludeand isolate individual children and teens from peers, and distract them from learning. Most adults arestill grappling with understanding technologies and rarely keep up with their children’s on-lineproficiencies, whereas elementary school aged children are already immersed in digital media (Boyd& Marwick, 2011). The generation growing up with digital media extends to young adulthood whereuniversity undergraduates lead “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001) in social networking skills. Aswitnessed recently with the “Arab Spring,” social media can be a powerful tool for mobilizing socialand political change. Although most youth use technologies responsibly, the last decade has alsouncovered a new form of on-line social cruelty known as “cyberbullying”. Our preliminary research incountries such as Canada, the United States, Japan, China, India, Denmark, Australia, New Zealandand Europe (Shariff, 2009), confirms that the phenomenon of cyberbullying occurs globally.
Key Issues:
Cyberbullying among youth has come to the forefront of public policy agendas in manycountries because of the unprecedented dilemmas, supervisory and educational challenges it posesfor schools, educators, parents, policy-makers, and judicial systems. Here are some of the keyconcerns: Cyberbullying extends traditional forms of bullying to cyberspace where perpetrators canhide behind screen names with perceived anonymity. Thus, students who have been targeted onlinereturn to school wondering which of their classmates (perhaps all) might be perpetrators. The Internetalso enables participation by an infinite audience of bystanders and cyber-voyeurs in postingdemeaning insults, uttering lewd threats, spreading false rumours, posting jokes and embarrassingvideotapes on social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Students can plan beatings orsexual assault in the physical school context, film the assault and post them online, distributing themto infinite audiences. These actions are often rooted in discrimination such as racism, sexism,homophobia and ableism. Breach of trust is also a serious aspect of cyberbullying, particularly whenyouth engage in “sexting” of intimate photographs to trusted friends. When the relationship sours,impulsive teens might distribute the videotapes on-line, breaching confidence, ruining reputations andcausing significant embarrassment. From a child protection perspective this is troubling for severalreasons: The spread of offensive videotapes depicting the bullying and assault, especially rape, isdifficult to control without applying distribution of child pornography laws. In North America the policeput out media alerts to inform the public that anyone caught with possession of such videotapes willbe charged with child pornography. Yet these are not clear cut cases of child pornography, althoughtheir viral spread online might attract hard core sexual predators which makes victims morevulnerable. Most youth who are digital natives have difficulty distinguishing between onlinecommunications that are funny for the sake of entertainment, and the line crossed when online pranksand teasing result in criminal harassment or criminal charges. Teens have testified in court that theywere simply joking and that their primary focus is to make friends laugh and be heard above the noise
of the Internet (D.C., 2010;
, 2001). If this is the case, there is an urgent need to raise earlyawareness in children about the limits of free expression, the impact of their actions on thosevictimized, and the risk of criminal records. This is especially important given that digital natives alsohave trouble distinguishing the lines between public and private spaces, often failing to realize thattheir online expressions could come back and haunt them (Mitchell, 2006).
Digital natives need to be alerted that when a physical, sexual or verbal assault is filmed andposted online, the individual is re-victimized every time it is viewed, saved, retrieved and redistributed.Educational programs need to “re-humanize” those at the receiving end of the bulling. Teens need toconsider that this could be their sister, their mother, brother - someone they love. Our research(Beran, Shariff et al, 2010) found that victimized individuals experience anger, physical injury, anxiety,eating problems and drug use. Children lose interest in learning and grades drop, or teens drop out ofschool altogether. Some experience extreme eating or sleeping patterns, or modify their appearancein desperate attempts to fit into peer groups. Others give up and stop socializing. Patchin and Hinduja(2010) report that 20 per cent of respondents in their study contemplated suicide (19.7% females and20.9% males); 19 per cent reported attempting suicide (17.9% of females and 20.2% males).Teachers are not immune to cyberbullying. Increasingly, students joke, gossip and spread rumoursabout unpopular teachers which can undermine their authority in the classroom and negatively impacttheir professional reputations, sense of professional worth, and ability to teach. This detracts allchildren from learning and creates a chilled environment in the classroom.
The Policy Vacuum:
The boundaries of legal responsibility and public versus private communicationare increasingly blurred in a rapidly evolving digital society that leaves an enormous public policyvacuum. North American courts have placed an onus on schools to provide a learning environmentthat is free of discrimination and harassment, conducive to learning. Courts have admonished someschools for fostering a “deliberately dangerous environment” by tacitly condoning bullying (
Davis v.Munroe 
, 1998;
, 2001). Schools can legally intervene if on-line expression substantially ormaterially interferes with learning, or if the cyberbullying is perpetrated on school computers orwebsites (Servance, 2003). Most educators remain confused about the extent of their legalresponsibilities with schools, arguing that parents are responsible after school hours, while parentsargue that when it comes to cyberbullying, irrespective of the time, this remains a schoolresponsibility. Ironically, youth are expected to be accountable for their online behaviour and to knowthe legal risks. This is not realistic. Emerging legislation often assumes that youth are legally literate.But how can they be when the adults in their lives are largely ill informed in this regard? Feweducational programs inform children about the legal risks or encourage legal literacy because fewteacher preparation programs address legal issues. Hence, policy makers rightfully grapple with theneed to protect vulnerable children and teens from vicious attacks by peers given the increasednumber of school drop outs and suicides from cyberbullying. Not to be ignored however, is anemerging need to protect legally naive children and teens who engage in cyberbullying for fun, peerpressure, anger or provocation, from overzealous legislation and regulatory policies that fail to takeinto account their immaturity and lack of knowledge. Despite awareness campaigns and researchstudies that emphasize the need for contextual factors, many researchers continue to adopt a narrow

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