Canadians have been riveted by the October 10 suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd following months of cyberbullying which started after Amanda posted topless photos of herself. Shortly before she took her life Amanda posted this YouTube video documenting her suffering.

As reported by the CBC, YouTube initially pulled the video; but at the request of her family – who said the video will spark important conversations about cyber and social media bullying – reposted the video. While in most instances, Amanda’s death prompted an international outpouring of sympathy in the same venue where she had been so tortured; Canadians were shocked to learn, some persisted in tormenting Amanda in death. RCMP have launched a criminal investigation.

Amanda’s death has sparked renewed calls for an end to bullying. On October 15, 2012 MPs kicked off debate on whether to strike a committee to study a national anti-bullying strategy.

This case illustrates the exponentially damaging impact bullying has in a wired world. No longer confined to the playground or walk home; bullies can take to the web to pursue and torment their victims. For this reason cyber bullying is unfortunately particularly insidious.

In June 2012 Ontario passed the Accepting Schools Act which requires school boards and schools to prevent bullying, mete out tougher punishment for bullying and support students who want to promote understanding and respect for all. Intended to come into effect this fall (it received royal assent on June 19, 2012) the Act would have required school boards and schools to:

  • Work with the school community to develop a bullying prevention and intervention plan and make the plan public
  • Investigate any reported incident of bullying
  • Support students who have been bullied; who have witnessed bullying and who have bullied
  • Inform parents about bullying incidents involving their children and discuss the available supports
  • Support students who want to lead activities that promote understanding, acceptance and respect for all
  • Issue tougher consequences for bullying and hate-motivated actions – up to, and including, expulsion

B.C. introduced its Erase Bullying strategy in June 2012 and dedicated $2 million to train educators and others to recognize and address threats.

In Alberta school jurisdictions have their own codes of conduct. As reported here, the proposed Education Act will speak specifically to cyberbullying in schools. Schools implement policies and practices including working with School Resource Officers and police to deal with bullying at school.

As reported in the October ASBA education law newsletter Vis-á-vis the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in September 2012 that a 17-year-old student, known as A.B., could sue an Internet provider to reveal the identities of people who created a Facebook page full of humiliating personal details about her.

Referring to Nova Scotia’s 2012 Task Force Report on online bullying authored by Professor Wayne MacKay, the Supreme Court of Canada highlighted the following:

  • It is logical to infer that children may suffer harm through cyber bullying. Such a conclusion is consistent with the psychological toxicity of the phenomenon described in the Nova Scotia Task Force Report on bullying and cyberbullying
  • The harmful consequences of cyberbullying are “extensive”, including loss of self-esteem, anxiety, fear and school drop-outs. Moreover, victims of bullying were almost twice as likely to report that they attempted suicide compared to young people who had not been bullied
  • The immediacy and broad reach of modern electronic technology has made bullying easier, faster, more prevalent, and crueller than ever before. Cyberbullying follows you home and into your bedroom; you can never feel safe, it is “non-stop bullying”. . . . cyberbullying is particularly insidious because it invades the home where children normally feel safe, and it is constant and inescapable because victims can be reached at all times and in all places
  • The anonymity available to cyberbullies complicates the picture further as it removes the traditional requirement for a power imbalance between the bully and victim, and makes it difficult to prove the identity of the perpetrator. Anonymity allows people who might not otherwise engage in bullying behaviour the opportunity to do so with less chance of repercussion
  • The cyber-world provides bullies with a vast unsupervised public playground

What to talk about with teachers and students

School boards have a duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons it serves and they must watch for anything that might interfere with this duty.

Given the Supreme Court of Canada’s reliance on the Nova Scotia task force report, these findings in the report warrant a discussion with teachers and students:

  • Bullying issues are not a new phenomenon; in fact, learning to deal with bullies is considered by many adults to be an inevitable part of growing up. However, harmful bullying behaviours can not be dismissed as just “kids joking around.” Bullying causes serious physical and emotional injury, with potential long-term costs for personal health, professional success and social and emotional stability.
  • Some of young victims choose suicide as their way out. Adolescent mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher explained to the Nova Scotia task force that bullying does not directly cause suicide, but youth suicide can be impulsive and bullying may be a contributing factor when other circumstances already exist. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadian teenagers 15-19-years old.
  • A 2010 Canadian Teachers’ Federation survey reveals that 85 per cent of Canadians feel bullying and violence are very serious problems. Canadian teachers ranked cyberbullying as their issue of highest concern from the six listed options with 89 per cent suggesting bullying and violence are serious problems in our public schools.
  • Technology has changed the nature and scope of bullying, making it more insidious than ever before and making everyone vulnerable. As reported by one young victim, bullying may begin at school, but cyberbullying follows you home and into your bedroom; you can never feel safe, it is “non-stop bullying.”
  • Because the online bully can’t see the victim’s reaction they may be oblivious to the hurt they have caused. Given the anonymity of the web, teachers are increasingly becoming targets; one in five teachers surveyed said they had knowledge of a teacher being cyberbullied. The cyberworld provides bullies with a vast unsupervised public playground, which challenges our established methods of maintaining peace and order – it crosses jurisdictional boundaries, is open for use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and does not require simultaneous interaction. Some young people fail to comprehend the public nature, extensive reach and long lasting implications associated with online communications, while others intentionally make use of this platform to share information with a potential audience of millions. The immediacy of online transactions encourages impulsive acts with no thought to consequences, a behaviour pattern that is already common in many youth, and peer pressure may further promote harmful deeds that unfortunately have instant and powerful impact with no effective retraction possible.
  • History has taught us that no matter how well we educate children, whether it is about bullying and cyber bullying, or potential health hazards like smoking or not wearing seat belts, until society takes issues like these seriously and adults change their habits, children are unlikely to change theirs.
  • Discuss how your school can change pervasive attitudes by modeling and teaching principles of empathy, respect, inclusiveness and diversity. This will require a whole school approach, which means involving and educating all students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents and any other members of the school community, and adapting all school policies and programs to fit this model. Schools must promote more parental involvement, increase adult supervision, engage the school leadership and send a firm message to the community that bullying issues will be addressed appropriately in a timely fashion.
  • Young people must be engaged in the process of combating bullying in their schools. What the youth of today do with technological innovations is poised on the edge of the horizon. The basic values of respect, responsibility, and the valuing of high quality, positive human relationships are for both parents and schools to inculcate, to teach, and to transmit. Our collective success depends on it.