Cyberbullying: is federal criminal legislation the solution?

AuthorCoburn, Patricia I.

The majority of Canadian youth have access to a computer, use the Internet, and own cell phones (Steeves 2014; Mishna, Khoury-Kassabri, Gadalla, and Daciuk 2012). With increased reliance on technology, young people are at increased risk of being victimized online. Cyberbullying occurs frequently and is associated with increased risk of negative outcomes. In a few cases, cyberbullying has been linked to the suicidal deaths of young people. In response to some serious incidents of cyberbullying, Justice Minister Peter McKay introduced Bill C-13 (the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act) to criminalize certain online behaviour. On 9 December 2014, the bill received Royal Assent and it came into force March 2015. There were several concerns with this new law, but of particular interest for the present article is that criminalizing indecent and harassing communication online, which are common adolescent behaviours, could exacerbate the problem of non-disclosure, perhaps the biggest barrier to protecting young people online.

In this article, we discuss the psychology of cyberbullying. We argue that most forms of cyberbullying are a common yet covert adolescent behaviour that can only be addressed if it is disclosed to persons with the authority and power to intervene. Criminalizing this behaviour is likely to discourage disclosure. Consequently, only the most egregious incidents are likely to be reported. Most incidents will be undetected; both the victim and perpetrator will be left to deal with the consequences unaided. We provide a discussion of alternative solutions and programs that effectively encourage youth to discuss cyberbullying and decrease incidents.

Psychology of cyberbullying

Although there are some similarities between traditional bullying and cyberbullying, the two forms of aggression have distinct features. Cyberbullying may not require the same power imbalance as traditional bullying. The anonymous nature of cyberbullying may be a source of power for the perpetrator and not knowing the identity of the cyberbully can be particularly disconcerting for the victim. Although some definitions suggest that cyberbullying is a repeated act, a single message can result in a cascade of activity that may no longer be tied to the original source (Slonje, Smith, and Frisen 2013). Cyberbullying may be less likely than traditional bullying to come to the attention of adult supervisors, as cyberbullying can be perpetrated more efficiently and discretely (Mishna et al. 2012). Even though the majority of online incidents take place off school grounds, cyberbullying can quickly lead to issues within the school (Smith, Mahdavi, Carvalho, Fisher, Russell, and Tippett 2008; Hinduja and Patchin 2007), creating a grey area for students, teachers, and administration about the rights and obligations of all the parties involved. Finally, cyberbullying sometimes involves sexual content, adding further shame to the act (Shariff 2005) and perhaps decreasing the likelihood that the victim will disclose incidents.

Youth involved in cyberbullying are likely to be involved in other types of aggression, such as relational aggression, physical altercations, and face-to-face bullying (Flemphill, Kotevski, Tollit, Smith, Herrenkohl, Toumbourou, and Catalano 2012; Jose, Kljakovic, Scheib, and Notter 2012) and are more likely than those who are not involved in cyberbullying to act aggressively toward peers (Mishna et al. 2012). Cyberbullying is an act of reciprocal conflict, where a given youth can be, within a short period of time, both the victim and the aggressor. There are several factors that put adolescents at risk of being involved in cyberbullying. Youth who more frequently perpetrate online harassment are also more likely to report interpersonal issues, increased online victimization, family conflict, and a history of physical or sexual abuse (Ybarra and Mitchell 2007). Youth who most frequently engage in this newly criminalized behaviour are among our most vulnerable adolescents.

Cyberbullying leads to many adverse consequences. Not surprisingly, victims of cyberbullying report feeling frustrated, angry (Hinduja and Patchin 2007), confused, and/or guilty (Mishna, McLuckie, and Saini 2009). Some youth who create or receive naked images report feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and upset (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, and Wolak 2012). Ultimately, cyberbullying can have serious implications, being related to incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation (Hay and Meldrum 2010), and suicide attempts, for both bullies and victims (Hinduja and Patchin 2010). Although the incidents are rare, the stories of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons are recent examples of how cyberbullying can have tragic consequences. Both girls took their own lives after intimate photos of them were transmitted through the use of electronic communication.

Cyberbullying messages sometimes have a sexual element and those messages are occasionally distributed publicly. Of course, this does not refer to all, or even most, forms of cyberbullying. Only a small minority of youth report having naked pictures of themselves or another person stored on their cell phones--a behaviour called sexting--and even fewer report distributing images (Mitchell et al. 2012). The most common reason youth report having created intimate images is for romantic purposes. This is followed by pranking and trying to start a relationship (Mitchell et al. 2012). Although the act of sexting is of concern, many images are shared with romantic partners or with those seeking to become involved with another adolescent. Occasionally, some of the images are then used in acts of cyberbullying by youth and even by adults who gain access to images of these young people.

Cyberbullying that does not involve sharing intimate images is a common adolescent behaviour. It has been estimated that between 10 and 35% of adolescents are involved in cyberbullying, either as a victim, a bully, or both (Hemphill et al. 2012; Hinduja and Patchin 2007; Mishna et al. 2012...

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