The incessant image: how dominant news coverage shaped Canadian cyberbullying law.

AuthorFelt, Mylynn
PositionAn Update in the Law of Privacy

Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, (1) reflects a uniquely Canadian construction of cyberbullying as a social problem. Although the legislation does not specifically make use of the term "cyberbullying", the Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and the Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, connect the term to Bill C-13. (2) It is written in response to public outrage generated by high profile teen suicides such as Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most cyberbullying literature examines it as an emerging but extant problem. Few, however, examine the phenomenon as a social construction, or the implications thereof. First, this paper reviews how cyberbullying was constructed internationally, specifically analysing how United States law in response to cyberbullying mirrors concerns conveyed through the framing of high profile cases in that country. This paper then continues by highlighting some of the high profile cases that have made cyberbullying an issue in Canada. Next, this article considers some of the public responses to Bill C-13. I then share the results of a mixed method content analysis of Canadian print news frames of the deaths of four teens identified as victims of cyberbullying: Jamie Hubley, from Ontario, who died at age 15; Amanda Todd, from British Columbia, who died at age 15; Rehtaeh Parsons, from Nova Scotia, who died at age 17; and Todd Loik, from Saskatchewan, who died at age 15. Analysis shows that the mediated public discourse of cyberbullying as a social problem closely aligns with the image of cyberbullying as defined in the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act.

Having examined the public discourse used to construct the Canadian iteration of cyberbullying, I then discuss what the academic literature reveals on the topic. While the federal response to this issue mirrors public discourse generated from news coverage, these cases ultimately misrepresent the majority of cyberbullying in Canada. I argue that social reform on this issue will need proactive responses, pairing education with law enforcement. It will take parents, schools, RCMP officials, and community members advocating for respectful online communication to reduce electronic peer harassment, rather than the current legislative response.

Global Movement of Cyberbullying

Peer harassment is not a new phenomenon. While the term "bullying" goes back at least to the 18th century according to the Oxford English Dictionary, (3) the establishment of it as a social problem originates in Norway during the 1980s. In 1982, three Norwegian boys, aged 10 to 14, died by suicide attributed to bullying. In response, trait psychologist Dan Olweus took on a government commission to study the issue. (4) Since that time, Olweus has grown into the world's foremost bullying expert. In response to his work, many European nations began to look critically at schoolyard peer aggression. Bullying research and governmental responses followed internationally. In fact, by 2002, the World Health Organization conducted one of the most comprehensive bullying studies in the world, involving 35 countries and more than 162,000 youths. (5) They found that, on average, 11% of children bullied others at least twice a month during the survey window, and the same percentage claimed to be victimized at least twice a month. These rates differed greatly by country, however. Victimization rates were as low as 4% for females in Malta and Sweden, and as high as 36% for males in Lithuania. (6) Studies like this cemented bullying as an international social problem.

Japan framed bullying as a social problem beginning in 1984-1985, when media outlets reported on the suicides of 16 students attributed to "ijime" (bullying). What Westerners might call bullycide the Japanese called "ijime-jisatsu", or suicide linked to bullying. (7) Because suicide was once viewed as a responsible method for handling a no-win situation, it does not have the same taboo present in most Western societies. By 1985, however, this attitude began to shift as a result of ijime- jisatsu deaths. As electronic communication technology reached students, the term "netto ijime" (internet bullying) was coined to describe computer-mediated harassment. Bullying done by cell phones, however, gained its own phrase: "gakko ura saito" (mobile-bullying). This is more common with Japanese youth, because most have cell phones with little monitoring or regulation from their parents, while their home computer use is more restricted. (8)

Interestingly, treatment of bullying as a social problem did not register as quickly in North America. Although media supported a focused campaign against hazing in the mid-1990s, the United States largely ignored the bullying movement spreading across Europe from Norway and Sweden. All that changed with the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999. (9) Many media outlets portrayed the shooters as bullied youths acting out against a school system and peers who marginalized them. Kowalski, Limber, and Agatston noted a dramatic rise in attention to the issue after that event. (10) Running a Lexis/Nexis search with the terms "bullying" and "school", they found only 86 results in 1998, but a steady increase leading to 1,930 results in 2010. Follow-up coverage of other school mass shootings bolstered the anti-bullying movement. This perception was supported when a United States Secret Service study stated that two-thirds of school shooters had themselves been victims of bullying, some of which "reached the level of severe tormenting". (11)

The result of this increased attention was state-by-state legislative responses. Within a few short years, 30 states had specific bullying laws; (12) as of January 2015, all but one state (Montana) had bullying laws, mostly requiring schools to have specific bullying policies and preventative measures. (13)

In the midst of these legislative responses, several high profile cases shifted the conversation from bullying to what the media termed cyberbullying. Perhaps the first case to receive media attention was the October 2003 death of Ryan Halligan. (14) After his grieving father, John Halligan, reviewed Ryan's computer and electronic communications, he uncovered years of harassment from peers who called him gay, a female peer who pretended to like him over the summer only so she could shame him in front of her friends in the fall, and a former friend who encouraged him to kill himself. In response, Halligan actively lobbied for cyberbullying legislation in Vermont and began speaking to school groups. (15)

Some attribute the first use of the term cyberbullying to Canadian Bill Belsey in 2005, and others to American lawyer Nancy Willard in 2003. (16) Although a 2007 version of the Oxford English Dictionary had a sub-listing for the term "cyberharassment", the term disappeared in 2009 when "cyber-bullying" entered the dictionary. (17) Discussion around Halligan's death included efforts to separate his harassment experiences from what people thought of as ordinary bullying. This led to discourse separating bullying mediated through electronic communication from in- person bullying as early as 2003.

The next teen death attributed to cyberbullying gained intense international attention, due largely to the nature of her persecutor. After Megan Meier's October 2006 suicide, police uncovered the identity of the boy who initially flirted with Meier, only to turn on her and tell her the world would be a better place if she died. To the shock of much of the world, this MySpace profile was operated by Lori Drew, the mother of one of Meier's former friends. Prosecutors attempted to convict Drew of every related crime for which they could potentially lay charges, focussing on her breaking MySpace user agreements and lying to open the account. (18) Although initially convicted, the ruling was overturned on appeal.

A federal proposal for what was called the Megan Meier Act was the result of public outrage that more justice could not be sought for Meier. (19) Though the legislation died in committee, this was the first push for a national response to cyberbullying. Missouri also passed Megan's Law in 2008, criminalizing electronic harassment of juveniles by adult perpetrators. (20) Outside of Missouri, the American response to cyberbullying remains largely focused on the school system.

Early international media coverage of cyberbullying focused on blame and punishment mixed with a sentiment for victims to shake it off or just not go online. (21) This conversation shifted once the public saw such a powerful example of a youth being actively persecuted by an adult hiding behind a screen profile. The need to protect a child from a more powerful perpetrator altered the global view of this issue. Following the Meier case, Zinga noted a shift in public discourse to holding people accountable for their actions and a push to create new laws. (22) The coverage went from being reactive to proactive about cyberbullying.

Global acceptance of the existence of the problem also grew. Shaheen Shariff remarked in 2009 that "[m]any countries have only recently become aware of the fact that cyber-bullying exists". (23) This strong assertion that cyberbullying is a "fact" is accompanied by a review of international cases, mostly of youth deaths associated with cyberbullying, from countries including Japan, China, Canada, India, Australia, England, and America. While Megan Meier's death did not solidify cyberbullying as an international social problem, her news coverage did raise general awareness that was then paired with more local cases to advance public discourse.

As American legislators debated a federal response, media outlets continued the public discussion of cyberbullying through incidents such as the 2010 suicides of Phoebe Prince and Tyler dementi, as well as...

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