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Screens like shields, words like swords

The invisible face of cyberbullying

Invulnerability: one key word that describes the driving force behind the feeling of empowerment provided by digital personas. When using social media or other forms of online networking, computer screens quickly give an illusion of comfort and anonymity, lifting the inhibitions and restrictions normally imposed on oneself. The word illusion is to be emphasized, as the social laws common in the ‘real’ world turn out to have homologues in the digital world. Yet, trends of cyberbullying keep gaining online territory, sometimes giving the impression that the web is a shelter for injurious behaviour.

The expression ‘digital citizenship’ has been of growing importance over the past few years. With quickly developing technologies and faster ways to interact, a digital citizen is expected to make the most out of the positive aspects of new media while understanding the legal implications of this budding power. Shaheen Shariff, an associate professor in McGill’s Faculty of Education, has devoted herself to promoting this concept.

“Ten years ago, as I was completing my doctoral studies, we only had e-mails,” she recalled. “Technology has advanced rapidly since then, and I built on my research concerning bullying to include the legal responsibilities that came with such progress.”

Indeed, the proliferation of social networks within the last ten years has caused considerable changes to the way individuals use the internet. The list of social networking websites has grown exponentially, and social exchanges have become closely entangled with the evolution of technology. All forms of human behaviour are now reflected on the internet. This includes both the positive impacts of these interactions, like linking people across the world, and the less-than-stellar aspects, like harassment. The new generation is now so closely associated with the digital world that it is sometimes referred to as a generation of ‘digital natives,’ a term originated by American writer Marc Prensky.

“It’s striking to see that teens can launch into competitions about who can post the most insults on a Facebook page.”

One of the main consequences of this is the increasing overlap between the private and public parts of life. Broadcasting oneself has become easier, and while it can be viewed as self-expression, some of it also represents a loss of privacy. This increase in exposure makes one more vulnerable to the dangers of the web, and this can be observed on various platforms. In a 2011 survey conducted by Kids Help Phone, 65 per cent of respondents reported being a target of cyberbullying at least once.

Define the Line, a program at McGill started by Shariff, is dedicated to cyberbullying research. Their research touches on a variety of related subjects, such as sexting (sending sexualized text messages), homophobic cyberbullying, and the place of technology in classrooms. One of the particular topics is the concept of ‘digital bedrooms,’ which corresponds to the trend of private spaces becoming gradually more public. ‘Digital bedrooms’ again raise the challenge of finding a balance between self-expression and over-sharing personal information.

While the internet can be a powerful tool, it can also be used in detrimental ways by those who struggle to ‘define the line’ between what is harmless and what is not. This issue is what led Shariff and her group to work on researching and advocating the legal implications of using the web for bullying purposes.

The website, launched in 2011, exposes the risks undertaken by cyber-bullies depending on the level reached by their acts. Cases of online defamation, for example, can be dealt with both from the perspective of civil law (with the victim having to prove their case for compensation) or by criminal law (in extreme cases). Online threats can also reach the status of criminal harassment, regardless of the intentions behind them. As the cyberbullying phenomenon expands, more and more legislation is created to target it directly. Quebec’s Bill 56, passed in 2012, makes it compulsory for schools to come up with plans to fight both bullying and cyberbullying, leading education into the new reality of social interaction.

When questioned about the most important breakthroughs of her research, Shariff explained that considering the multiple faces of the problem is key: “What I consider a major achievement is to have been able to see things from a unique perspective. We’re not only considering behavioural problems with new technology, we’re looking at it with public policy and education in mind.”

As for youths’ understanding of the problems associated with cyberbullying, Shariff mentioned that new legislation is not a magic solution. “It’s striking to see that teens can launch into competitions about who can post the most insults on a Facebook page,” she elaborated. “Many seem not to understand what terms like defamation mean. What we see here is a lack of ‘legal literacy.’ Laws will make little difference as long as people don’t understand how they are liable,” said Shariff, stressing the importance of including education in the process, “The pressure doesn’t rely entirely on governments; we also want to provide workshops so that people can get a better understanding of the risks they are facing with [the] internet.”

While feelings of invulnerability open the doors to a lack of awareness toward actions performed on the web, another key concept behind Shariff’s program describes solutions to online self-expression issues. Individuals have to balance private and public life, while assuming their responsibilities as good digital citizens to avoid the harmful effects of cyberbullying.