Cyberbullying & Digital Peer Aggression

Update: 2022-01-19

It was hypothesized by some that during COVID, bullying, and more importantly cyberbullying” would increase dramatically given that youth were moving to online learning.  Well, we are now starting to see some good evidence-based research (both here in Canada and the USA) that shows that there was in fact a decrease in face-to-face bullying which wasn’t surprising to us. However, when it came to cyberbullying we also saw that it maintained the same frequency as pre-COVID rates, or if there was an increase it was only a slight:

Canadian Research

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.21986 ,

https://bit.ly/3cfu8q5

US Based Research

https://www.edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai21-436.pdf

Other Research

https://www.edweek.org/leadership/bullying-dropped-as-students-spent-less-time-in-in-person-classes-during-pandemic/2022/01

To us, this research may suggest that the organizational and power structures bullies use at school (both off-line and online) were disrupted because of COVID, which may be a key strategy as we move forward from a prevention standpoint. It’s interesting how COVID, & at-home learning, may have provided insight as to prevention strategies that are different from those that were the focal point pre-COVID, if we can understand the “how” and “why”.  We look forward to watching how this develops through further research.

From a mental health standpoint, a further 2022 Canadian study from the University of Alberta https://bit.ly/36A5SvN found that bullying can increase frequencies of depression in youth as they age into middle adolescence, which emphasizes the need for education and prevention strategies at the elementary level. This study found:

“…overt peer victimization are associated with depressive symptoms in early to middle adolescence. Early frequencies of relational peer victimization appear to be more detrimental for adolescents’ experiences of depressive symptoms than experiences of overt peer victimization. These findings further indicate that early frequencies of depressive symptoms contribute to vulnerability to both relational and overt peer victimization. Depressive symptoms as a precipitating factor for peer victimization requires a mental health approach in preventive interventions targeting peer victimization. It is clear that supporting the mental health of adolescents is critical for initiatives addressing peer relationship problems.”

Introduction:

We have found that many people utilize the term “bullying” to describe undesirable behaviour between two parties that can be physical, verbal, social, emotional, or even “digital” in nature. We believe, however, that the word “bullying” is being overused and diluted, given that any undesirable behaviour experienced by youth is commonly being categorized or identified as bullying by parents, educators, counsellors, law enforcement, and the youth themselves. Why does this happen? Most likely because here in Canada, and even in the rest of North America, we do not have one agreed-upon definition for the word bullying; it means different things to different people. We believe that if we are going to effectively deal with true bullying behaviour, or what we like to call “peer aggression,” then we Canadians need to have an agreed-upon definition that anyone and everyone can use as a starting point to define what it is. Very recently, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has created a blueprint for such a definition to be created.

In a 2012 SCC case known as A.B vs. Bragg, the court defined bullying as:

“behaviour that is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property. Bullying can be direct or indirect, and can take place by written, verbal, physical or electronic means, or any other form of expression.”

Based upon the above noted SCC decision, and consulting with teens themselves, we have created a definition that we believe is congruent with both current case law here in Canada, and some of the definitions that many North American experts in the field of bullying often cite. So here is our proposed definition of “bullying” that we use in our presentations:

“It is PEER AGGRESSION that can involve a power imbalance, or jockeying for hierarchy position (popularity) in a group of friends, either directly or indirectly, that can be delivered verbally, physically, by a writing or by an electronic/digital means, to support targeted behaviour(s) by an individual or group, that is intended to cause, or should have reasonably been known to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of  emotional, psychological, physical, and/or social trauma”

With this definition, we can now apply any questionable behaviour to the essential elements of the above-noted.

The Essential Elements of this Definition:

  • It’s violence, thus why I use the term “peer aggression”
  • It can be focused directly or indirectly on the intended target
  • It usually, not always, involves a power imbalance between aggressor and target, even within a group of friends to jockey for a hierarchy position
  • It can be delivered face-to-face or by proxy verbally, non-verbally, physically, or via the written word or electronic or digital means or any other form of expression
  • It’s used to support deliberate, repetitive, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group
  • It’s intended to cause or should have reasonably been known to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress, or other forms of harm
  • Peer aggression affects a target emotionally, psychologically, physically, and/or socially

This definition, in our opinion, allows anyone to separate peer aggression (bullying), where there is often a power imbalance, from that of rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour, or what some people call drama, where there is often no power imbalance involved. This is an important distinction to understand because the way we cope with rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour should be totally different from how we deal with peer aggression (bullying). In fact, we would suggest that rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour provides an opportunity for youth to learn how to deal with interpersonal conflict – a needed skill as our kids move into adulthood.

The Difference Between Bullying and Rude, Mean, or Disturbing Behaviour:

To help parents, educators, counsellors, administrators, and law enforcement decide if an identified behaviour falls into the above-noted bullying definition, a British Columbia educator and principal, Cathal Walsh, has created a tool that we highly endorse that he calls, “The Bullying Equation.” In this equation, if ”yes” can be answered to the following six questions, then you are probably dealing with peer aggression (bullying), rather than rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour:

  1. Is hurtful behaviour repetitive? Typically, peer aggression is not a one-off phenomenon. Usually, peer aggression develops over time with an escalating number of negative, repetitive behaviours, either online or offline.
  2. Is there an apparent desire to emotionally and/or physically hurt others or to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress, or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation, or property on the part of the suspected peer aggressor? In other words, is the aggressor’s behaviour malicious or is the hurt being experienced as a by-product of their unruly conduct?
  3. Is the suspected peer aggressor’s desire to hurt followed by a deliberate hurtful action either online or offline? This can include pranks, teasing, and name-calling.
  4. Is there evidence of enjoyment on the part of the aggressor? This can include bragging and seeking social recognition from peers for negative behaviour.
  5. Is there a power imbalance? Is the aggressor older, bigger, or have assigned authority of some kind including positional rule within the social pecking order of the peer group?
  6. Is there a sense of oppression on the part of the target? Loss of appetite and sleep, not wanting to go to school, a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed are all some of the warning signs. If a child feels they are being peer aggressed they should be listened to and the situation thoroughly reviewed.

We believe that Cathal’s Bully Equation is a great litmus test that we can apply to any unwanted/questionable behaviour to help us adults decide as to whether the behaviour reported to us, or observed is, in fact, bullying, or rather, just rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour.

Again, we believe that as a society, we need a definition that all Canadians can agree upon and utilize to identify what bullying is, and more importantly, what it is not. With this definition, we can now move forward looking for desirable ways to cope with both bullying behaviour and other concerning behaviours that are instead rude, mean, or disturbing in nature.

Although traditional bullying has really only affected our youth while at or travelling to and from school, modern technology has now enabled those who bully to extend their reach of peer aggression no matter where the intended target may be located. As Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin state in their excellent book on the topic, “Bullying, Beyond the Schoolyard:”

“While power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (wit or popularity), online power may simply stem from proficiency with or the knowledge or possession of some content (information, pictures, or video) that can be used to inflict harm. Anyone with any of these characteristics or possessions within a certain on-line context has power, which can be wielded through some form of cyberbullying. Indeed, anyone who can utilize technology in a way that allows them to mistreat others is in a position of power, at least at that moment, relative to the target of the attack.”

The Four Types of Digital Peer Aggressors (Cyberbullies):

www.stopcyberbullying.org does a great job of breaking down peer aggressors/cyberbullies into four different typologies:

“The Vengeful Angel”

Here, the youth doesn’t see themselves as a bully, but rather as a support mechanism to stand up for a friend or “right the wrong” done to someone they know.

“The Power Hungry”

Here, the youth wants to show they control others and usually need an audience to do so in such places as social networks. Teens who bully, harass or otherwise victimize their peers are not always lashing out in reaction to psychological problems or unhealthy home environments, but are often using aggression strategically to climb their school’s social hierarchy, a 2021 University of California, Davis, study suggests. https://bit.ly/3uiFnlS . According to this study, these peer aggressors will target their own friends, and friends-of-friends, who are more likely to be their rivals for higher rungs on the social ladder.” This Study further went onto say, “This differs from some common theories and definitions of bullying, in which the behaviour stems from an imbalance of power and is mainly directed at youths in the lower social strata in school or community environments who possibly have physical, social or psychological vulnerabilities.”

“Mean Girls”

Here, the attack is ego-based and sometimes the youth is just bored and wants to stir the pot. The youth here usually plan their schemes in a group to target an individual.

“The Inadvertent Cyberbully”Here, the youth typically don’t see themselves as a bully and are usually just responding to a situation without thinking about the consequences.

Criminal and Civil Consequences of Cyberbullying in Canada:

Unknown to many in Canada, the Criminal Code, which applies to every province and territory in Canada, has approximately 14 different offences or sections that we believe can effectively be used to deal with a variety of forms of digital peer aggression when reasonable to do, these include:

Criminal Harassment

Harassing Communications

Utter Threats

Defamatory Libel

Impersonation

Intimidation

Counselling Suicide

Extortion

Sending False Messages

Hate Crime

Voyeurism

Mischief to Data

Unauthorized Use Of A Computer

Possession, Distribution and Accessing of Child Pornography

Mischief

Not only are there potential criminal consequences to bullying, but there are also civil consequences which include defamation and a new legal tort known as seclusion upon intrusion. https://bit.ly/35oz3yd Also, if a student is being targeted because they are a member of the LBGTQ+ community, in some provinces such as British Columbia, the peer aggressor can also be held accountable under a province’s Human Rights Code.

Do we believe that new criminal laws in Canada need to be enacted to deal with the issues of digital peer aggression? No. Do we believe that we can tighten up some of the existing criminal code sections mentioned to make them more congruent with today’s online challenges? Yes. The fact remains, however, that the process to obtain evidence to prove a criminal charge, beyond a reasonable doubt, to a Canadian court of law, is fraught with legal and administrative processes. If the government can make this evidentiary collection process smoother through legislative and administrative change, it would allow law enforcement the ability to bring these cases to court in a quicker and more efficient way. We also need to hold Internet Service Providers and mobile cell providers more accountable to both creating and enforcing appropriate and reasonable Terms of Service specific to this issue, which we believe can be accomplished with proper federal overwatch, legislation, and administrative processes.

It is important to note that laws are not a panacea to stopping digital peer aggression. In our opinion, “education, education, education” is the keystone, but we do need laws for those who become willfully blind to such education and criminally target others both online and offline. We also believe that school-based restorative justice initiatives are far more desirable in many cases of digital peer aggression. The traditional criminal justice system should only be used in the most serious incidents.

The Frequency of Cyberbullying in Canada:

Current research has found that cyberbullying/peer aggression is most often committed by someone the intended target knows, loves, or trusts and is the most frequent threat and challenge that youth face today – both online and offline. Of concern to us as parents and caregivers, recent research has shown that 60% of those targeted do not tell an adult. According to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing:

  1. Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behaviour and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and
  2. Victims feel that adults are ill-equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner, to resolve the situation. Just recently Dr Hinduja reported out that 17% of youth said that telling a parent was effective, and only 6.2% said an educator’s intervention actually worked. As adults, we need to do better to help our kids overcome this challenge.

Often in the media, we will hear that cyberbullying has reached “epidemic levels” with youth in Canada; nothing could be further from the truth. In a 2014 Stats Canada study, it was found that between the ages of 15-29 only 17%, or about 1 in 5 students, reported that they had been the target of cyberbullying/cyberstalking. In fact, across North America, legitimate peer-reviewed research https://bit.ly/3L shows that the rates of cyberbullying range between 10%-35%. We believe that what the research shows us is that cyberbullying, although a reality, is not the norm in many schools across Canada. Having said this, one incident is one too many.

How Has the Internet and Social Media Contributed?

  • Technology: given how our youth have embraced technology in all its forms, it’s not that surprising to see peer aggressors using this same technology to target others. Also, given the viral nature that a message can be sent to a large number of people in a short period of time, it makes such technology a useful launching platform
  • Anonymity: A peer aggressor can hide behind the anonymity of a computer or cell phone to send a message, thus reducing the chances of being caught.
  • Disinhibition: Anonymity breeds disinhibition, which frees the peer aggressor to say whatever they want in the digital world that they would never think about saying face-to-face.
  • Lack of Supervision: Chances are slim-to-none that anyone will see the peer aggressor sending the message, thus decreasing the chance of being identified.
  • Pop Culture: Teens often take their cues from pop culture; just look at the shows American Dad and Family Guy, where the characters are constantly targeting those who are fat, homosexual, or disabled. This is even true of some world leaders. Some youth will mimic these behaviours online.

Another big reason why cyberbullying has become more frequent, the cyberbully does not immediately understand or internalize the very real consequences of their actions until it is too late. As we have stated before, youth live for the here and now and rarely think about the future. This is why it is so important to educate our youth about the harmful consequences of cyberbullying and share with them the story of Ryan Halligan.

There have been several bullycide/cybercide cases reported in the media, both in Canada and the United States. One such case involved a young teenager by the name of Ryan Halligan. Ryan, during the summer before his eighth grade, began an online relationship with a very popular girl from his school. Once school began, however, this girl told Ryan that he was a loser and only wanted to befriend him because she thought it would be funny to pretend to like him and to share their texts with her friends so that she could embarrass him publicly at school. Because of this type of peer aggression, Ryan became depressed and visited websites that promoted suicide. On October 7, 2003, Ryan committed suicide. After his death, Ryan’s father located a message on Ryan’s computer dated October 6th, where he stated that he was considering taking his life the next day. Ryan’s message got a reply from another visitor stating, “It’s about fucking time”.

In a 2007 research study conducted by the Canadian Kids Help Line where they interviewed 2,474 Canadian students:

  • Over 70% reported being bullied online.
  • 44% reported having bullied someone online at least once.

Just like traditional bullying was a contributing factor to youth who took their life by suicide in Canada (Dawn Marie Wesley, 14; Gary Hansen, 16; Travis Sleeve, 16; Hamed Nastoh, 14), there have now been several reported cases of “bullycide/cybercide” (such as Ryan Halligan) that have been directly linked to cyberbullying. Remember when we were younger we heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you?” We as parents, educators, and youth need to change this phrase to, “sticks and stones may break your bones, but cyberbullying can harm others emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially.”

Here’s another very important keystone that was reported out in the 2009 Canadian “Youth Violence Project” specific to cyberbullying:

“Online or offline, the environment when it comes to cyberbullying is almost always school life and not the internet.”

So, what can cyberbullying be?

Mediums through which cyberbullying often occur include cellular voice mail, emails, social media platforms, voting/rating sites, blogging sites, websites, virtual worlds, texting, streaming, and online gaming. No matter what the medium, cyberbullying includes but is not limited to:

  • Direct text messaging of threats or harassment. This could also include something called a “text war,” where the intent is to have a group of individuals target one person with an overabundance of text messages.
  • Stealing passwords. This can allow the cyberbully to have access to your accounts and pretend to be you while online. Once a person has your password, they can change your profile to something that could include sexual or racist remarks.
  • Inappropriate social media pages, blogs, or website creations that can contain nothing but lies about you, or even questionable pictures, but that is available for all to see.
  • Purposely sending inappropriate “morphed” (doctored) pictures to others, including friends and family.
  • Internet Polling/Voting Booths. Most online polling programs are free, and others can start a poll asking, “Do you think Jane Doe is easy to get into bed? Yes or no?” or “Who is the ugliest, fattest, or dumbest person in the school?
  • Outing. This is where the peer aggressor will share someone’s secret or embarrassing information online with others.
  • Posting rumours
  • Group chat exclusion
  • Leaving out of photos/tags
  • Purposely sending malicious software (viruses and trojans) to your computer.
  • Purposely sending porn and spam to your e-mail.
  • Physical threats to do you or others harm.

Important Note:

Just recently, some great 2022 research was published by our friends and colleagues Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sammer Hinduja (Cyberbullying Research Center) on something they call “Digital Self-Harm”. https://cyberbullying.org/digital-self-harm-suicide  What is Dr. Patchin’s definition of digital self-harm, “it’s anonymous online posting, sending, or otherwise sharing of hurtful content about oneself.” Yes, sometimes teens can target themselves via what many would call cyberbullying. In fact, this research found:

“8.6% of the youth reported that they had anonymously posted something online about themselves that was mean”

The question Dr Patchin and Dr Hinduja ask and answer in this research – can digital self-harm lead to suicidality among teens? Their findings:

“Youth who reported that they had participated in digital self-harm were significantly more likely to also report that they had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide”

This research emphasizes the fact that parents, caregivers, and educators need to be careful about blaming others for cyberbullying,  when in fact it may be digital self-harm being posted by the targeted teen.

So, what can you do if a cyberbully is targeting you or a friend?

  • Know what cyberbullying/violence can be and tell an adult you trust that you are being targeted. If the adult you approach takes no action, find another one. We want you to keep telling people until someone helps to make it stop.
  • Ignore all cyberbullying attempts. If you take the bait, it will only get worse.
  • Restrict those who can communicate with you via e-mail, DMs, IM, and text.
  • Restrict others from being able to add you to their buddy list, which can usually be done in your privacy setting.
  • Google yourself and see what is out there on the WWW about yourself or a family member – the results may shock you. It’s also recommended that you set up “Google Alerts” to help monitor your digital presence online.
  • Block the sender – most social media platforms, IM and SMS apps have this feature.
  • Report the issue to the sender’s internet service provider (ISP). Most ISP’s have strict rules surrounding this issue.
  • If happening during school hours and from a fellow student, notify the school administrator immediately.
  • Remember to record, copy, screen capture, and save everything and take legal action where appropriate to do so.

 

Cyberbullying Signs:

Although it is not uncommon for targets of cyberbullying not to tell others that they are being victimized, there are several behavioural signs that parents, teachers, and guardians should be aware of to help identify a person who may need help:

  • A marked change in the youth’s computer or cellphone habits.
  • Appear angry, depressed, or frustrated after using the computer or cellphone.
  • Won’t say who they are talking to or texting with.
  • They have trouble sleeping.
  • Stomach and headaches.
  • Fear of leaving the house.
  • Crying for no apparent reason.
  • Frequent visits to a school nurse or wants to call parents to come and get them.
  • Lowered self-esteem.
  • A marked change in attitude, dress, or habits.
  • Unexplained broken personal possessions, loss of money, loss of personal items.
  • Stories that don’t make sense.
  • Missing or incomplete schoolwork and decreased success in studies.
  • heightened levels of anxiety or depression

What parents should do if their child is being targeted by a cyberbully:

Earlier, we noted that according to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing that they are being targeted:

  1. Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behaviour and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and
  2. Victims feel that adults are ill-equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner to resolve the situation.

This is why it is so important that when your child does disclose to you that they are a target of cyberbullying, you do not overreact as the parent by immediately banning your child from access to the internet via computer or cellphone. Although this may seem to be the easiest thing to do to deal with the issue, it does not ultimately deal with the underlying issue that your child has been targeted. If your child believes that you will not react calmly in a rational manner to resolves the situation, the disclosure will not take place, and disclosure is the first step in the recovery process. Like it or not, internet access is an indispensable component to 21st-century adolescence, and if your child believes that the banning of access will be the primary step you will take to deal with the issue, they will not disclose and they will continue to suffer alone.

In their most recent research (Januarty 2022) https://bit.ly/3L2dzKV Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin found:

  • Positive parenting in the form of warmth, structure, and autonomy/support were linked to lower bullying and cyberbullying.
  • Negative parenting in the form of rejection, chaos, and coercion were associated with higher levels of bullying and cyberbullying.
  • Parental influence has a stronger impact on cyberbullying as compared to traditional bullying.

In fact, Dr, Patchin stated in an article:

“Our research regularly reveals that adolescents care what their parents think when it comes to what they are doing online. Almost a decade ago we published a paper that showed perceived parental (and school) punishment was associated with lower involvement in cyberbullying. More recently we published another paper which found that middle schoolers were less likely to participate in bullying and cyberbullying when they believed their parents would punish them for those behaviors. In fact, perception of parental punishment was more influential on constraining their behavior than possible punishment from educators or from the police.” https://bit.ly/3tYVkQ4

So, what should a parent do once the child has disclosed that they are being targeted?

  • Remain calm and use choice speech such as, “I know that it must have been hard for you to come and tell me what is going on, but I am very glad you did, so let’s talk about how we are going to deal with this challenging issue.”
  • Ensure that your child is safe and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.
  • Figure out how far the bullying has gone.
  • Collect all evidence to support the fact that your child is being cyberbullied. (SMS texts, IM texts, DMs, voice mails, emails). This can be as simple as teaching your child to screen capture (screencap) and print and then paste into a word document.
  • Is the targeted bullying something that can be handled by your child changing their behaviour, such as not communicating with the bully or blocking the bully?
  • If the bullying took place on a website, report the abuse to that site. Remind your child how to block the person from contacting them online.
  • If they have had their email or social network hacked, have your child change their passwords.
  • Contact the parents of the cyberbully. I would recommend that this be done in person and ensure that you bring copies of the evidence mentioned in bullet point #3 to support your allegations. Remember that the other parent will likely be defensive, so ensure that you stay calm and professional and explain that you want to work with them to identify a reasonable resolution to the situation. Dr. Englander, an expert in aggression reduction, recommends the following “script” to help reduce the inevitable defensiveness of the bully’s parent, “I need to show you what your son/daughter typed to my son/daughter online. He may have meant it as a joke, but my daughter was really devastated by the messaging. A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person, and it can all be easily misinterpreted.”
  • Contact your child’s school and speak with the principal and let them know what is going on, what actions you have taken to deal with this issue, and the expectations you have of the school should the cyberbullying carry on during school hours.
  • Contact the internet service provider or cell phone carrier of the cyberbully and let them know that your child has been targeted using their service. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations, which they may ask for.
  • If the content of the cyberbullying involves threats, criminal harassment, or hate crimes then contact the police immediately. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations.
  • Seek a civil legal remedy, if appropriate and reasonable to do so 

What Can Schools Do?

A group of elementary school students in Pickering, Ontario in 2008 apologized for posting a video on YouTube mocking a schoolmate who had suffered a stroke. A fourteen-year-old student at Saskatoon’s E.D. Feehan High School found a video on the internet that showed herself being beaten up. In Burlington, Ontario, students are alleged to have set up a website called “davenightisgay” that asked participants to write what they thought of Dave Knight; students posted hundreds of anonymous abusive messages on the site, and the seventeen-year-old student’s family brought a lawsuit against the school board, administration, and the alleged ringleaders. In 2007, nineteen students at Robert Feehan Hall Catholic School in Caledon, East Ontario were suspended after posting sexually explicit, derogatory, and demeaning remarks about their principal. The school took the position that these students’ actions violated the school’s “Code of Conduct.”

Often, we will hear school officials, parents, and even students state that if the cyberbullying does not take place on school grounds, or if it takes place outside of the school’s jurisdiction, then the school has no part to play in dealing with the issue. To put it simply, parents, students, and even some teachers believe that schools do not have the right to intervene when the cyberbullying takes place on a home computer or cell phone off school property. Canadian jurisprudence cannot be any clearer on this issue. In her excellent book, “Confronting Cyber-Bullying,” Canadian internet legal expert, Dr. Shaheen Shariff states:

“If there is a nexus (connection) to the school (peers, teacher, school property), then there is an absolute right to intervene.”

Like it or not, teachers, parents, and students need to understand that the learning environment in today’s wired world is no longer restricted to the school. The Canadian courts have held that a school has the right to impose school discipline for conduct that occurs off school property. When a student turns to bully behaviour, there exists a legal responsibility under Common Law, Statutory duties (School Act, school’s Code of Conduct, Human Rights Code, Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms) as well as the Criminal Code for the school to respond, especially where there is a direct nexus to the school. For schools not to act when there is a clear nexus, it places them in a possible position to be held liable in an actionable claim for negligence if they do not act quickly to protect student victims of cyberbullying. Canadian law places on teachers a duty of care that is known as “in loco parentis.” What this means is that a teacher has a “duty of care” to the student under their supervision as if they were standing in the place of that student’s parent. It is because of this that teachers should be cognizant of the fact that one clearly established Canadian legal jurisprudence is the legal responsibility of educators to ensure that the school does not create a hostile, “deliberately dangerous,” or “poisoned” environment which prevents a conducive learning environment for a student.

Some Canadian court cases that support the fact that school boards and employees (teachers and principals) are held to a higher standard of care include:

Meyers v. Peel County Board of Education (1981), 123 S.C.R (3d) 1, “In order to teach, school officials must provide an atmosphere that encourages learning”

R v. M.R.M., (1998) 3 S.C.R. 393 at para. 35 “ A school board has a duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons served by it”

Each cyberbullying incident should be based on its individual facts and circumstances; to impose school discipline, there must be sufficient evidence, after a full and thorough investigation, that the online threat or intimidation was initiated by a particular identifiable student.

It is important to note that the courts in Canada have voiced their serious concern about the implications of bullying and intimidation in our schools. The courts have indicated that given the number of bullying cases, a strong message needs to be sent to the community that this type of behaviour will not be condoned. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that a threat (like cyberbullying) is a “tool of intimidation” which is designed to instil a sense of fear in its target. The court has asserted that the aim and purpose of the Criminal Code are to protect citizens against such fear and intimidation. To quote Dr. Shaheen Shariff:

Failure to supervise (protect) students properly can result in an actionable tort of negligence (unintentional tort). The onus is on the student who brings the claim, for example, as a victim of bullying or cyberbullying, to establish four criteria:

1) That there was a duty of care,

2) That the plaintiff experiences a tangible injury (psychological injury is harder to establish than physical injury),

3) That the injury was foreseeable by the supervisor and could have been prevented, and, 

4) That the injury was caused by the actions or omissions of the supervisor

Hence in cases of peer-to-peer cyberbullying, a victim might report the bullying to the school several times, and the teachers may waive it off as nothing serious or tell the student the problem is a parental responsibility.”

According to the Canadian law firm “Evans and Philips,” in order for an actionable tort or negligence to be brought against a school there has to be:

  • A nexus between the school’s conduct and the student’s injury
  • A breach of a legal duty was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  • School officials must have been found to have acted with deliberate indifference
  • The school engaged in intentional or reckless conduct which shocks the conscience

Evans and Philips further state:

  • Schools will not be liable for any unforeseeable event or for unforeseeable intervening events.
  • Boards can be liable for negligence through vicarious liability.
  • School officials must have been found to have acted with deliberate indifference, and
  • Schools are not required to constantly supervise students.

NOTE:

The 2021 University of California Davis study that we mentioned early in the chapter stated the following when it comes to the ability of schools to effectively deal with bullying/peer aggression:

“The reason for the typically low success rates, we believe, is that aggressive behavior accrues social rewards, and to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends. Even the most successful prevention programs are unable to alter the aggressive behavior of popular bullies, who use cruelty to gain and maintain status,” the authors said. The popularity contests ubiquitous in secondary schools, the authors wrote, encourage peer bullying.”

How Can Principals and Teachers Play A Part:

Knowing that there are criminal, civil, and human rights consequences for not acting when a student discloses that they are being targeted by others in the school, what can principals and teachers do to protect the child and shield themselves, the school, and the school board from criminal and civil consequences?

  1. Ensure that the school has a policy and a code of conduct in place that speaks to these issues which clearly mentions threats, intimidation, and harassment via mobile and wireless internet technologies. Within the policy, there should be clear consequences outlined for failure to comply with the school policy or Code of Conduct. Some consideration should also be given to having both student and parent sign the Code of Conduct. It is crucial for schools to establish and maintain a school climate of respect and integrity where any violation of the Code of Conduct will result in informal or formal sanctions.
  2. Educate students, parents, and teachers about the seriousness of cyberbullying.
  3. Where a school administrator or teacher is informed about an incident of cyberbullying involving a student, early intervention is a must.
  4. Conduct a thorough investigation process which should include:
  • Try to get as many details about the incident as possible.
  • Does the student have any fear about coming to school?
  • Asking the student to prepare a written statement of the event.
  • What kind of cyberbullying took place?
  • Obtain copies of all relevant e-mails and/or the name of the chat room and date and time and description of the chat, including full headers.
  • Explore the identity of the alleged cyberbully.
  • What was the background or history of the event that led to the cyberbullying if any?
  • Is it an isolated incident or an ongoing situation?
  • Does the student know or suspect that there are other victims?
  • Interview any witnesses to the incident or other students copied on emails to texts.
  • Depending on the type of cyberbullying, interview the student responsible.
  • If the cyberbullying involved threatens to cause bodily harm or other types of serious threats, connect with the police and have them get involved.
  • Meet with the student victim and their parents to outline what you have done and what their expectations may be to deal with the incident.
  1. Think about having the school register with a “Stop A Bully” type of reporting program.

At the conclusion of the above-noted investigation in step 4, the school principal must now decide what actually occurred and who was at fault. If the cyberbullying took place off of school property, then the principal must assess whether there is a sufficient nexus or link to the school to impose school discipline if needed.

Remember, principals and teachers have a legal duty, to the extent possible, to take prompt, timely, and reasonable action to deal with the issue of cyberbullying when it negatively affects a student’s learning environment. Responding quickly and effectively to allegations of cyberbullying will serve to reduce a teacher’s, schools, and school board’s legal liability and assist in the creation of a safe learning and teaching environment for all students.

Taking action criminally, civilly, or via human rights should only be considered in the most extreme cases, given the associated consequences that can take place. First and foremost, we believe that our youth should be made aware that:

  • Cyberbullying can have criminal consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • Cyberbullying can have civil consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • Cyberbullying can have human rights consequences and explain to them what they are.
  • There is a difference between free speech, as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights, and defamation as it pertains to libel and slander.
  • Schools can take action specific to cyberbullying if they can draw a nexus to the school and explain to them what those nexuses are.

We also believe that consequences to actions, when it comes to cyberbullying, should be incremental in nature (depending upon the nature of the cyberbullying) ranging from calling parents, counselling, expressions of condemnation, behavioural contracts, detention, suspension, change of school placement, expulsion, and in some extreme cases, even criminal charges. As Abraham Maslow stated, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In our opinion, criminal, civil, and human rights actions are a hammer and as stated earlier, should only be used in extreme circumstances.

Another avenue that we have seen used for low-level first-time cyberbullies is something called “Restorative Justice;” this is where the peer aggressor faces their intended victim outside the court process with a trained Restorative Justice facilitator. We have seen some amazing positive results take place in these sessions, which ultimately offers closure to the victim. The benefit to Restorative Justice is that it becomes an “educational” option, that can be used as a teaching method to help peer aggressors realize the impact of their online statements.

We also highly recommend that all teachers, principals, PAC’s, and school board trustees read Dr. Shaheen Shariff’s book, “Confronting Cyberbullying: What Schools Need to Know to Control Misconduct and Avoid Legal Consequences.”

We believe that changing a school’s culture and promoting students to become “up-standers” rather than “by-standers,” specific to the peer policing of this issue, can help drive change when it comes to overcoming this challenge. In fact, research here in Canada by academic researchers at PrevNet has found that peer intervention of a friend being targeted usually stops the bullying behaviour in most circumstances very quickly. However, for this to be an effective strategy, a school needs buy-in from both the students and teachers.

In August 2020, James O’Higgins Norman, UNESCO Chair on Tackling Bullying in Schools and Cyberspace, releases a paper titled, “Tackling Bullying from the Inside Out: Shifting Paradigms in Bullying Research and Interventions” https://bit.ly/353dFj3. In this paper, Mr. Norman argues very successfully that the best way for schools to tackle bullying and cyberbullying is through a “whole school “community approach” which includes:

  • Leadership and change management.
  • Policy development is based upon best research and best practices.
  • Curriculum planning, development and delivery based upon good evidence-based research.
  • School ethos is based upon the school’s policy and curriculum.
  • Student Voice in the development of policy and curriculum.
  • Student support services, and
  • Partnership with parents, teachers, counsellors, police and the local community.

We agree that such a holistic approach is the best way to tackle the challenges surrounding bullying and cyberbullying. An approach that is inclusive of students will be far more successful because there will be buy-in from the end-user, the student.

NOTE:

One message that we deliver to educators, parents, and law enforcement when it comes to cyberbullying – just telling a teen to delete the message, with no other coping strategies, doesn’t remove the emotional, psychological, physical & social effects to the intended target. There needs to be an accessible wraparound approach taken by the school & parent that will support the targeted teen cope with this challenge. More importantly, we adults need to act on this support rather than just paying it lip service or just posting anti-bullying posters.

Remember that although schools do have a part to play when it comes to dealing with cyberbullying/digital peer aggression, as parents, we also have an important part to play as well. The causes of cyberbullying/digital peer aggression are multifactorial, so too are the ways that “we” (schools, families, law enforcement) go about preventing and dealing with the issue.

To stay current on good research associated with cyberbullying/digital peer aggression, Dr Sameer Hinduja and Dr Justin Patching created a free resource called the “International Journal of Bullying Prevention” which can be located here: https://link.springer.com/journal/42380/volumes-and-issues/2-4 

Our Interview with cyberbullying expert Dr. Justin Patchin

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