Cyberbullying, sexting remain major problems despite heightened awareness

One chapter in a case that helped trigger an explosion of international concern about cyberbullying ended quietly in a Halifax courtroom Monday but people who work in the field say kids still are not getting message.

A 20-year-old man pleaded guilty in youth court to one count of making child pornography and is scheduled to have a sentencing hearing in November. Another young man is still facing a child-porn distribution charge.

Neither the name of the man, who was 17 at the time of the 2011 offence, nor his then-15-year-old victim can be disclosed now under a statutory publication ban, The Canadian Press reported.

The teen girl, tormented by the backlash against her after a nude image of her having sex while drunkenly vomiting was circulated, attempted suicide in 2013, eventually dying in hospital. The boys were arrested a few weeks later following a public outcry after police initially refused to act.

Her death, and the suicide of of Metro Vancouver teen Amanda Todd who experienced months of online harassment over a nude photo, spurred a wave of cyberbullying-awareness campaigns. They also prompted the Nova Scotia government and Ottawa to launch legislation aimed at cyberbullying, especially involving intimate images.

But one expert questions the effectiveness of these efforts in a world where teenagers’ judgment has not kept pace with their digital savviness.

If anything, sexting (which can involve teens sending nude images to one another) seems to have become even more common among teens and even pre-teens, Prof. Shaheen Shariff of McGill University’s Faculty of Education, told Yahoo Canada News.

“It seems to have become almost a normative activity among kids that age,” she said in an interview Monday.

“It’s not the type of thing that be stopped. We can reduce it but I think a lot of the time we’re going about it the wrong way because we’re trying to address the symptoms without looking at the root causes of why it’s happening.”

Shariff, whose book Sexting and Cyberbullying: Defining the
Line for Digitally Empowered Kids is to be published in December, said more effort has to go into helping youth understand they need to think about the potential consequences of what they post online, as well as their legal obligations.

“I don’t think legislation, except in extreme cases, is going to make a difference to the everyday kinds of online cyberbullying that are taking place among young people, simply because they’re rooted and attitudes and behaviours and forms of expression that are modeled to these kids by adults,” Shariff explained.

“We’re trying to blame kids and punish them for behaving the way that adults do. What do we expect?”

[ Related: RCMP announce charges against Dutch man in Amanda Todd case ]

She’s critical of the use of child-porn laws such as in the Halifax case, and that of a teenage girl convicted of distributing child porn for texting a nude photo of a perceived rival for her boyfriend’s affections.

“I mean, we’re using child pornography laws that were designed for pedophiles who prey on young children against children who are caught sexting,” Shariff said.

“Kids are impulsive. They’re not thinking about the consequences of what they’re doing. And because they’re growing up in a digital world they’re not even separating the lines between the real world and the virtual world.”

For example, Shariff said, a survey conducted as part of her research found the vast majority of young respondents thought it was wrong text an image of someone who was obviously drunk. But only about half thought a girl was right to be upset if her boyfriend distributed a nude image she’d sent him without her permission. In their eyes, she deserved it for her slutty behaviour, Shariff said.

The mother of Amanda Todd, who’s become a cyberbullying activist, said there is more awareness about the issue, with many private and government groups delivering the message. But Carol Todd agreed young people aren’t always receptive.

“Kids are sometimes kids and it’s really hard to get something into a kid because they don’t think it will affect them or they just don’t want to hear about it,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

The proliferation of anti-cyberbullying initiatives also might be causing them to tune out, she said.

Meanwhile, the problem grows.

“Physical face-to-face bullying has decreased in percentages,” said Todd. “Cyberbullying has increased in percentages.”

Girls seem to be more active in cyberbullying than boys, said Sandra Sellick, director of Stop A Bully, a Canadian program directed at schools. The group’s statistics as of April 2012 showed 68 per cent of cyberbullying reports it received related to females bullies.

“Whereas overall in reports of bullying it’s pretty well reversed; it’s closer to two-thirds male and one-third female,” said Sellick. “So our stats challenge the commonly held perception that cyberbullying is males stalking females.

“At the K-to-12 [kindergarten to Grade 12] school level our stats would suggest the girls are doing the bullying by cyber means.”

[ Related: Ottawa man faces 181 charges after police say 38 people were cyberbullied ]

Shariff said research suggests kids have trouble understanding the impact of what they do online. What they dismiss as harmless teasing or simply joking can in fact be damaging.

“They’re not wired to understand,” Todd agreed. “They say it was just a joke but they don’t realize that joke has the potential to kill. That’s the part they don’t get.”

Programs Shariff has looked at that address digital responsibility seem mixed, sometimes offering outmoded advice such as ignoring the bully and walking away that seems geared more to a schoolyard confrontation than cyber harassment.

“How can you ignore being excluded from the peer group and harassed everywhere you turn?”

Todd and Shariff see promise in programs that are integrated directly into a school’s curriculum, delivered by teachers trained to discuss it. Parents also play a role, though children are often reluctant to talk them. Some worry reporting cyberbullying directed against them will make things worse or if the target is someone else they would draw the fire instead.

“We need to teach more empathy, compassion and respect to our kids,” said Todd. “Everyone has feelings and you shouldn’t be doing this to gain your own power.”

The Dutch resident accused of harassing Amanda Todd after duping her into exposing herself to him made a court appearance Sept. 12, Carol Todd said. The families of some of his other victims are apparently considering pressing charges, she said, and he could face trial in the Netherlands next year.

There’s no indication he will ever be extradited to Canada to answer the charges involving Amanda Todd.