Double-edged sword: who the new cyberbullying law will help and hurt

Rehtaeh Parsons is shown in a handout photo from the Facebook tribute page "Angel Rehtaeh.". Facebook

TORONTO – The day after a new law allowing people to identify and sue cyberbullies or their parents took effect in Nova Scotia, two males were arrested in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, sending what one expert calls a “strong message” to potential bullies.

Parsons was the 17-year-old Halifax teen who was taken off life support following a suicide attempt in what her family said stemmed from cyberbullying after an alleged sexual assault.

For our ongoing coverage of the Rehtaeh Parsons case, click here

The teen’s father, Glen Canning, told Global News the he hopes the new law will protect kids and allow police officers to do their jobs “a lot better.”

“It took someone to die for this to be taken seriously,” said Canning on Wednesday. “It’s going to take fear, to put it into some people, that you are not hiding behind an IP address or behind a keyboard and doing this stuff…You would never do those things if you thought for a second everyone was going to know you did it.”

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WATCH: Rehtaeh Parsons’s father, Glen Canning, discusses the arrests in his daughter’s case and that he hopes this will be a signal to others to think twice before cyberbullying anyone

One clinical psychologist, who has worked extensively treating bullying victims, believes the arrest will send a strong message to would-be bullies, and hopes all facts will be considered.

“From a legal standpoint, bullying is not a cute little rite of passage everybody has to go through, and we’ve seen that by all the kids who’ve had serious consequences, and the quiet ones that blend into the background and have been struggling for some time,” said Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Clinical Psychologist Dr. Neil Gottheil.

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He admits some health providers might be concerned about attaching laws to behaviours that are often thought of as “within the realm of teaching and helping kids grow and develop,” but after his years of experience, he’s noticed that using the term “bullying” often seems to diminish its seriousness.

“In the end, it’s made up of threats, harassment, persecution, defamation of character, extortion, and assault. This is what bullying, for the most part, is,” he said. “But it happens to also be chronic, and oftentimes we only label it as bullying when it’s kids.”

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While Gottheil believes there are some situations where the new law will help, he says it also runs the risk of making it harder to identify cyberbullies, since as Canning noted, some hide behind keyboards.

“With the additional consequences of the new law, it’s possible those kids may want to be even more secretive, which pushes them further into anonymity,” said Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Clinical Psychologist Dr. Neil Gottheil.

Another potential barrier to the law serving as a warning to bullies is what Gottheil calls the invulnerability fable: that bad things happens to other people, but not to me.

“So that will limit effectiveness of this law, as it has limited the effectiveness of many other laws, because most kids think, ‘I’m not going to be the one who gets caught.’”

Faye Mishna, cyberbullying researcher and dean of Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, worries that the law will actually prevent some bullying victims from coming forward.

“One of the reasons kids don’t like to tell [on people who are bullying them] is they don’t want to make it a big deal,” she said. “And this will make it a big deal.”
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While Mishna admits it’s good to have the court option in some cases, she doesn’t think it’s the best strategy overall.

“I think it’s a lot of money, a lot of aggravation, and I think it sounds easier than it is to sue somebody…Who’s going to pay for the lawyers?”

Gottheil also worries that “so-called justice would go to the person with the better lawyer,” and that if taken too literally, the new law could make the mistake of labeling all negative comments as cyberbullying, missing an opportunity to educate youth.

“My concern is…the wrong people being pulled in and this becoming something criminal or a legal matter, when really it needed to be education and helping kids learn how to interact more respectfully with each other.”

Mishna shares the perspective that education should be emphasized.

“As an overall strategy to address cyberbullying, I don’t think this [law] is the best way,” she said. “As one component of an overall strategy that includes comprehensive, school-wide programs in the curriculum, discussions, workshops…then I think that’s great.”

There are also concerns in relation to parents of cyberbullies being held liable if the aggressor is a minor and it ends in a lawsuit. While Mishna realizes some parents may be negligent and facilitating cyberbullying, others might be parents who are “working three jobs and aren’t available for other reasons.”

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Gottheil says we have to keep in mind that parents are being actively kept out of their children’s online lives, as kids seek private communications online—with much greater potential for public circulation.

“Parents rarely know the full extent of what their children are doing online,” he said. “This includes really good parents, and it includes parents that are not actively involved with their kids.”

The division between these two groups of parents relates to another division in types of bullies: those who have a limited understanding of the impact of their bullying and eventually feel guilty, and those who don’t care that they’re hurting others.

In therapy sessions, Gottheil helps bullies recognize how their behaviour affects people, and guides them to make better decisions. But he explained the kids who don’t care about their victims are typically operating at a level of morality where they respond best to rewards and punishments to themselves. He says introducing jail time or family members being sued will have a larger impact on such kids.

“That’s maybe the piece that this law brings out there—yes it is serious, and yes there are consequences for you,” he said. “So if you are one of those people who doesn’t care if it hurts someone else, at least you might care if some of your freedoms are taken away, or there are some consequences to you.”

With a file from Shirlee Engel


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