Amanda Todd’s death prompts questions about cyberbullying

Shine On

Vancouver-area teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide this past Wednesday, five weeks after posting a YouTube video describing years of being bullied online. She was found dead in her Coquitlam home less than a month before her sixteenth birthday.

Sadly, this story is far from unique. In recent years, bullying — both on and offline — has been in the headlines far too often. Though there have been celebrity commentaries, legislation by government officials, and programs initiated by anti-bullying advocates, deaths like Todd's keep making news.

So has any progress been made?

Among the bullying stories we've heard, some have ended well. The YouTube video of Karen Klein, the bus monitor who was tormented by a group of students, prompted a public outcry and a massive crowd-sourced vacation fund of more than $700,000 for the 68-year-old.

Also see: Bullying in schools: Old problem or new phenomenon?

Ohio State University student Balpreet Kaur was ridiculed online for not shaving or waxing her facial hair, and used the attention to educate the public on her faith and reasons for adhering to her religious values, which do not allow her to shave, rather than conforming to societal norms.

But many more stories have ended tragically.

Jamie Hubley, an Ottawa area gay 15-year-old, committed suicide after an ongoing battle with depression and vicious bullying from peers, and 15-year-old Marjorie Raymond of Ste-Anne-des-Monts, Que., took her own life last December after years of bullying, much of it online.

Action has been taken.

American columnist Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project in 2010, which has collected thousands of videos from celebrities and teens, reminding those suffering that things will improve beyond the high school years.

Jamie Hubley's death prompted an on-air rant against bullying by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer that immediately went viral, and last November, the Ontario Liberal government introduced the Accepting Schools Act, which would require a school to expel a student who engaged in bullying -- a change from the current maximum penalty of suspension.

Todd's death was only two days ago, and already the public outpouring has been enormous, with celebs like Russell Simons, Fred Durst and Olivia Munn tweeting the sad news of her premature death. After each public bullying suicide, there is an outcry for something to be done, but has anything changed?

"Recent studies have shown a downward trend in regular bullying, but cyberbullying is so new that we just don't have the research to tell us if it's increasing or decreasing" says Faye Mishna, dean of the Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at University of Toronto.

As one of the country's top cyberbullying experts, Mishna says the behaviour is one that must be confronted by the entire community.

Also see: Are kids getting meaner? Video of Karen the bus monitor raises questions

According to Statistics Canada, one in 10 adults in 2009 reported their child (aged 8-17) was being cyber-bullied, and a poll conducted by Ipsos Reid for Global News in September found that 83 per cent of Canadians are "concerned" about online bullying.

"We need to include everyone — schools, parents, government," says Mishna. She says a big part of the battle is educating children about the consequences of their online actions, something she refers to as "netiquette."

Mishna says it's a complicated problem for a number of reasons. One is that children are reluctant to speak up to parents about cyberbullying for fear of losing online privileges, which means many incidents go unreported.

"It's not feasible to take away a kid's internet privileges, because that's their whole social world," says Mishna.

Cyberbullying is also a moving target — cybertech changes so quickly that what might work today to combat bullying may be obsolete tomorrow.

"Five years ago we were telling parents to monitor what their children were doing online at home," says Mishna. "Now, with smartphones, it's ridiculous to suggest that."

Also see: Sikh woman Balpreet Kaur turns cyber bullying incident into inspiration

Clare Brett is an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the social and cultural implications of technology, and says that in many ways, all bullying is the same.

"Psychologically bullying is a particular process which begins and is exacerbated in similar ways, regardless of context," says Brett.

"In the online context it seems young people are less cognizant of how 'public' these online contexts are and we need to engage our children at home, and as teachers in schools, in discussions about these issues."

Brett cautions that though it may be tempting, trying to control a child's actions is not the answer.

"You can't control anyone—if control is the sole basis of discipline rather than understanding and agency, then as soon as no one is watching people (both children and adults) will carry on doing whatever it was," says Brett. "Instead, helping people develop self-control, through insight, understanding and empathy is a more effective path."

Judging by the outpouring on Twitter, people are certainly expressing empathy for Amanda Todd. Unfortunately, it came just a little too late.