Saturday, January 18, 2014

The StopCyberbullying Canada Youth Community Action Plan - step one, define the problem.

The StopCyberbullying Canada Youth Community Action Plan is the first of its kind. It addresses the issue from a community, not government perspective. It also approaches the issues through the lens of young people from 8 - 18. We are not new players in this field. We have 19 years of experience in the cyberbullying victims' assistance field and advising governments, the United Nations, educational institutions and policymakers,being one of the leading voices in the field and in the media and training law enforcement to address these issues. While we learn more about this everyday and have seen the evolution of mean communications posted in discussion forums to multi-device, platforms and innovative methods of using digital technology as a weapon among young people. Yet, in all these years, the underlying issues have not changed. We took all of our experience and, working with young people in Canada as well as subject matter experts from Canada and around the world, and created an action plan working group. The group has worked since the International StopCyberbullying Summit in November to pull together its findings and its ideas to help launch a nationwide, all-volunteer community action plan designed to be led by youth with the help and under the guidance of experts from all stakeholder groups.

We started with what we know:

Cyberbullying needs to be better defined. And everyone needs to use the same definitions. Unfortunately, they don't."Cyberbullying" is too often defined by the eye of the beholder. There is no cross-stakeholder-accepted "Cyberbullying Lexicon." As used, "cyberbullying" either is so broadly defined that it becomes meaningless or so narrowly defined that it fails to capture the real damage cyberbullying can cause.

It was the first recommendation we made.

Why this this a problem we need to address and why do we start here? 

  • Each young person defines it differently. This means that some don't realize when they are cyberbullied  (instead considering it the cost of being online, or digital drama) and some don't know when they are cyberbullying others. It also means that their friends may or may not recognize what happened as "cyberbullying."
  • Each researcher defines it differently. That means that too many research findings are entirely dependent on the definition of the respondent or of the person asking the questions. This puts many studies into question.
  • Each parent defines it differently. That means that they may over-react to lower levels of cyberbullying and under-react to more critical levels of cyberbullying.
  • Most laws define cyberbullying differently. This means that the laws cover more or less than they should.
  • Many law enforcement first responders define it differently. That means that each case of cyberbullying is handled differently depending on how that particular law enforcement officer defines it.
  • Internet, app providers and digital and social networks define it differently. That means what is acceptable on one network may not be on another.
  • Even when digital industry networks define cyberbullying similarly, their moderation and abuse-management team members often define it differently. This means that all cases of cyberbullying are are dependent on which staffer is on duty when the report is received.
  • Many cultures, worldwide, and many vulnerable groups define cyberbullying differently. That means what might be acceptable to the person "cyberbullying" another, isn't to the recipient. 
  • Some refer to all cyberharassment actions of all ages as "cyberbullying." That means that we are failing to distinguish the difference between protecting youth and protecting adults, who may be better able to handle more issues on their own. "Cyberbullying" needs to be limited as a term referring to minors. "Cyberharassment" is for adults. 
  • Each school often defines it differently, depending on the opinion of the school administration, a particular teacher or the guidance team. That means that one student in the same or neighboring school maybe disciplined for the same actions taken  by another student who wasn't. It means that one students in the same or neighboring school may receive help for a cyberbullying incident while the other doesn't.
  • Many offline bullying experts define "cyberbullying" as just another medium for offline bullying. That means that they don't understand the 50% of the incidents that have different motives, do not involve a traditional imbalance of power and often have the typical offline targets the role of a cyberbully because they can.
  • Too often, experts define "cyberbullying" as requiring multiple attacks. This means that online death threats, or one posting of a extortion threat or revenge porn image wouldn't qualify as "cyberbullying." We need to recognize that repeated lower level of harassments qualify as well as one instance of serious harassment.
  • In-game cyberbullying is often defined as "griefing," and has a lower level of priority with many in the cyberbullying space. That means that we may be seeing "cyberbullying" mistakenly as a female problem, with female targets, instead of a problem affecting both genders as both cyberbullies and targets and allowing, unlike most offline bullying, cross-gender targeting.
  • The new approach seems to define sexting (where people take nude images of themselves or capture images of sexual activity) as cyberbullying. This means that we too often avoid recognizing when young people forward these images to share a nude or sexual image of their peers, just as a nude or sexual image, and when they do it to embarrass or ruin the reputation of the young person in that image (which is cyberbullying, or specifically "sextbullying"). 
  • There are disagreements whether "inadvertent cyberbullying" or "accidental cyberbullying" when the person considered the cyberbully didn't intend to hurt the other(s), but were making a bad joke, left out a crucial word ("you are not fat") or mis-communicated or misdirected the message to the wrong person.
  • Some types of actions, such as misusing someone's password, spying on their target using digital tools, impersonating another young person online, taking control of their device(s) to send mean messages under the target's name or hacking another's game account to destroy their reputation on the game network or vandalize their points, awards and avatars, are defined differently. That means that different methods of using digital technology as a weapon to hurt someone else result in different support, help and appreciation than others.
  • Some define certain digital dating abuse incidents as "cyberbullying." That means that potentially violent and sexually violent relationships and interactions may be lumped together with those involving only verbal attacks.
  • Some experts disagree on whether active bystander actions, such as clicking "like," sharing cyberbullying posts by others or favoriting a cyberbullying tweet is considered "cyberbullying."
  • Even among those in the field, the lack of agreement over the terms "bully", "bullying", "target" and "victim" results in discussions that breakdown before they start.
Sounds like an easy thing to fix. Unfortunately, it isn't. Some offline bullying experts are invested in making cyberbullying entirely the same as offline bullying, but using digital methods. Too many researchers have been asking the wrong questions that puts some research into question. Industry members juggle having one global policy to manage worldwide values and sensitivities. Many moderation and abuse management team members at social media networks have not been trained and are not supervised properly. And there are too many people who have no idea where to start.

Professional development, training and certification programs for educators, law enforcement, health and mental wellness professionals and others are expensive, bogged down with the same lexicon issues and take time. Policies are often copied, without thinking, from other websites, networks or organizations. Only a handful of experts really understand how this works. We operate in silos too often. We don't cross-fertilize ideas or share our findings. We too often speak from our own perspective, without recognizing how many perspectives there are in cyberbullying. Educators see it as an educational issue. Law enforcement see it as either none of their business or a crime. Policymakers sometimes see it as a political issue or way to gain media attention. The Internet and digital network industry understands how important this is, but fear that doing too much might lead to liability if they don't do it enough or perfectly. And lawyers are lawyers. :-)

The extent of bullycide media coverage doesn't help. Too many young people fear that all cyberbullying can lead to death. They need to know how rare the bullycides are and how to identify vulnerability among their peers. And parents need to appreciate the hurt that all cyberbullying causes, even when it doesn't result in bullycide. And the bullycide victims and their families are too often exploited in the process. 

Some think that "cyberbullying" is so new they can't do anything about it. Unfortunately for all the years WiredSafety spent help victims of cyberbullying, most people didn't know it existed. Cyberbullying has been around since the early days of the Internet, from 1995 when the first online victim came to us for help. I wrote about it in my first book for parents on cybersafety written in 1996. It's not new. It's just growing and impacting all young people as friends, cyberbullies, bystanders, media consumers and/or targets. And the focus on the tragic bullycide cases has raised its profile.

The time to address it is yesterday. That said, we can start today, right this moment, to gain and share awareness, talk with our children, our youth charges and our young loved ones and learn how to be an effective "trusted adult." To be able to do that, we have to know "cyberbullying" when we see it, and be able to tell it apart from mean or rude comments, actions and communications online that don't rise to the level of "cyberbullying."

Let's start there.