As British Columbians struggle to come to terms with the suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, an education professor says simply putting the focus on kindness could do much to curb the worrying trend of cyberbullying.
Todd took her own life on October 10 after being relentlessly bullied both at school and online.
In a video posted on Youtube, Todd revealed through hand-written notes that when she was 12 an unidentified male convinced her to expose her breasts via a webcam.
A year later when she refused to comply with blackmail demands from a man on Facebook to “put on a show,” the man circulated the topless photo, which resulted in the bullying.
Todd switched schools several times but the bullying continued. She spiralled into anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse, she said in the video, and eventually killed herself at her home in Coquitlam, B.C.
Her heartbreaking story has resonated with people around the world, with many posting personal tributes on social media. Vigils and memorials have been planned across Canada, and nearly 1 million people have joined a memorial page on Facebook in a widespread campaign to stop bullying.
Wanda Cassidy the director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law and Society, focuses her research on finding ways to educate students, parents, and teachers about compassion and creating caring environments in schools.
Everyone needs to sit down together, and the children themselves need to have a role in coming up with the solutions.
— Education professor Wanda Cassidy
“I’m a big proponent of changing school culture so the environment is such that bullying will not happen. And it’s more challenging, it’s more difficult, because it requires every person to look at themselves first, and not put blame on somebody else,” she says.
Cassidy is co-author of “Making Kind Cool,” which explores “cyber-kindness,” published this year in the Journal of Education Research. She has also led a study that produced a DVD called “Dare to Care: Transforming Schools through the Ethics of Care.”
If we want kids to change, adults have to change.
— Education professor Wanda Cassidy
The most successful anti-bullying programs are ones that directly involve children in brainstorming solutions without “lecturing” them, she says.
“Everyone needs to sit down together, and the children themselves need to have a role in coming up with the solutions,” she says. “There are opportunities for talking about how we build a more caring, respectful community and society.”
In a recent study, Cassidy found that parents are not very familiar with the newer forms of online social networking such as Facebook, blogs, and chat rooms, and are relatively ignorant of the extent of cyberbullying among their children.
National Anti-Bullying Strategy
In Ottawa Monday, MPs debated a motion on a national bullying strategy put forward by NDP MP Dany Morin, who was himself bullied as a teen.
Morin said though there is a patchwork of organizations and groups already doing good work on the issue, a pan-Canadian strategy is needed to develop solutions and share best practices.
Ironically, during question period later that day Conservatives were accused of cross-party bullying when Tory MP Laurie Hawn called an NDP MP “pathetic” for asking a question about Afghanistan.
Liberal Hedy Fry has crafted a private member’s bill that would add cyberbullying to the Criminal Code. The bill has had its second reading and been referred to committee.
Cassidy says that while it’s necessary to have some policies in place, anti-bullying strategies often fall short because they neglect to focus on positive leadership and accountability—both among adults and children.
“If we want kids to change, adults have to change,” she says.
“Parliamentarians bully each other all the time to get their way. What is it teaching kids when they turn on the news and see parliamentarians yelling at one another, pounding their fists on the table and trying to intimidate. That is not the kind of example we want.”
Sexual Predation or Bullying?
Meanwhile, some commentaries are saying that what happened to Todd was more in the realm of sexual predation, and simply labelling it as bullying trivializes it.
“It may be the case that Canada needs a cyberbullying law, and I don’t mean to suggest that Amanda Todd was at no point in her life bullied,” wrote Wayne K. Spear for the Huffington Post.
“The initial crime against her however was sexual predation, and it was soon followed by the attempted crime of blackmail, in pursuit of further sexual exploitations. While the use of electronic social media in the commission of these crimes may warrant Criminal Code updates … neither pedophilia nor blackmail are beyond the reach of existing law.”
On Monday, the online hacktivist group Anonymous claimed Todd’s initial tormentor is a 30-year-old man from New Westminster, B.C., who recently appeared in court on sexual abuse and sexual assault of a minor.
However, police said Tuesday that the allegations are unfounded. Coquitlam RCMP’s Serious Crime section is sifting through thousands of tips received since Oct. 12, but false rumours circulating on the Internet are distracting investigators.
“One of our big challenges right now is false information that is being spread by people who appear to be trying to use Amanda’s story to do harm or make a profit,” Sergeant Peter Thiessen, Lower Mainland District RCMP, said in a release.
The intense media attention around Todd’s death has led to a number of fake websites and accounts that purport to be fundraising for the Todd family, the release said.
Cassidy hopes that in reaction to Todd’s suicide, schools “don’t rush to buy these canned programs that are supposed to deal with cyber-bulllying.” Instead, the dialogue needs to be broadened, she says.
“We need to open a dialogue between all the stakeholders. Let’s have parents and the teenagers themselves, educators, police, legal experts, university researchers. Let’s get together. Let’s talk about what the problems are in a given community,” she says.
“There’s wonderful opportunities within school curriculum to actually develop good, solid curriculum around bullying and anti-bullying behaviour in a positive way.”
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