Welcome to Define the Line! Much has changed since we launched our first website in May 2011. A number of provinces have passed new laws specifically targeting cyberbullying such as Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick and schools are scrambling to ensure they have the knowledge and resources to meet their legal obligations under these laws. A landmark case on the right of victims of cyberbullying to remain anonymous when suing perpetrators is before the Supreme Court of Canada, and we anxiously await the high court’s decision. A number of interesting cases on cyberbullying have been heard in the United States, and Define the Line was one of only four research projects globally to receive Facebook’s Digital Citizenship grant.
We have also embarked on research with support from the Canadian government (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), to help the legal community learn more about how digital natives (children growing up immersed in digital media), think about social media and their responsibilities. Our projects will illuminate stakeholders about where digital natives draw the lines between harmless teasing and harmful cyberbullying; and how they perceive public and private spaces.
Cyberbullying, because of its perceived anonymity and infinite online audiences, has attracted media spotlight with the advent and increased use of digital and social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Consistent news media reports about cyberbullying have resulted in significant moral panic among some parents; reactive zero-tolerance responses by schools; and calls by some parents and teachers for harsher penalties that enter the realm of criminal law.
As the boundaries of legal responsibility become increasingly blurred online, we want to bring balance to the issues by clarifying and defining the point at which students' joking and teasing of peers and teachers on social media might cross the line to become criminal harassment; where gossip and spreading of rumours traverses the invisible boundaries to result in civil liability or cyber-libel; and where “sexting” – a new form of flirting among teenagers – now crosses the line and is sometimes treated by police as “child pornography.”
We also want to draw attention to the many positive aspects of digital media. The internet and emerging technologies provide numerous opportunities for parents to encourage leadership, trust, insight, integrity, resilience, empowerment, support, inclusion and ethical online decisions; all of which result in digital Citizenship.
Upon my arrival at McGill University in 2003, I pioneered research on cyberbullying and its related legal concerns. This was a natural trajectory from my Ph.D. thesis, which focused on the legal obligations of schools to address traditional bullying. Today, our team of researchers and professors from the Faculty of Education, Law, School of Information Systems and Educational Psychology have worked very hard to engage in legal and educational research and analysis of emerging issues; legislation, jurisprudence and policy which is largely focused on North America.
As our new website becomes established, we will increasingly add information from international policy frameworks. We would appreciate your feedback and links to resources, legislation and cases we may have missed. As this is such a rapidly evolving area of public policy, it is essential to work together to sustain a level of knowledge and awareness that will result in thoughtful, non-arbitrary policies and practices, as opposed to reactive ones.
We hope you will enjoy your visit to our website.
Shaheen Shariff, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, McGill University
Affiliate Scholar, Center for Internet and Society, Stanford University Law School