Sam Porta

Sam Porta

Most cyber-bullying intended as joke

It's Pink Shirt Day in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows Feb. 27

On Pink Shirt Day, it is worthwhile noting that the most prevalent form of teen bullying does not involve schoolyard taunting, but more commonly the ridicule teenagers encounter online.

Pink Shirt Day is Wednesday, Feb. 27, when students in B.C. are encouraged to wear something pink to symbolize that bullying will not be tolerated, anywhere.

Cyber-bulling is an issue that governments and schools are trying to grapple with, but online experts say parents have a key role to play.

Merlyn Horton, of the Safe Online Outreach Society, speaks to groups across the province about such issues, and last month offered her Parenting in the Cyber Age presentation to the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District.

She said parents need to get online and experience some of the world that their child is engaged in, with its perceived anonymity, and lowered social inhibitions.

“One of the first things they [parents] really need to do is understand the online context,” she said.

What they will find, is that cyber-bullying is not necessarily intended in to victimize someone.

“It’s often done to entertain peers – not so much to harm the person who is being bullied,” Horton said.

She refers to the work of Jennifer Shapka, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC, who conducted a study involving 17,000 high school students in Vancouver. The results, released last year, show that while 12 per cent of youth say they have either experienced or taken part in schoolyard bullying, more than double that number (25-30 per cent) have been involved with online bullying.

However, youth say 95 per cent of what happens online is intended as a joke.

Shapka found that online bullying makes it easier for kids to not show empathy. They downplay the impact of online bullying, apparently unaware how this behaviour can undermine a teen’s self esteem.

“It is clear that youth are underestimating the level of harm associated with cyber bullying,” said Shapka. “Students need to be educated that this ‘just joking’ behaviour has serious implications.”

Parents can help set some standards, said Horton.

“They need to have values-based conversations with their kids, about their online conduct,” she said, recommending consistent, open dialogue.

Media reports or anecdotes about cyber-bullying should be met with questions like: ‘Have you ever seen that?” Or, “has that ever happened in your school.”

She has found that educators across B.C. are willing to get involved in cyber-bullying incidents. Principals take the approach that anything impacting learning at their school is their business.

“To be relevant, education has to acknowledge the huge effect technology is having on kids’ lives.”

Horton was reluctant to speak about the case of Amanda Todd, the teen who attended school in Maple Ridge and suffered bullying both online and in person, and who posted a Youtube video explaining her suffering before ultimately taking her own life.

Not only is the Todd case a “fresh wound,” but Horton said the involvement of an overt online predator makes the case unique.

A study from the University of New Hampshire showed that while there are indeed online predators, the number of luring incidents makes the threat “statistically insignificant.” It is often a teen’s own behaviour, and the context created online that will have the greatest effect on them.

The Todd incident, combined with the Pitt Meadows rave case – in which images of a 16-year-old girl and a young man having sexual intercourse were posted online – were two social media “disasters” in this area.

Horton found a heightened sense of concern in the community.

However, she said it was the timing of the incidents so soon after one another, that both received a great deal of media attention, that made them unique.

“I don’t think Maple Ridge is an anomaly in any way,” she said.

Teens need to know that things they post online, and the online persona they create, is virtually permanent, and can be traced back to them.

She cites the case of a UCLA student who posted a racist rant, and had to leave the school for her own safety.

The province’s website does have a role to play. Horton said effective reporting tools have been shown to have an impact on bullying behaviour.

Unfortunately, by the time a student reports cyber-bullying, much of the damage may have been done.

“We can’t keep responding after these kids have been harmed.”

As they wade into the social media environment their children are involved in, parents should be prepared to be surprised if not overwhelmed.

“The technological gap between the generations is vast,” said Horton. “But this is an overwhelming time for students as well. And we need to be present.”

Grants coming from Todd fund

The Amanda Todd Memorial fund will do some good in the very near future.

In her life, Amanda Todd suffered at the hands of bullies who harassed her, in an ordeal that started in cyberspace and spilled into the schoolyard, in Maple Ridge.

Before she died at the age of 15, the Maple Ridge teen created a video telling of her painful experiences in the hope of saving other youths such suffering.

“I’m not doing this for attention. I’m doing this to be an inspiration and to show that I can be strong,” Amanda wrote.

Her dream of helping kids is being carried on in the Amanda Todd Legacy, established by her family. This initiative is raising money for anti-bullying education and for support programs to help young people with mental health problems.

“There’s continued interest in the fund,” said Peter Jackman of the Vancouver Foundation, which administers the donations. “It’s a fund that seems to connect with a lot of people in some way.”

Despite growing awareness about the potentially devastating consequences of bullying, advocates working to combat the problem say they’re badly in need of financial support.

The Todd family has created two funds to keep Amanda’s spirit alive. One is a permanent legacy, while the other is a granting fund, which Jackman said will be releasing money in the near future.

They are named Amanda’s Legacy Fund and Amanda’s Memorial Fund, respectively.

Jackman noted that the amounts of money in the funds will not be released.

• To donate, or for more information, contact the Vancouver Foundation at 604-688-2204.