Ontario takes aim at cyberbullying

Kaleed Rasheed has been a champion for cyberbullying awareness and the reason hits close to home for the father of four.

A former tech executive at BlackBerry, the MPP for Mississauga East-Cooksville understands the important role technology plays in our lives today. But he’s also aware of the negative psychological impact social media can have, particularly on impressionable young minds. With cyberbullying a recognized challenge among adolescents in schools across Ontario, Rasheed’s Bill 154 is aimed at raising awareness of a growing problem.

Passed into law on Sept. 24, it enacts Stop Cyberbullying in Ontario Day to be recognized the third Friday in June every year beginning in 2021. With the province seeing an increase in cases of cyberbullying, which correlates with rising rates of teen suicides and attempts at self-harm, Rasheed hopes the day of awareness will provide children and adults with tools they need to protect themselves and encourage meaningful discussions within and outside of the education system.

“Being a father of four kids with a fifth on the way, and also coming from a technology background, I wanted to do something that would be helpful for not only our children, but the next generation as well,” said Rasheed, whose oldest child is in Grade 7.

“I see and hear every day the impacts of cyberbullying and I just don’t want our children to go through such a thing. You cannot stop this thing 100 per cent but if you can save one life, for me, that would be a huge thing.”

The scope of the problem has been hard to quantify. Experts agree cyberbullying, which is acknowledged to be under-reported, is on the rise. Statistics Canada reported in 2016 that at least one in five students had been victims of cyberbullying or cyberstalking.

Components of cyberbullying include the creation, distribution and consumption of non-consensual intimate images, or “revenge porn,” stalking, sexual harassment, hate speech and extremism.

Pat Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA), commends Rasheed for bringing the bill forward and members of provincial parliament for endorsing it. With safe school policies, including anti-bullying and cyberbullying prevention plans, in place in Catholic school boards, Daly says Stop Cyberbullying in Ontario Day will be another step in the right direction.

“One of the critically important pillars upon which Catholic education and our faith is built on is the dignity of the human person,” said Daly. “Bullying and cyberbullying are very unfortunate realities in our world and in our schools that in fact do diminish the dignity of the human person, so anything that brings light to the dangers of cyberbullying is a very positive thing.”

Laura Zilney, CEO of 24/7 Hope, a mental health and trauma agency and designated sexual assault centre in Peel Region, says her organization regularly receives calls from students and staff across the region regarding cyberbullying. Zilney says the issue of violence against women is deeply embedded within the problem, which disproportionately impacts those who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC), or as differently abled.

Zilney, citing a study by Status of Women in Canada, said 67 per cent of cases reported to police about online intimidation came from female victims. In cases of child luring, which is also part of cyberbullying, 90 per cent of victims are also female.

The violent targeting of women, Zilney says, can be found all over popular social platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. Unlike men, women are more likely to internalize online abuse which makes them vulnerable to a second victimization, including health issues like heart disease, cancer and reduced life expectancy.

“If we externalize it, like men tend to do, then there’s fighting and there is shouting and the blame is put on someone else, but women tend to believe they are to blame,” said Zilney. “We know things like depression, anxiety and social isolation are all risk factors for sexual violence.

“We also know that when you have mental health issues, physical health issues accompany it. When women experience forms of interpersonal violence like cyberbullying, the mental health issue that (can develop) is likely to lead to some chronic physical issues.”

Due to the insidious nature of cyberbullying, particularly given the increase in online learning because of COVID-19, Rasheed says parent knowledge and awareness is key. Daly says with cyberbullying part of a wider societal issue, boards will continue to raise awareness but solutions will need to effectively involve the wider community.

“Catholic school systems have a significant responsibility, but equally important are parents and family who have to be important partners in this,” said Daly. “A lot of that takes place outside of the school so there’s a real need for all of us to work together.”