Being “anti-this” and “anti-that” is the political fashion in the 21st century world of social reform, educational politics, and state policy-making. Since the tragic suicide of British Columbia teen and bullying victim Amanda Todd in the fall of 2012, provincial premiers, education and health ministers, school boards, and even federal politicians have been falling over each other calling for a nation-wide crackdown and championing tougher “anti-cyberbullying” laws aimed at curbing bullying, cyber harassment, and criminalizing repeated acts of cyberbullying.
Provincial and state policies, new laws, and incident reporting regulations are growing like mushrooms from Nova Scotia to BC and beginning to resemble crusades in “anti-bullying” states like North Carolina. Most of this frenzied state intervention activity aimed specifically at combating cyberbullying and its horrible cousins, homophobia and racism, flies in the face of educational research and accumulating evidence that state policy and regulations attack the branches rather than the roots of the problem –teenage anger, pent-up frustration, and the breakdown in family relations.
Bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools has prompted quite a range of new laws, regulations and guidelines. Canada’s first province to declare “war on cyberbullying,” Nova Scotia, has now moved to require school staff and bus drivers to report all incidents of bullying and cyberbullying, as recommended in Wayne MacKay’s ground-breaking early 2012 report, Bullying and Cyberbullying: There’s No App for That. In the fall of 2012, the Alberta Government amended its Education Act to hold students accountable for not reporting online incidents of bullying. Down in Raleigh, the North Carolina state legislature expanded its 2009 cyberbullying law to outlaw cyber-harassment of teachers and other school employees.
Will any of these prohibitive and deterrent laws and regulations actually work to reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying? Most importantly, are laws targeting cyberbullying attacking the right end of the problem?
The first wave of the anti-bullying campaign , “Wear Pink” School Days, and so-called community “flash mobs,” did little more than raise awareness. A year ago at an Edmonton mall “flash mob” dance performance, Alberta’s then Minister of Education Tom Lukaszuk made this statement: “It’s an in-your-face campaign. We’re waging a war on bullying and making Albertans aware that bullying happens everywhere.”
A new Dalhousie University study conducted by Dr. John Leblanc and his research team provides the facts. Of 41 cases of bullying-related teen suicides from 2003 until April 2012, in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia, 78% involved both bullying and cyberbullying (face-to-face and online harassment), and in only 7 cases (17%) was it cyberbullying alone.
That key finding supports a 2012 Norwegian research report by Dan Olweus, based upon two large-scale studies covering 2006 to 2010, that identified traditional bullying as the core problem, suggesting that cyberbullying was “an overrated phenomenon.” American researcher Danah Boyd told Education Week in March 2012 that the Internet doesn’t necessarily increase bullying but it has heightened what she described as “a youth culture of fear.”
The root of the problem, according to Dalhousie University pediatrician LeBlanc, is likely to be found in family dysfunction and its toll on today’s teens. “for the most part,” LeBlanc says, “the vast majority of children and youth are not psychopaths. They’re not out to get you.; they’re not callous. They are reacting themselves to what’s happening to them.” It also manifests itself in many forms from physical assaults to social exclusion, name calling, and gossiping.
A November 2012 report, Family responses to bullying, produced by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, gets to the real nub of the problem. Anti-bullying laws and regulations are limited and insufficient in their reach and potential effectiveness. “Families are an important part of the solution to bullying,” the IMFC report points out, and “a solution that has been overlooked for too long.”
Wayne MacKay’s 2012 Nova Scotia report is identified as a positive exception to the rule. His approach, the IMFC notes, recognizes that “parents are the most influential role model in communicating appropriate behaviour” and takes a “less coercive” more preventative stance, attempting the admittedly difficult task of “engaging parents” in the effort.
The IMFC’s senior researcher, Peter Jon Mitchell, commenting on Alberta’s tough new anti-bullying law, was blunt in his assessment, telling Postmedia News that “government makes a lousy parent.” Instead of imposing more punitive legal measures and refereeing in family matters, he called for “more emphasis” on building “positive relationships between kids and adults.”
The IMFC is not alone in raising a red flag. Even Canadian anti-bullying experts like Simon Fraser University’s Brenda Morrison agree that threatening teens with punishment for not reporting bullying is most likely to drive the problem further underground.
Will tough anti-bullying laws and further punitive state measures actually reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools? What’s missing in the current array of “silver bullet” solutions proposed by provincial and state governments? Will we eventually come to realize that rebuilding family life and fostering positive, mutually respectful parent-child relationships might be the best longer-term approach?