“Don’t Stand By, Stand Up!,” is the popular rallying cry. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution!” Taken together, these two popular exhortations are also the main slogans of StopCyberbullying, the first prevention program in North America. Founded in the 1990s by Parry Aftab, an American lawyer from suburban Wyckoff, NJ, it spread from New Jersey throughout the United States and, since a recent rash of cyberbullying-related teen suicides in Nova Scotia, has popped up in the Maritimes, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories.
The feisty New Jersey crusader, married to Canadian child advocate, Allan McCullough, is widely known as the “kids Internet lawyer,” especially after TV appearances on Dr. Phil and being honoured as the 2010 New Jersey recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. Her charitable organization
StopCyberbullying aims to mobilize a so-called “cyber-army” of students and teachers to rid the schools of what Aftab calls the “pandemic” of cyberbullying. The program also promotes the adoption of prevention toolkits and resources developed by her online child safety operation, WiredSafety.com
While Parry Aftab’s campaign is gaining traction in the Maritimes, it has stalled in the United States like most of the anti-bullying initiatives south of the border. “I’ve been doing this for over the past 16 years and I’m losing this battle,” she confessed in April 2014. Ineffective or poorly worded laws, misunderstandings over the law’s intent, fear of legal reprisals from parents, and avoidance of negative publicity for the school or town are all key reasons why cyberbullying laws and regulations don’t seem to be working to deter perpetrators.
An entire industry, known as the “Bully Business,” has emerged to combat both bullying and cyberbullying. Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, and corporations that sell in-school programs have joined pioneers like Aftab and Alberta teacher Bill Belsey in the ‘War on Bullying’ in schools and to hawk their latest anti-bullying classroom resources.
In Aftab’s home state, New Jersey, some $2 million was invested in 2012 in state-wide anti-bullying initiatives, including some $1 million to put an anti-bullying coordinator and teacher in every school. School surveillance was increased and the numbers of reported incidents rose accordingly, but the results proved disappointing.
The New Jersey initiative may well have backfired on anti-bullying activists. As Richard Bozza, Ed.D., executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, observed in November 2011: “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”
Whatever happened in New Jersey is passe for Aftab and her anti-cyberbullying supporters because Canada is now the new northern frontier. After the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying report and the tragic death of Rehteah Parsons, Aftab focused her energies on “little Nova Scotia,” the world’s most important cyberbullying battleground with “more suicides per capita connected to cyber issues.” Flush from headlining the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying Conference in May 3013, she took the campaign to Prince Edward Island, of all places, where she maintained a seasonal residence.
The International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Charlottetown on Nov. 9, 2013 was quite an extravaganza. A handpicked delegation of Prince Edward Island students formed the core of the 400 students in total from grades 4 to 12 and the 200 adults at the youth summit. While the focus was on mobilizing students, Aftab rolled out the high profile heavy hitters. Industry leaders, including high-level representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, attended the summit as well as the world renowned champion of anti-bullying, Barbara Coloroso, and the creator of Victims of Violence, Sharon Rosenfeld.
Anti-bullying activists like Aftab now have to contend with vocal critics, questioning the deterrent strategies and the effectiveness of school policies and laws. Former editor of Parenting magazine, Deborah Skolnik, raised hackles in March 2013 by speaking out about the “Bully Backlash” and arguing that “teasing, name-calling or taunting” were not necessarily acts of bullying but rather a natural, if unpleasant, part of growing up from childhood to adolescence.
More recently, New York writer Cevin Soling took to the pages of The Atlantic to address what he deemed the “elephant in the room” – the root cause of bullying. ” Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions,” he claimed. The most widespread catalyst for bullying, according to the author, was a school environment much like captivity “rendering children powerless” and from which there seemed to be “no escape.”
The somewhat contradictory disciplinary philosophies underlying popular anti-bullying campaign are also coming under closer scrutiny. State and provincial legislators, including Nova Scotia, typically favor creating a no tolerance for bullying climate, pushing for formal incident reports and clamping down on any sign of “hurt feelings” and even incidents resulting from “playful derogatory banter among friends.” School administrators may revert to a “snitch culture” in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness. Educational progressives gravitate to The Bully Project approach seeking to engage students in finding “peaceful solutions” and promoting a rather unnatural, warm-and-fuzzy climate where “nobody should be mean to others.”
School-based anti-bullying programs have not fared well when assessed for their effectiveness. One of the best known research reports, published in the Criminal Justice Review (December 2007) and based upon a meta-analysis, showed that anti-bullying programs produce “little discernible effect on youth participants.” A University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong analyzed data from 7,000 students in 50 states and found that such programs “plant” bullying ideas in young children that likely increase the incidence of schoolyard or online bullying. Much of the research showing short-term positive impact may well be measuring the extent to which the visible symptoms are suppressed as opposed to remedying the underlying problems.
Passing cyberbullying laws may not be the answer. In the United States, all but one state, Montana, has a cyberbullying law in place. Despite that remarkably extensive thicket of cyber-harrassment laws, an investigative report by Associated Press concluded that the laws in place are simply not effective.
In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to pass a Cyber Safety Act, the legislation remains contentious. Halifax’s leading internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser has judged the provincial law to be “half-baked” because of its “broad definition” cyberbullying which infringes on the right to free expression and holds parents responsible for their children’s actions. He also predicts that that the law will be ruled unconstitutional. That explains, Fraser says, why other Canadian provinces have taken different approaches. In a 2013 research report, “Cyberbullying and the Law,” Fraser and his research team asked “Are We Doing Enough?” and proposed taking a closer look at treating internet bullying as a form of “harassment.”
Whatever happened to the flurry of Anti-Bullying initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 to 2013 spate of teen suicides? Who are the leaders in the “Bully Business” and to what extent are they addressing the symptoms as opposed to the real underlying problems? Why have American cyberbullying laws failed to make much of a difference in the lives of students? What will come of the Canadian Cyberbullying Youth Summits in the next few years?