Between December 2011 and June 2012, I chaired a series of Senate Human Rights committee hearings on cyberbullying. Our committee conducted a study on the issue in the context of Canada’s international human rights obligations under Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Having ratified the Convention, Canada commits to taking “measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.” Even before our study, we knew that cyberbullying represents so many of these things—rights violations that the Canadian government promised to prevent.

We heard from experts and advocates, parents and teachers, and, most importantly, young people. Over the summer, committee members reflected on what we had learned from the witnesses who appeared before us. This fall, with the support of clerks and researchers from the Senate and the Library of Parliament, we’ve been drafting and revising our report. We hope to release it very soon.

As I’ve been reflecting on what our committee learned and reading through the witnesses’ testimony, a series of common themes and messages has emerged. Over the next month, I want to share and offer reflections on that testimony. For unabridged transcripts of the hearings, please visit the Standing Senate Committee on Human Right’s webpage.

As a relatively new phenomenon, there’s no universally accepted definition for cyberbullying.

Bill Belsey is a teacher at Springbank Middle School in Rocky View County, Alberta and President of He offered this definition:

Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies that support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others. The key aspects are: It is deliberate, repeated and has intent to harm others. That is what makes bullying, bullying. Whether it is physical, verbal, psychological or social, those are the three key aspects that most of the world’s major researchers and academics agree upon.

Belsey’s definition highlights three key elements of bullying: it’s deliberate, repeated, and is intended to harm. For bullying to classify as cyberbullying, it involves the use of information and communications technologies.

Professor Faye Mishna, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work, cited a definition that draws on some of the same elements: “it is the use of communication and information technology to harm another person. It can occur on any technological device and it can include countless behaviours to do such things as spread rumours, hurt or threaten others, or to sexually harass.”

Professor Jenifer Shapka of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Education and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education adds another relational element. Her definition builds on Belsey and Mishna’s, but she specifies that cyberbullying occurs “within the context of a power differential.”

Shapka also noted that the “repetition” element manifests differently online: “virtual bystanders…are often responsible for the repeated humiliation felt by victims. For example, some of the most highlighted cases of cyberbullying in the media were based on a single event, and yet the victim still experienced the event over and over again by having it circulated and re-posted by others.”

Professor Tina Daniels seemed to agree. She sees parallels between bullying and cyberbullying: “cyberbullying meets the same needs, leads to the same emotions, and is motivated by the same desire for power, status and control as are other forms of bullying behaviour.” But she also echoed Shapka’s particular caution regarding cyberbullying: “Where it is different is in the magnitude of both the behaviours received and the consequences of these acts.”

Mariel Calvo, a student at Springbank Middle School, built on Daniels’ theme of magnitude and consequences. Speaking before our committee in June, he testified:

Cyberbullying is a huge issue to Canadian teenagers throughout the country. To those people who say that it is nothing, that it is not a big deal and that it is teenagers being dramatic, that is completely wrong. It affects our lives enormously. The outcome of this harassment can lead to poor performance at school, low self-esteem and serious emotional consequences, including depression and suicide, so it is much more than just teenagers being dramatic.

While there’s no clear and comprehensive definition of cyberbullying, the witnesses who appeared before our committee highlighted several keywords: intent, repetition, harm, behaviour, power, and consequence.

As Seth Marnin of the Anti-Defamation League testified, these findings demonstrate not only the complexity of cyberbullying, but the need for to preventative policy to include “a clear definition of bullying, specifically one that defines electronic communication broadly so that students and the community know exactly what is and what is not acceptable.”

My next blog post will explore witnesses’ views on that urgent need: understanding digital citizenship.