During the Human Rights committee’s recent hearings on cyberbullying, witnesses answered the question “what is cyberbullying?” by focusing on behaviour rather than technology. I gave an overview of related testimony in my recent blog, Defining Cyberbullying.

As many witnesses also pointed out, it’s important to consider how the “tools”—communications technologies and social media—facilitate cyberbullying, and how they should influence our response to bullying behaviour.

These considerations almost always lead to what became a recurring theme of discussion during the hearings: digital citizenship.

To many adults, anything “digital” represents an unknown (and sometimes intimidating) frontier. There’s a stark contrast between adults and young Canadians, explained Faye Mishna, Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto:

Youth are digital natives. They have never experienced a world without technology. Adults are immigrants; it is very new for us. Ninety-eight per cent of Canadian youth use communication technology daily. They acquire technological competence much faster than their parents and they know much more. Technology has outpaced legislators, politicians and parents, and now they must grapple with how to maximize the benefits of technology and how to minimize the risks.

Our committee learned, however, that addressing a digital citizenship deficit is much more a question of ethical and interpersonal skills than technical knowledge. Cathy Wing, Co-Executive Director of the Media Awareness Network, underscored this point: “Exercising good judgment and acting as good e-citizens is central to the development of digital literacy skills… Digital literacy is not about technical proficiency; it is about developing critical thinking skills that are essential to lifelong learning and citizenship in a digital society.”

Witnesses exposed the widespread use of communications technologies amongst Canadian youth and the need for critical thinking skills and judgment. They proposed education and engagement. For example, Elizabeth Meyer, Professor at the School of Education of California Polytechnic State University and Concordia University, argued against digital firewalls and blocks:

When teachers are trying to do digital literacy activities they are not in an authentic online environment. They do not have an opportunity to work with students in an adult-mediated learning situation to help them learn to navigate and make judicious decisions about what goes online, in private spaces, semi-public spaces and public spaces online. We need to think about how our schools are dealing with this rather than building stronger firewalls—as far as fencing everyone in—to being able to provide our teachers with the technology, curriculum, and support to provide students with authentic online learning activities in order to develop this judgment, and to begin to recognize the impact of what they say online and where it goes.

The same strategy should apply at home, argued Meyer. “Rather than turning things off,” she proposed “engaging with [children]” and suggested that parents “sit down and play the video game alongside their son or daughter, or go ahead and visit some sites with them online and use that as an opportunity to engage in dialogue and as teachable moments. Even though it might be some place that they are uncomfortable, they might say, ‘Just teach me. I want to know more about what you are doing here and why this is important to you.’”

It’s an important strategy, Wing commented, because “young people are stumbling across hate on sites over which we have no jurisdiction. That is why we promote the educational approach over everything.” She used an example to support her assertion:

This is the thing about using filters in our schools. One of the teachers told us they do not have filters in their school, and they came upon the hate site. The students did not recognize the information because it was very subtly done. It was an anti-Holocaust site. They did not know what they were looking at. This teacher had a wonderful teachable moment that the students were totally engrossed in because they had been completely taken in by this site. They did not know how to authenticate the information. It was a great teachable moment to show them, first of all, authentication skills for the Internet, and second, to understand how people can post anything online and there are no gatekeepers.

Bill Belsey, a teacher at Springbank Middle School in Alberta and founder of Bullying.org, told the committee that he encourages the use of communications technologies and social media in his classroom: students use Twitter, Skype, and blogs to develop literacy skills…and also to develop digital citizenship. These are, as Alain Johnson, Clinical Director of French Language Services at Kids Help Phone put it, “power tools.” Nevertheless, Paul Taillefer, President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation argued, “[though] cyberbullying is the act….the technology is neutral…in the classroom it is as good as the pedagogy supplied by the teacher.”

Though technology isn’t the action behind cyberbullying, the context it presents is still significant. Belsey explained:

Kids who are normally very nice, generally speaking, may do or say things online that they would never do in real life. Online, you do not see the face of the person you are hurting. That distance gives people a false sense of having licence to say or do online whatever they want. They do not understand that although these are virtual worlds, there are real life consequences for them and for others.

The next step, emphasized by so many teachers, experts, and advocates with whom our committee spoke, was perhaps best summarized by Sheen Shariff, Association Professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education: “Encourage legal literacy and digital citizenship that will help youth develop the filters to define the line between fun and cyberbullying, and define the boundaries between public and private online spaces.”

It’s a challenging endeavour, but one that witnesses contended could be realized—if it’s supported by a healthy, inclusive, culture in communities, schools, and homes. In my next entry, I’ll share witnesses’ views on the value of promoting that kind of culture in response to cyberbullying.