Children are not born cyberbullies. They’re children—unique but equally deserving of the happiness, love, and understanding guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As I wrote in my last entry on fostering inclusive cultures, values like respect, kindness, and compassion are taught, learned, and experienced.

It follows that the issue of child development is central to cyberbullying. As Christian Whaelan, Acting Child and Youth Advocate in the Office of the Ombudsman of New Brunswick, observed before the Human Rights committee:

If we want to address this issue of the breakdown of respectful, responsible relationships in relation to children, we must also consider the early stages of child development and the ways that we can equip infants and pre-kindergarten children with the supports they need to become caring and nurturing children and adults. The experience, in our office, of working with youth with complex needs suggests to me that we have to do more, as a society, to support parents in their parental role, at the very early stages of life.

In other words, early child development is crucial. It’s the foundation for years of social skills development, leading to the late elementary and high school years, when cyberbullying reaches its peak.

There’s a common misconception that children who have developed skills required to engage in bullying have also developed the capacity to maturely rationalize their behaviour. Not so, testified Professor Shelley Hymel of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Education and Counselling Psychology:

There are three areas that are not adequately developed.

1. Children at this age tend to be entering a period of identity development, trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. Some stumble upon bullying in this process and it works.
2. We know that this is the time when the frontal lobe of the brain, the part that oversees executive functions and puts information together to help us make the best decision, undergoes a rapid period of development that continues into the mid-20s.
3. At this point most children are considered to be in the pre-conventional stage of moral development, focusing primarily on what is in it for me. It is not that these children are immoral. Rather, our research is showing that these children are just beginning to understand the society as a social system where we have to work together and help each other.

Professor Hymel’s research shows that “children who bully others, including electronic bullying, are much more likely to morally disengage in thinking about their own behaviour. They justify and rationalize it in such a way that they minimize their own responsibility for the outcomes and the outcomes themselves. Such moral disengagement also predicts bystander behaviour.”

Professor Hymel’s reference to “bystander behaviour” was interesting given earlier testimony from Hal Roberts, Vice-President of Stop a Bully, who had appeared before our committee a month earlier. In his presentation, Roberts spoke of the “fluidity between roles,” noting that children are often “not even aware that in one scenario they may be instituting something…in the next scenario they may be observing it and passing it along…[and] at some point in the process, they may have been a victim [of cyberbullying].” I’ll speak more about this theme in my next entry on labels and roles: bully, victim, and bystander.

From a human rights perspective, the witnesses’ testimony reinforces the need for policy and resources that allow children, with the support of their parents and teachers, to develop skills and abilities to act, react, and reflect on their behaviour and its consequences. No two children develop in the same way, but all children have equal and universal rights—our committee affirmed this principle in adopting its own rights-based approach to policy studies. The testimony also identifies children as subjects—the actors, not the objects—whom parents, teachers, and communities must educate, enable, and empower. That is the second principle of our committee’s rights-based approach.

The third principle is that States are obligated to ensure rights are met. Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges State Parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.” Canadian children have a right to live happily, learn safely, and develop into kind, caring, and compassionate people with the support of nurturing adults. Focusing on these rights is the best way to prevent cyberbullying because children are not born cyberbullies. They’re born with an infinite capacity to love. We need only give them that chance.