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UNICEF Canada Position Statement on Federal Cyberbullying Bill

Today, the federal government introduced Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act that amends the Criminal Code to create the new offence of “non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”  

UNICEF Canada welcomes the protection this proposed legislation may offer some youth. We appreciate that for the most egregious acts, the proposed legislation is more appropriate as a response than the use of criminal pornography charges, particularly where youth are involved in the production and distribution of images of other youth. The fact that the proposed legislation would apply to people of all ages, rather than unfairly targeting young people as perpetrators, is also welcome.

In tandem with any new legislative response to the broader social problem of bullying, UNICEF Canada urges a stronger focus on education and prevention so that young people – be they potential or actual bullies, victims or bystanders - understand the social, health and legal consequences of their digital actions for others and for themselves. Children and youth have the ability and resiliency to protect themselves and others and to alter their own behaviour once they are effectively informed about the risks.

We recognize that the majority of the actions that are criminalized by the proposed law are commonly known as “sexting”, which statistics suggest a quarter to a third of young people participate in – by creating or disseminating sexually intimate images of themselves or others. We are concerned about the potential for a significant increase in the number of young people entering the criminal justice system for what is, in the majority of acts, impulsive and uninformed rather than malicious behaviour. 

Research has demonstrated that youth are not only more impulsive because of their developmental stage, but they think less about the future. For adolescents, short-term interests and the perceived rewards of offending are likely to outweigh potential legal consequences, which most young people view as remote possibilities.

In the case of children and youth, we urge the development of prosecutorial guidelines for any new legislation so that only the most serious of cases result in criminal charges against youth, as well as a careful analysis and evaluation of both the intended and unintended impacts of this proposed new legislation. 

In UNICEF’s recent report card on child well-being, Canada ranked 21st of 29 industrialized nations in the incidence of bullying. Canada must examine what other countries with lower rates, such as Italy, Sweden and Spain, are doing right, so we can prevent more pain, loss and senseless death.

Ultimately, there is no quick fix to cyberbullying or the harm it has on our young people - even where criminal law sanctions are invoked. But what can make a significant difference is a heightened sense of collective responsibility, with parents, teachers, social workers, health professionals, law-enforcement officials, policymakers and the private sector, together with young people, all assuming a greater role in effective prevention and sensitive communication.

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