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Taking a Stand Against Bullying

By Marv Bernstein
Chief Advisor, Policy, UNICEF Canada

The theme of this 10th annual Bullying Awareness Week is “Stand Up!” to bullying.

First established in 2003, Bullying Awareness Week was created not only to raise awareness and educate children and adults about bullying, but also to inspire grassroots change.

Over the past decade, however, the social landscape has changed dramatically. These days, most Canadian children are online. And while the expanding digital world has created more opportunities for valuable information and education for children than ever before, the Internet has also exposed them to an array of potential dangers.

In a word: cyberbullying.

UNICEF’s 2011 report, Child Safety Online: global challenges and strategies, reviewed global evidence and practices to answer the questions, “What are the risks to children online?” and “What are the most effective responses to make them safer?

To ensure Canadian children would stay safe and protected, UNICEF Canada spearheaded national context for the report.

We found four vital components were necessary to the development of a national response strategy to combat exploitation and abuse, both on and off line:

  • the provision of specific, age-appropriate education for children and young people, whether they are actual/potential victims, perpetrators or bystanders,
  • the broad participation of parents, teachers, social service providers, policy makers and the private sector in a collective effort to oppose cyberbullying,
  • the use of child rights impact assessments by legislators and policy-makers, and
  • the establishment of a National Children’s Commissioner.

The strategy, in our view, needs be anchored in the best interests of the child as a primary consideration, the child’s right to be heard and taken seriously, and the recognition of the evolving capacities of children and young people.

Developing a rights-based strategy

Since the report’s release, UNICEF Canada has been uniquely placed to promote a balanced rights-based protection approach in both judicial and legislative settings.

Last June for instance, we had occasion to prepare a written brief and testify before the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights to inform its study on cyberbulling.

We later had the opportunity to intervene in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada proceeding. In this case, 15 year old A.B. asserted that an unidentified perpetrator had created a fake Facebook profile which targeted her with abusive images and commentary. A.B. initiated a defamation lawsuit – but wished to proceed anonymously.

Accordingly, she requested a partial publication ban that would prevent her identification and the further publication of derogatory material on Facebook. After two Nova Scotia courts refused to grant the ban and ordered costs against A.B., she appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

UNICEF Canada argued that the Nova Scotia courts failed to recognize A.B.’s fundamental rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including:

  • the right to have her best interests treated as a primary consideration,
  • her right to be heard and to access the justice system in a child-friendly manner, and
  • her right to seek relief for harm to her reputation and her right to privacy.

With these recommendations at hand, the Supreme Court granted the appeal in a unanimous decision, ruling that A.B. should be allowed to proceed in anonymity, but that there was no need for a publication ban.

While the Court established an important precedent by ruling that children do not have to forfeit their anonymity in using legal means to combat cyberbullying, we at UNICEF Canada continue to hold the view that the best way to deal with cyberbullying is to stop it before it happens, by building upon strong preventive and rights-respecting educational initiatives.

We therefore hope this rights-based approach will be used by both parents and teachers in school curricula to illustrate the importance of responsible ‘digital citizenship’ and avoid the often unintended permanent harm that can be inflicted upon others.

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