Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 7

A Snapshot of Cyberbullying

Lisa Ha

The issue of cyberbullying has received significant media attention in Canada and around the world. In Canada alone, over the past few years there have been several high profile cases of cyberbullying, many of which have been linked to suicides. Footnote 1 In the fall of 2013, the federal Justice Minister introduced legislation to fight cyberbullying, Bill C-13. Footnote2 Among federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments, significant work has been undertaken to better understand the problem, and this work fed into the development of Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act.

At the federal level, Footnote 3 a report was released in June 2013 by the Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials Cybercrime Working Group, Cyberbullying and the Non-consensual Distribution of Intimate Images, which was submitted to the Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Ministers Responsible for Justice and Public Safety (CCSO 2013). The purpose of this report was to identify any potential gaps in the Criminal Code with regards to cyberbullying and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. In addition, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights conducted extensive work on this issue and released its report, "Cyberbullying Hurts: Respect for Rights in the Digital Age," in December 2012. This report was created as part of Canada's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to take appropriate steps to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence, including cyberbullying.

Provincial and municipal level governments have made recent strides to combat these problems as well. For example, in Alberta the cities of Hanna, Grande Prairie, and Edmonton have municipal bylaws in place to address harassment and bullying of minors and others, which include fines and in the case of Hanna, imprisonment of up to six months or community service for the most serious cases.Footnote 4 At the provincial level, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have introduced legislation to address the problem of cyberbullying. In New Brunswick, the Education Act was amended in 2012 under Bill 45, which specifically includes cyberbullying under the umbrella of anti-bullying initiatives, with the emphasis on prevention, reporting, investigating, and taking action.Footnote 5 In Nova Scotia, the Cyber-safety Act, which focuses specifically on cyberbullying, came into force in May 2013 and received significant media attention at the national level. Footnote 6

The FPT and Senate Committee reports are just two of the high-profile undertakings in Canada to better understand cyberbullying and how best to address it, but there is work being done across all sectors of society: in the universities, media, schools, and other levels of government. Drawing from prominent experts and resources on cyberbullying, this article will provide a brief overview of some of the key issues and future directions around cyberbullying, primarily from a research perspective.

Bullying has been around forever, why does it seem that cyberbullying is so much more serious?

There are important distinctions between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin W. Patchin, co-directors of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Cyberbullying Research Center, Footnote 7 distinguish several main features between cyberbullying and traditional bullying (Hinduja and Patchin 2010b). The first is the anonymity associated with cyberbullying. Victims are often unaware who is targeting them or why. Second, cyberbullying has a much larger audience than traditional bullying. A cyberbully attack can go viral, meaning that countless people from potentially all around the world can be involved, which leaves the victim feeling as though literally everyone knows what is being done to them. The final distinction is the degree of cruelty of cyberbullying attacks, in that children may use more hurtful and extreme language online than offline. Hinduja and Patchin suggest that electronic perpetrators are free from social cues and reactions that might allow them to recognize the harm they are inflicting on their victims.

Another important factor of cyberbullying relates to parental and teacher supervision and identification of the problem. Adults may not be aware of the types of social media or online avenues where cyberbullying can happen, or they may not have access to the sites where the comments are posted, thereby increasing the likelihood that a cyberattack goes unaddressed. In addition, Hinduja and Patchin suggest that adults may not be adequately prepared to respond even in cases where cyberbullying is identified. For example, parents often say that they don't have the technical skills to keep up with their children's online behaviour and teachers are afraid to intervene because cyberbullying typically occurs away from school (Hinduja and Patchin 2010b).

What about the link to suicides?

In the past several years, there have been numerous media reports of teen victims of cyberbullying who have committed suicide. There has been some criticism of the media Footnote 8 for drawing a direct causal relationship between cyberbullying and suicide, but one cannot help but wonder. The British Columbia Coroners Service recently released a report on 91 suicides occurring in the province between 2008 and 2012. Their findings suggest that, while still extremely rare (and not increasing in prevalence), suicide is a "highly complex phenomenon" and there are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to an increased risk of suicide (BC Coroners Service 2013). An unpublished 2012 Canadian study, by Dr. John Leblanc from Dalhousie University, came to similar conclusions. The research looked at media reports of 41 suicides related to cyberbullying. Speaking to Global News about the study, Leblanc noted that while some of the suicides were linked to cyberbullying, there were almost always other factors at play, including mental illness, and other forms of bullying (Chai 2012).

In a recent blog post, "Does Bullying 'Cause' Suicide," Justin Patchin looked at the question from a social science perspective. He sought to identify from the literature if there is in fact a definitive link between the two, either correlative (e.g., there is a relationship between the two) or causative (e.g., one causes the other). He found that, while there are studies that show that there is in fact a (modest) relationship between bullying and suicide, Footnote 9 the vast majority of bullying victims do not end their life. In the end, Patching argues,

Yes, people should "stop saying bullying causes suicide." But we also shouldn't say that it doesn't. The honest answer is that we really don't know a whole lot about why some teens who are bullied consider suicide whereas the vast majority do not. As in many cases we write about on this blog, more research is necessary (2013a).

Is there a common definition of cyberbullying?

An important point to consider when looking at the prevalence of cyberbullying is the lack of consensus on a definition of the phenomenon. In fact, this issue was identified in the Senate Standing Committee Report. In her testimony at the Committee hearings, University of Toronto professor and psychologist Faye Mishna noted:

A universal definition of cyberbullying does not yet exist, which is very important. One definition of cyberbullying is that 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. (Standing Senate Committee 2012)

Another more detailed definition of cyberbullying comes from Nova Scotia's Cyber-safety Act, enacted in May 2013 and now in force. The Act makes cyberbullying a tort and allows for victims to bring an action for cyberbullying where a court may order damages, issue an injunction, or make any other order considered just and reasonable in the circumstances. If the cyberbully is a minor, parents may be held liable for any damages awarded to a victim (see section 22 of the Act). The Cyber-safety Act defines cyberbullying as:

... any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and electronic mail, typically repeated or with continuing effect, that is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person's health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes assisting or encouraging such communication in any way.Footnote 10

The lack of consensus on a definition is important when prevalence rates are examined, as it is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of prevalence when studies define cyberbullying in different ways.

Are there accurate statistics on the prevalence of cyberbullying?

In Canada, we currently have national statistics on cyberbullying from Statistics Canada's 2009 General Social Survey on Victimization (2009 GSS), and from the 2009/10 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study.

For the 2009 GSS, Canadians aged 15 and older living in the provinces were surveyed. Footnote 11 With regards to cyberbullying,Footnote 12 the survey found 7% of Internet users aged 18 and older had been the victim of cyberbullying in their lifetime. Threatening or aggressive emails or instant messages (73%) and hateful comments spread through e-mails, instant messages, or postings on Internet sites (55%) were the most common forms of cyberbullying reported for the over 18 demographic. Social media and chat site users were almost three times more likely than non-users to experience cyberbullying (Perreault 2011).

Unfortunately, the 2009 GSS survey does not specifically target teens?the critical demographic when it comes to cyberbullying. The 2009 GSS data comes from adult respondents who were asked whether any of the children or youth (aged 8 to 17) living in their household had been a victim of cyberbullying or child luring. The results showed that 9% of adults living in a household that includes a child knew of a case of cyberbullying against at least one of the children in their household. Seventy-four percent of these adults said that the cyberbullying was in the form of threatening or aggressive e-mails or instant messages, and 72% said it was hateful comments sent by e-mail or instant messaging or posted on a website. Sixteen percent said someone used the child's identity to send threatening messages. According to the adults, most of the children were bullied by someone they knew, such as a classmate (40%), a friend (20%), or acquaintance (11%), rather than by a stranger (21%).

An important, albeit not surprising, finding of the 2009 GSS was that relatively few incidents of cyberbullying were reported to the police (7% of adults and 14% of children). Data indicated that victims were more likely to block messages from the sender (60%), leave the Internet site (51%), or report the situation to their Internet or e-mail service provider (21%) (Perreault 2011).

The HBSC survey is a continuing research project with participants from 43 countries headed by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. The Public Health Agency of Canada is responsible for the Canadian survey. The HBSC involves health-related surveys conducted in a classroom setting with students aged 11 to 15. The focus of the 2010 survey was mental health, and 26,078 young Canadians from 436 schools took part. With regards to cyberbullying, the survey asked students about electronic or cyber-bullying, including computer postings (e.g., on social networking sites), emails, digital photos, or cell phone harassment. The highest rates of cyberbullying were reported by girls which remained steady at around 19% (in grades 7, 9 and 10), with a low of 17% in grade 6. Rates for boys ranged from a low of 11% in grade 6, with a gradual increase to 15% and 19% in grades 9 and 10 respectively (Freeman et al. 2011).

In the academic literature, there is some variation in the prevalence rates of cyberbullying, due at least in part to the aforementioned issues around definition (Standing Senate Committee 2012). One recent article that provides us with a good picture of prevalence from a cross section of studies is from the Cyberbullying Research Center. In July 2013, Drs. Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, released a summary of their research on prevalence rates from 2004-2013 (a total of seven studies with sample sizes ranging from 356 to 4441) both for cyberbullying victims and perpetrators (Patchin 2013b). They have been studying cyberbullying since 2002 and their work provides an excellent gauge of the prevalence of the problem. Their research shows that while there was some variation, on average 24% of students who took part in one of the six studies had reported being the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime. Their research also showed that on average, "about 17% of the students who have been a part of our last 6 studies have admitted that they have cyberbullied others at some point in their lifetime" (Patchin 2013b).

What can be done about it?

Shelley Hymel, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC), recently spoke about progress made in combating cyberbullying, Footnote 13 but emphasized there is still much work to do. Hymel advocates against a "one size fits all" approach. She suggests, "...the one thing we figured out in 40 years of research in this area is that there's no simple solution and there's no single reason why kids bully. There's lots of reasons why kids bully and we have to treat each one differently" (Gollom 2013).

UBC Professor Jennifer Shapka advocates for including an element in anti-cyberbullying programs aimed at teaching children appropriate ways to interact online, a concept termed, "digital citizenship" in the Senate Committee report. Part of the uniqueness of cyberbullying is that bullies may fail to recognize they are being aggressive because non-verbal cues present in in-person interaction are absent in the online environment. She suggests, "We need to help [kids] understand that they are being aggressive and hurting people. That's different than a traditional anti-bullying program that is focused on getting witnesses more active and helping the victims" (Welsh 2012). Footnote 14 At the Senate Committee hearings, Wendy Craig, Professor of Psychology at Queen's University, highlighted the need for more research into developing evidence-based programs to find out what approaches work best in different contexts (e.g., rural versus urban). She points to her research which shows that about one in seven anti-bullying programs actually make the problem worse (Standing Senate Committee 2012, 79).

While evidence-based, in-school programs are an important component of an effective approach to combating cyberbullying, the Standing Senate Committee report advocates for a "whole community approach." They suggest that fundamentally what is needed is a culture shift, which requires a concerted effort across all of society. Key stakeholders to be included in this approach beyond schools and families include: other adults, volunteers, social service providers, corporations and businesses?in particular telecommunications and media companies?and all levels of government. Testimony at the Committee indicated that programs that take a whole-community approach have seen success rates as high as a 40% reduction in bullying compared to half of that for primarily school-based approaches (Standing Senate Committee 2012, 56).


There is significant work underway on a variety of fronts to better understand cyberbullying and ways to alleviate the problem. In the near term, the legislative approach of the federal Department of Justice provides one way to combat the problem. Provincial and municipal governments across the country have also put in place legislation and other initiatives, and those that have not are moving forward to develop programs and approaches of their own. From a research perspective, there is much work to be done to better understand the nature of cyberbullying: from the basics of coming to a consensus on a definition, to understanding the linkages between cyberbullying and suicide, and to evaluating the types of programs that work best in different situations. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, school communities and families need to work together to educate each other on Internet safety and appropriate ways to interact online.


Lisa Ha is a senior researcher with the Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada, in Ottawa She works primarily on family violence research in the Department.