Cyberbullying and the Non-consensual Distribution of Intimate Images


Cyberbullying and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images are related social phenomena, the latter often being referred to as a type of cyberbullying. The core activities of both types of behaviour are not new (i.e., bullying and vengeful breaches of privacy), but the manner in which they are being carried out (i.e., via electronic means) has increased the reach and the scope of their impact.

Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies that support deliberate, hostile, and often repeated behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to hurt others. Although it is possible for anyone to be the victim of cyberbullying, as with bullying more generally, children and youth are the most common perpetrators and targets of this type of conduct.

The non-consensual distribution of intimate images involves the sharing of intimate images, often of a former partner, with third parties (either via the Internet or otherwise) without the consent of the person depicted in the image. Often the motivation is to take revenge against their former partner. Its effect is a violation of the former partner's privacy in relation to images, the distribution of which is likely to be embarrassing, humiliating, harassing, or degrading to that person.

Cyberbullying and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images is gaining increased attention across Canada, due in part, to a number of high profile cases reported in the media in which these activities were cited as factors in teen suicide. Footnote 1

I. Cyberbullying

Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but the widespread adoption of new communications technologies has enabled the migration of bullying behaviour to cyberspace, a phenomenon widely characterized as "cyberbullying." Cyberbullying is of growing concern to parents, police, educators and the public in general because of its increased prevalence and the fact that it has been implicated as a factor in a number of teen suicides.

Bullying behaviour involves the systematic abuse of power through unjustified and repeated acts intended to hurt or inflict some form of harm. Footnote 2 Its impact can be direct (physical and verbal teasing) or indirect (relational, such as social exclusion and spreading nasty rumours). Footnote 3 Bullying is increasingly a problem for young persons and educators, especially given the heightened use of new technologies which permits easy and wide distribution of communication. Footnote 4 Traditionally, bullying behaviour was typically associated with school settings; however, this is no longer the case as new technologies allow for victimization to occur outside of school and at any time of the day. Footnote 5

At present, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes cyberbullying, although common elements can be found in many of the definitions examined. The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights Report entitled, Cyberbullying Hurts: Respect for Rights in the Digital Age Footnote 6 (Senate Report) acknowledges the difficulty in achieving consensus upon a single definition of cyberbullying, primarily because there is no common understanding of what comprises this activity. The Senate Report found support for the notion that cyberbullying is a form of traditional bullying, and noted that cyberbullying includes acts intended to intimidate, embarrass, threaten or harass the targeted victims.

Cyberbullying takes on various forms, including using emails, instant messaging, and text messages to send harassing and threatening messages or posting such messages in chat rooms, on "bash boards" and on other social networking websites. Another common method of cyberbullying is the online posting or electronic distribution of embarrassing pictures or videos. It may also involve the creation of websites that mock, torment and harass the intended victim or victims. Some websites can even be used by cyberbullies to create online polling or voting booths, allowing users of the website to vote on things such as the "ugliest" or "fattest" classmate. Footnote 7

A recent Quebec study reveals that 1 in 3 high school students have been subjected to some form of bullying or cyberbullying. Footnote 8 In Statistics Canada's Self-reported Internet Victimization in Canada, 2009 Footnote 9 (based on the General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization), it reported that 7% of Internet users aged 18 or older had been the victim of cyberbullying in their lifetime. The most common form of cyberbullying involved threatening or aggressive e-mails or instant messages, reported by almost three-quarters (73%) of cyberbullying victims, followed by hateful comments by over half (55%) of the victims. Eight percent of adults surveyed had their identity assumed by someone who then sent threatening e-mails. Internet users of chat sites and social networking sites were almost three times more likely to experience cyberbullying than Internet users who did not use these sites. The majority of adults over 25 years old were cyberbullied by a stranger (49%). Individuals between 15 and 24 years old were most likely to be bullied by a friend, classmate or an acquaintance (64%). Men were more likely to be bullied by a stranger than women (46% versus 34%), and women were more likely than men to be bullied by a classmate or co-worker (13% versus 6%).

The survey also asked adult respondents whether any of the children or youth (aged 8 to 17) living in their household had been the 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. Of these adults, 74% responded that the cyberbullying was in the form of threatening or aggressive e-mails or instant messages. This was followed by hateful comments sent by e-mail or instant messaging or posted on a website (72%), and having someone use the child's identity to send threatening messages (16%). Most adults responded that 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%).

Moreover, the GSS found that relatively few incidents of cyberbullying were reported to the police (7% of adults and 14% of children). The GSS noted "given that cyberbullying is not always criminal in nature and, thus, may not warrant reporting to police, other measures may be more appropriate." 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%). In addition to this, testimony provided to the Standing Senate Committee indicates other reasons for not reporting cyberbullying may include fear of escalation, ineffectual responses in the past and fear of being deprived of access to their technology.

General statements about prevalence rates of cyberbullying are difficult to make, as research indicates that rates of cyberbullying vary considerably depending on numerous factors. Footnote 10 Nonetheless, it is clear from recent Canadian studies on the nature and prevalence of cyberbullying, that cyberbullying occurs frequently and is a widespread phenomenon affecting predominately youth but also some adults. Footnote 11

The Senate Report also highlighted that youth who belong to minority groups or who are perceived to be different are at increased risk of being targeted, such as those who have a disability, are overweight, are members of ethnic minority groups and those who identify as, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.

Cyberbullying can be particularly destructive because it can spread to so many people worldwide, instantaneously, anonymously or through impersonation, and may remain online indefinitely. Children and youth who are victimized by cyberbullying are at an increased risk of experiencing psychological harm, such as chronic stress, academic and acting out problems (e.g., weapon carrying). Footnote 12 Cyberbullying may cause victims to feel helpless, which in turn can lead to school violence and suicidal ideation. Footnote 13 These effects are thought to result from the major role that electronic communications play in the social lives of Canadians (particularly youth), Footnote 14 the extensive audience reached through electronic communications, and the permanence of cyberspace (which includes the general lack of control a person has over material once it becomes available online).

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