Q&A with Dr. Wanda Cassidy on Cyberbullying and the Promotion of Positive Online Behaviour

June 28, 2018

Dr. Wanda Cassidy is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the Centre for Education, Law and Society (CELS). She is also the Faculty's leading expert on cyberbullying. Dr. Cassidy has been at Simon Fraser University for several years, first as an undergraduate student and later she completed the Professional Development Program. She also served as a Faculty Associate working with student teachers before taking up a tenure track position in SFU’s Faculty of Education.

One focus of your research is cyberbullying. What motivated you to research this topic?

I’ve always been interested in issues of equity and social justice and their relationship to the law. Although I am not a lawyer, I believe that law should reflect the values and aspirations of a democratic society, including what goes on in the digital world. These values and principles are reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in human rights legislation, so I think this interest in law motivated me, in part, to investigate cyberbullying. I have also done research with colleagues in the Faculty of Education on the ethics of care in schools. When I started this research into cyberbullying about 12 years ago, access to the Internet and various forms of information and communication technology was exploding and there was a lot of nasty behaviour occurring online. I was curious about ways to change that culture. Are there ways to promote more positive online behaviour? More cyber-kindness, ethics of care online, rather than the hurtful behaviour that we were seeing. This has been my motivation — not just to study the negative side of online social interactions, but to seek ways to change that behaviour towards civility, respect, and cyber-kindness.

What does the law say about cyberbullying?

The Canadian Criminal Code identifies defamatory libel and harassment as crimes, and these can be applied to the online world. However, the law often lags behind where society is at. It took two high-profile cases of young women who had been victimized online and ended up committing suicide, Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, for the federal government to address cyberbullying directly. In 2015 legislation was passed making it a crime to post intimate images of someone online without their consent. Unfortunately, this addition to the Criminal Code only deals with pictures or images, and not words, which can also be extremely hurtful. The legislation does give the police more power to remove the images off the web, and to charge the perpetrators, however, legislation alone is not the solution. People at all age levels still think that it is okay to post whatever they want online. They misinterpret what freedom of speech and expression means. Our research shows that adolescents and young adults generally feel that they have the right to say or post anything they want online, without restrictions, and without implications.

What is cyberbullying and how often does it occur?

Cyberbullying is the posting of nasty, hurtful, demeaning, harassing, or threatening messages or images online using information and communication technologies. It can also involve excluding or shunning someone from an online venue. Cyberbullying is somewhat different from face-to-face bullying. Face-to-face bullying has three criteria: 1) the behaviour is intentional and hurtful 2) the behaviour is repeated, and, 3) there is a power differential between perpetrator and victim. With cyberbullying, the author can put something online once and it stays there to victimize the recipient over and over again, and it also can be circulated to multiple others. The power differential is also a little different. For example, a student has power over a professor in terms of student evaluations or the Rate My Professor website. Even though that student appears to have less power than the professor, the student may use their contra-power to hurt the professor if they choose to do so. Another form of power is the anonymity that can come with cyberbullying. If the victim doesn’t know the perpetrator it is very difficult to stop the behaviour, or to know where it is coming from. This causes added stress and anxiety.

What can lead someone to cyberbully?

We have done four different studies, three at the K-12 level and one at post-secondary. The findings were quite similar, despite the age differences. At K-12, students provide a number of reasons. For example, someone upset them, or they were bullied first and are retaliating. Relational aggression is also common, particular among female adolescents, and in so-called “friendship groups” where one or more girls is targeted by others who wish to gain more power within that group. We also found in our studies among adolescents that 10% of students say that they cyberbully because it is “fun.” This is a rather frightening finding, to know that some people take pleasure in hurting others. Other young people cyberbully because they are part of a group doing it. Sadly, they don’t have the courage to step away from it, or to speak up against what is happening, because of intimidation or the strong sense of belonging that comes from being part of a collective. The cyberbullying literature talks a lot about the important role that bystanders can play in preventing and curtailing cyberbullying.

At the university level, students cyberbully each other for similar reasons—someone upset them, they don’t like someone, or they were bullied first. The victims said that their physical appearance or their ethnicity or gender also made them a target. Students said that they cyberbullied their professors because the faculty member had upset them, they didn’t like their teaching style or grade they were given, or they wanted to tarnish their reputation. Faculty members said that they were cyberbullied by students for teaching-related reasons and by colleagues for work-related reasons. Female faculty members overwhelmingly were targeted more often than their male counterparts, both by students and by colleagues.

What’s the extent of cyberbullying?

Many people think that only a small percentage of young people are involved in cyberbullying but the reality is quite different. When we first started this research about 12 years ago, we found that about 25% of respondents in K-12 said they had been victimized. Our most recent study among a similar student population, showed an increase to 35%. At the University level, our research involving four Canadian universities, showed that 25% of students who responded to our survey experienced cyberbullying in the previous 12 months. A quarter of participating faculty members said that they had experienced cyberbullying—15% from students and 12% from colleagues. Of course, we don’t know how widespread cyberbullying actually is at the post-secondary level in Canada, since the number of student and faculty members who participated in our study was not high. However, our study shows that cyberbullying does occur at post-secondary among adults just as it does at K-12. And the impacts can be just as devastating and long-term. No school or workplace environment is immune to this behaviour. Schools and universities need to develop policies that more specifically address negative online behaviour. Education and dialogue among all stakeholder groups is also important. And, of course, the wider society needs to model respectful behaviour rather than hurtful interactions.

What about cyberbullying in the workplace?

Unfortunately, cyberbullying behaviour is occurring throughout workplace environments. I’m co-editing a book looking at cyberbullying at universities internationally. My colleagues from the UK compare findings from their university studies with the workplace generally. If the workplace isn’t creating a culture of respect where issues are dealt with, the problems go underground, and bubble up in other ways. For example, through face-to-face or online bullying. Better policies need to be in place and senior administrators need to address the problems immediately and effectively when they surface. In British Columbia, WorkSafe BC now has very clear guidelines around bullying and workplace safety.

What are some ways that schools and universities can work towards preventing or curtailing cyberbullying?

I’ve talked about some of solutions already: clear and communicated policies; education and dialogue; collaboration among stakeholders; empowering bystanders to intervene. However, in large part, we need to change the overall culture of schools and universities. It is a huge task. We need to value and prioritize caring for one another more than we do. How do we care for others, especially outside our immediate circle? How do we communicate with one another? How do we treat each other as human beings? I believe that productivity and academic success occur in an environment of collaboration and respect, rather than competition and independence. So, working together gives wings to a confluence of ideas. Creativity flourishes when we feel safe. I believe that embracing and enacting the ethics of care, however challenging, is a good starting point.