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What Telus gets wrong about cyberbullying


My teen and I were settling into our seats at the movie theatre for the opening night of Ocean’s 8 when this pre-show warning interrupted our mother-child bonding.

There are 8 million kids in Canada. By the time I finish this sentence, six of us will be cyberbullied. By the end of the month, 1 million. Bullied. We’re not okay with that.

Telus’ cyberbullying campaign is alarmist and misplaced, writes @awsamuel via @NatObserver

Then came the on-screen call to action:

Stand with us to #EndBullying.

Take the TELUS Wise Digital Pledge.

All I wanted was a peaceful evening watching a bunch of A-list actresses steal a bunch of jewels. Instead, I was plunged into a familiar form of parental worry: screen time anxiety. I assume that is the whole point of throwing around figures like “a million kids a month.”

But the anxiety Telus triggered wasn’t about whether my kids will get cyberbullied. I’ve spent the past five years researching the way kids and families use technology, so I knew enough to be immediately suspicious of that one-million-a-month claim. What worried me was the assumption behind the ad: the assumption that the best way to help our kids navigate the Internet is by making both kids and parents afraid of technology.

It’s a pattern I’ve witnessed over and over again. Whether we’re talking about social media or mobile phones or video games, it’s the downsides of technology that get the headlines. “Do You Really Know What Your Kids Are Doing On Their Devices?” the Associated Press asks. “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” an Atlantic story blared. And now from Telus, “Over one million Canadian kids have been cyberbullied in the last four weeks.”

Let’s pause there and consider why this is the issue — and the number — that Telus has built a campaign around. Certainly cyberbullying is a real problem, especially if you define it with clarity and precision: Common Sense Media, a non-profit that focuses on kids and technology, defines cyberbullying as using digital communications to hurt another kid, “intentionally and repeatedly.” Kids who are cyberbullied are twice as likely to attempt suicide. Lest this seem like an abstraction, just remember the stories of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, two Canadian teens driven to suicide by cyberbullies.

But there is a big difference between recognizing that cyberbullying is a problem and claiming it’s a problem that affects a million Canadian kids each month, as I loudly observed to my teenager. The poor kid cringed and shushed me, reminding me that if I really want to protect my kids from bullying, I should probably avoid embarrassing them in public.

Good luck finding a campaign-worthy stat about the dangers of embarrassing parents, however. No wonder Telus had to settle for making us afraid of the Internet instead. And there’s nothing like a big, round number to do the job — even if there are good reasons to question that “one million kids a month.” After all, a 2016 report from Statistics Canada found that among Canadians aged 15 to 29, fewer than one in five (17 per cent) had been cyberbullied or cyberstalked — not just in the previous four weeks, but in the previous five years!

As Sandra Bullock appeared on the movie screen in a rather fetching orange jumpsuit, I tweeted Telus to question their figures, later following up with a reference to that StatsCan study. Telus replied by citing a 2015 MediaSmarts/Prevnet report stating that “42 per cent of Canadian youth aged 12-18 have been cyberbulied in the last 4 weeks alone.

It was an answer that raised even more questions. I’ve conducted more than my share of surveys in the course of my career as an erstwhile academic, sometimes market researcher and data journalist. So, I know that how you ask a question dramatically affects the responses you get. When I first started surveying parents about their kids’ tech use, it took months of testing different questions (and throwing out the data I collected) before I found the question structure that yielded responses that actually made sense, and allowed me to understand how different families approach screen time.

To my teen’s bemusement, I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this puzzle by contacting the researchers behind the numbers Telus was citing. I reached out to Wendy Craig, the Queen’s University psychology professor who co-authored the report. Replying by email, Craig told me that the Telus figure was based on a telephone survey of over 800 young people, which included the question:

How often have you been bullied electronically by other youth in the past four weeks? Electronic bullying includes: being threatened, embarrassed, gossiped about, or made to look bad through the Internet, or phone text messages or pictures.

“Made to look bad through the Internet?” I read out loud to my teen. “That happens to me all the time. I hope you don’t think that counts as cyberbullying.”

“I don’t!” My kid exclaimed. “I get stuff like that in my Tumblr inbox all the time, but it’s not repeated harassment and it’s not targeted to me. I mean, that does happen, but not that much.”

If only academic researchers could come to such a quick consensus on what does and doesn’t count as “cyberbullying.” Instead, they’re using so many different definitions and approaches that there is now a thriving subfield of research on cyberbullying research methods.

Looking at that research only made me more indignant about the Telus campaign. One 2014 meta-analysis of cyberbullying research found that estimates of cyberbullying victimization rates range from 10 per cent to 40 per cent, depending on the definition, methodology and population being studied. Another 2017 article found that Canadian surveys report a higher average incidence of cyberbullying than studies from any other country — though it’s impossible to say whether that’s because of how we’re measuring cyberbullying, or because Canadian teens are actually meaner. Perhaps most revealing is the 2018 study of bullying research that found “traditional” (i.e. offline) cyberbullying is actually three or four times as common as cyberbullying.

But nobody’s preempting the Ocean team’s jewel heist with a warning to keep my kids out of school or off the playground, lest they get bullied face-to-face. No, we reserve our alarmism for the Internet, where both advocates and advertisers can prey on the anxiety that comes from bringing kids up in a world where they face challenges that were entirely unknown to us, a generation of parents who largely grew up before the Internet was even invented.

A tidy little factoid like a million kids a month is a great way to capture attention and catalyze alarm. What’s far less clear is how it actually helps either kids or parents. The pledge that it leads to is virtually meaningless: “I will be kind and respectful online, will not engage in bullying and will help if I see it happening.” At least it’s paired with a promise that Telus will donate $1 to anti-bullying campaigns for every person who signs a pledge.

What’s far less obvious is whether the benefit of those donations will outweigh what Telus is doing with its alarmist and misplaced campaign. My own research shows that where kids really run into trouble online is when their parents leave them to their own devices or, even more dangerous, keep them off the Internet until they’re too old to accept a whole lot of parental guidance. Campaigns that fuel parents’ fear of their kids’ online interactions only contribute to that mistaken inclination to keep kids away from tech altogether.

Parents need tech companies and telecom providers to step up and provide accurate information and practical resources that can help us help our kids. But that means helping parents with the actual risks our kids face: risks like having their online interactions and activities so thoroughly profiled that they’ll never know what it means to make a purchase or cast a vote without first being targeted by dozens of data-driven ads.

Or becoming so habituated to the pressures and distractions of social media that they never develop the ability to be present in their own minds and bodies.

Or the risks that come from limiting kids’ access to technology, like the risk that they’ll be virtually unemployable in a world in which rising automation means that high-earning work will mostly depend on knowing how to program (or at least work with) machines and artificial intelligences.

Thankfully, my own teen seemed largely immune to Telus’ scare tactics.

Ocean’s 8 offered the ideal antidote in a tech-savvy Rihanna, hacking her way around Cartier’s security systems and showcasing the power of programming and Internet smarts.

That’s the message I want my kids and my fellow parents to get from the media: a message of empowerment rather than fear.

Sure, we could pull our kids away from technology, and teach them to regard the Internet as hostile territory. We could flog them with stats that paint online life in the worst possible terms, and lead them to perceive the Internet as a nest of trolls.

Or, we can look at those 8 million Canadian kids as the next generation of online citizens, and teach them to approach the Internet with both sensitivity and confidence. We can talk with them candidly about the challenges of technology use — and equip them with the tools and strategies they need to address these challenges.

We can step into our proper role as digital mentors, and let our children know that it doesn’t take a hack or a heist to find real treasure online.

That’s the message I’ve tried to give my own children, even if I’m not always sure it’s getting through. I circled back with my teen a week after our movie outing, just to make sure that cyberbullying ad hadn’t left them quaking in their boots or too terrified to SMS. And to make sure that — an even worse possibility — I hadn’t ranted or embarrassed my kid out of telling me about their own cyberbullying experiences.

“Uh…how are you doing with all this cyberbullying stuff?” I ventured.

“I’m fine,” my teen replied, without looking up from their iPad. “You parents spend too much time worrying about the Internet.”

Maybe that line should be the Telus pre-show ad for Ocean’s 9.

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