Adopting a zero-tolerance policy may be hurting educators’ ability to respond to cyberbullying among their students.

That is just one of the findings of a new report that polled 5,436 students across Canada for their thoughts on cyberbullying. The study, released on Tuesday by the not-for-profit group MediaSmarts, surveyed students from Grades 4 to 11 in English and French in every province and territory.

It found that teachers are far down the list of people that students consider turning to for help when faced with online harassment. Parents come first, followed by other trusted adults and friends. In some cases, students said they would rather talk face to face with their own bullies, or simply ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself, than ask teachers to get involved. The researchers believe that highly punitive school policies are a factor.

“Zero-tolerance policies are not only going to be unsuccessful, but they can be actively harmful because they discourage kids from reporting,” said Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’s director of education. “…[The policies] tell kids that reporting cyberbullying is going to be seen as an overreaction. It’s essentially jumping all the way to the nuclear option.”

The findings are important because they come at a time when both educators and legislators are grappling with how to cope with online bullying and its sometimes disastrous effects. While most readily say that technology itself is not the problem, the Internet has provided an environment where people are more detached from those they harass. And it has allowed for greater anonymity when it comes to spreading rumours about people or sending cruel messages.

The Conservative government has proposed the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act that would make it illegal to send intimate photographs of someone online without that person’s permission. Nova Scotia has already passed a law aimed at curbing online harassment, which has come under criticism for being too broad. In Ontario, changes to the Safe School Act in 2007 formally added cyberbullying to the list of offences for which students could be suspended or expelled, but also got rid of its zero-tolerance provision in its approach to discipline.

The research from MediaSmarts, which focuses on improving digital and media literacy among young people, suggests that formal rules are not a powerful deterrent: 62 per cent of students reported that their schools have cyberbullying policies, but the researchers found little correlation between students’ awareness of school rules and how often they engaged in threatening or mean online behaviour.

“If you’re speaking to kids as audiences, it’s not going to be digested. They have anti-bullying program burnout,” said Shaheen Shariff, a professor of education and law at McGill University whose research focuses on cyberbullying, and who has drawn similar conclusions about zero-tolerance policies. “…One of the things we’re overlooking is that this behaviour is rooted in society’s wider intolerance and discrimination. That’s what we need to discuss.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that online bullying among young people does not always fall neatly into categories of victim and bully. Among the respondents, 23 per cent reported “that they have said or done something mean or cruel to someone online” and 37 per cent reported “that someone has said or done something mean or cruel to them online that made them feel badly.” Of those who reported either of those experiences, 39 per cent said they had been on both sides at some point – sometimes in retaliation to other bullying behaviour toward them or their friends.

Dr. Shariff’s own research has shown that there are other factors in the decision to engage in cyberbulling: When she surveyed kids aged 9 to 12, for example, “status,” “fun” and “jealousy” were the leading reasons they cited. Among kids aged 13 to 17, “fun” ranked highest by far, followed by “retaliation” and “status.” Very few in either group said they wanted to discriminate or engage in “othering.”

Of those who said they had done something mean or cruel online, 18 per cent said they had called someone a name; 5 per cent or under said they had spread rumours or made fun of someone’s race, religion or sexual orientation; and only 4 per cent of the older respondents who were asked about sexting had forwarded a sext to someone else. Overall, 11 per cent of students who said experiencing cyberbullying is “sometimes” or “often” a problem for them (8 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively)

The research also found that parents can have an impact: among the 47 per cent of students who said there are clear rules in their households about respecting others online, there was a lower correlation of bullying behaviour. Peers also play a role – and that can be a helpful strategy for educators to make a bigger impact. Students tend to overestimate how common cyberbullying is, Mr. Johnson said, and research has shown that when they are made aware of how few of their peers engage in this behaviour, bullying declines.

Published Tuesday, Mar. 18 2014, 12:02 AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Mar. 18 2014, 6:36 AM EDT