Of Cyberbullying, Digital Citizenship… and Technological Competence?

OK, Canada may be somewhat behind our neighbours when it comes to adopting rules around technological competence for lawyers, but at least “Digital Citizenship” is getting some traction—or at least with respect to standards for children and parents.

On Friday November 13, 2015, while two more states adopted a duty of technology competence into their codes—and while Canadian law societies maintained unanimous silence on such requirements for lawyers—British Columbia’s Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner and Representative for Children and Youth, released Cyberbullying: Empowering Children and Youth To Be Safe Online and Responsible Digital Citizens. The Privacy Commissioner and the Representative are both non-partisan Officers of the BC Legislature.

The 50-odd page report is available online here and also here. It is, essentially, a long list of why it’s important to be responsible digital citizens. Don’t worry. It just applies to kids. It’s nothing we would explicitly expect from lawyers.

Cover of Cyberbullying Empowering children and youth to be safe online and responsible digital citizens

Report cover image: Cyberbullying Empowering children and youth to be safe online and responsible digital citizens


About the Cyberbullying Report

The joint News Release refers to the need for a provincial strategy to address cyberbullying—a comprehensive, cross-ministry, child-focused, evidence-based one carried out by at least the Education and Justice Ministries of BC, but with a single point of accountability within government ideally. The release adds that the report:

… provides important context on the issue of cyberbullying and clearly illustrates the complexity of the problem, using first-hand input from B.C. youth, a review of relevant literature and a look at what is being done to tackle cyberbullying in other jurisdictions. […] the report also recommends […] prosecution guidelines […] that best reflect a child-centred approach and that fully consider the broader impact of criminalizing children and youth.

The Report comes off as progressive, and exudes holistic intent. It references the tragic deaths of youth in recent years from coast to coast, and elevates the call to action. It questions the effectiveness of both “preventative, education-based approaches”, and of mere criminal legislative response. The Report also notes how civil remedies for cyberbullying may not easily be accessible to victims of cyberbullying with limited resources — a sad irony for a remedy given that economic vulnerability probably co-exists with social vulnerability where the illness of cyberbullying also thrives.

As for parents who seek to monitor and control their kids with surveillance techniques and software, the report notes that such helicopter tactics are “ultimately ineffective”, since children crave and seek out privacy with a single-mindedness that we can easily underestimate (and perhaps never conquer using authoritarian means alone). On this disconnect between the “not under my roof!” adults and their “good luck catching me on Snapchat!” kids the Report cites danah boyd’s book “its complicated“, a manuscript that discusses youth, their self-identity using technology, and the moving landscape of social networks with humility, pragmatism and maturity.

Just Say “No” to Digital Barbarism

Ultimately, the true thrust of the Report’s recommendations is “digital citizenship”, defined as the “human rights and civic engagement that come into play in the online world [including] the right to privacy amongst others.” Digital citizenship is promoted as the heart of preventing cyberbullying and “must be integrated into the educational, legal, social, and program responses to cyberbullying.”

Interestingly, I see a lot of odd (dis)symmetry between talk of “digital citizenship” among youth and talk of “technological competency” among professionals—although I most certainly do not conflate the tragic context and consequences as being the same. It makes me ponder that if we are prepared to look broadly at the impact ubiquitous digital connectivity has had on our youth, and we are finally producing strategies in response that include a duty for children and parents (in addition to institutions like schools, prosecution services, etc.) to become “digital citizens”, can we really still be having this debate about grown legal professionals and their duty to be aware of technology and act competently with respect to it?

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