Putting bullying in the spotlight: Experts weigh in on what the word really means
Published Saturday, October 20, 2012 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, October 20, 2012 9:01AM EDT
The term "bully" has become almost ubiquitous--a word used to describe wide-ranging forms of harassment, from schoolyard teasing to online blackmail, even physical assault.
This week, the term has been front and centre: It's in virtually every headline related to Amanda Todd, the B.C. teen who took her own life last week. And then there was news Friday that eight teen 'bullies' were arrested in London, Ont. for physically and emotionally harassing a peer, both online and off. Just one day earlier, a Toronto teen was arrested for allegedly blackmailing a girl who 'sexted' him a topless picture of herself.
But what does the term "bully" actually mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, a bully is someone who coerces others by fear, or persecutes or oppresses by force or threats.
That definition can fit a wide range of circumstances. In the case of Amanda Todd, it seems to apply. In a video Todd posted to YouTube a few weeks before her death, she said she had been blackmailed online by a man to whom she’d sent a topless photo when she was 12 years old. When that photo was later sent around the Internet, she became a social outcast and the victim of schoolyard bullying that eventually culminated in a physical assault in front of her school.
Travis Price, an anti-bullying advocate and the founder of Pink Shirt Day, said Todd's story fits his definition of what it means to be a victim of bullying.
"I describe it as being relentless, being constant... For me,as a kid, it was every day; it was nonstop. So I define it as everyday, relentless attention that a kid doesn't want," Price told CTVNews.ca, while en route to a presentation to raise awareness of bullying at a Nova Scotia elementary school.
But when bullying goes online, Price said, it takes on a new dimension that is difficult for victims to escape.
Even within the confines of their home, they can effectively come face-to-face with their tormenters whenever they log onto Facebook or check their email.
"It comes home with you, it takes away your privilege of being able to go home and be safe," Price said. "We all deserve to be safe, when we're at school and when we're at home, and now with the creation of cyber-bullying,a kid is not safe when they go home. He goes home or she goes home and experiences the exact same thing they're experiencing at school."
For that reason, he said some of the students he encounters at anti-bullying events would rather be physically assaulted than cyber-bullied.
CTV Legal Analyst Steven Skurka said Todd's tormenters -- and anyone who harasses a victim whether in person or online -- can quickly cross from childish, schoolyard shenanigans into criminal territory.
He said there's a widespread belief that bullying isn't illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada. That view is a "myth," Skurka told CTVNews.ca.
"It makes no difference if the bullying takes place in person or online …Bullies must understand that they will be held accountable for their egregious conduct and may face serious criminal prosecutions."
Skurka said Todd's alleged tormenters, if caught, could face a number of serious criminal charges.
In the heartbreaking video posted online, Todd described how she was beaten up in front of her school. Afterwards, Todd said, she crawled into a ditch and waited for her father to pick her up.
If this is true, Skurka said, assault charges would be warranted against those who carried out the attack.
Todd also said her topless photo was sent to her friends on Facebook, and then made further rounds on the Internet,where it was seen by thousands of people. Skurka said anyone involved with distributing that picture could faces charges for distributing child pornography.
In addition, anyone whose actions caused Todd to "reasonably fear for her safety" could face harassment charges, Skurka explained.
"And she had every reason to fear for her safety because she was beaten up...And anyone engaged in that behaviour is looking at a very serious criminal charge;it's also known as the stalking provision and it covers cyber-bullying," he told CTV’s Canada AM.
Skurka also said prosecutors in the Amanda Todd case could press charges under the criminal defamation provision of the Criminal Code of Canada.
"That would be to publish something -- including online -- that would likely damage someone's reputation, exposing them to hatred, contempt or ridicule. And all those factors seem to apply in (Todd's) case."
Price agreed that legal action should be taken against those who carry out harassment or violence against their victims, whether it happens online, in a school hallway, on the street or even viatext message.
But Price’s hope is that so-called bullies can be reached before they get to that point, through events like his Pink Shirt Day, school presentations and conversations between teachers, parents, and children about the realities of bullying.
"I don't think throwing bullies in jail is going to help our problem," he said. "For me, I think we need to educate these bullies, show them what they're doing wrong. Do I think some kind of punishment is needed? Absolutely. I do think the Todd family deserves closure after these bullies bullied their daughter to death. I think there needs to be something.
“Am I the person to decide what that is? No."