“Responsible but Powerless”: Discussion (and some fallacies) about Parents in the Senate Committee Study, Cyberbullying in Canada

By Miriam Martin

When it comes to discussion about cyberbullying, experts attribute responsibility to a range of groups and issues. One group that takes a lot of flak is parents. At best, the story goes, we’re naïve, incapable of understanding our children’s Internet use, and not responding with enough urgency. At worst, we are responsible for our children’s bullying behaviour or victimhood, even the cause of the problem.

In their 2012 study, Cyberbullying in Canada, the Senate Committee on Human Rights heard from numerous witnesses about the shortcomings of parents. Witnesses consistently recommended parent education – primarily about the Internet and cyberbullying. A few witnesses alluded to the fact that parents need support to parent well, but this support was largely framed in narrow terms of bullying education. There was virtually no mention of systemic barriers that may exacerbate the challenges of parenting, or broader social and economic pressures that get in the way of kids’ positive and healthy digital citizenship.

What follows are some of the themes that emerged in the Senate Committee discussion about the role of parents in cyberbullying. I question the usefulness of framing parents as inept, and wonder whether focus is being shifted away from broader systemic issues in favour of a tidier dichotomy of “good” and “bad” parents to parallel bullying rhetoric about protecting the “good” kids and punishing the “bad”.

Fallacy 1: Parents are naïve and behind-the-times with respect to technology.

A common theme in the Senate hearings was that parents, as digital non-natives1 (which isn’t really fair to assume), are not only falling behind their kids, but hopelessly so. According to David Birnbaum of the Québec English School Boards Association, “parents do not understand, to the same extent their kids do, how these technologies work. They do not understand them either as a threat or as an opportunity.”2 Wayne MacKay, author of the Nova Scotia Taskforce’s report clarifies, “it is not that parents do not care […] but they often feel they do not know what to do. As you say, they do not know about cyberbullying and they do not know about the Internet.”3 Meanwhile, it is assumed that if parents did understand the “dangers” that lurk online, and the seriousness of cyberbullying, they would be responding differently.

Fallacy 2: Parents don’t take bullying or cyberbullying seriously.

There isn’t anything close to a consensus on how parents would (or should) respond differently, if they were better informed about cyberbullying, but those most strongly toeing the “parents are tech-illiterate” line often assume that they would be more strictly monitoring, controlling and ultimately limiting their children’s online activity, and/or reporting bullying incidents to school authorities and police.

It should not be taken for granted, however, that more parental monitoring and control would effectively curb online bullying behaviour. In fact, many academics and young anti-bullying activists argued that prohibition and too much micromanaging can backfire. (Valerie Steeves and Media Smarts agree.) The students in Bill Belsey’s eighth grade class at Springbank Middle School agreed with Stan Davis from Stop Bullying Now4 and the Nova Scotia Taskforce5, that youth don’t report cyberbullying incidents because they are afraid of losing their cell phones or social media access. According to several witnesses (including Jennifer Shapka,6 Faye Mishna,7 and Springbank student Mariel Calvo8), parents should focus instead on maintaining open and honest relationships with our kids.

Fallacy 3: Parents need education so that they can educate their kids about cyberbullying.

Other witnesses to the Senate committee focused less on the disciplinary role of parents, and more on the need for parents to educate their children about how to use the Internet safely. But the alleged “digital divide” between parents and kids9 crept into these arguments too: if parents just don’t get it (evidenced by the fact that they’re not responding properly,) how can they educate their kids? If only parents understood just how dangerous the Internet is, they could give their kids some computer equivalent of driver’s ed. “[W]e would not think of having students drive cars without some kind of training,” argues MacKay,10 “but we give them a computer and say ‘go’. We do nothing about some of the risks, dangers and appropriate use of that powerful instrument.”

Sympathy was widespread for parents who “have this extraordinarily difficult pathway to negotiate” but who are both oblivious and ill-equipped to support their kids.11 The take-away message from the hearings seems to be that education is both crucial and an almost insurmountable challenge:

What do we do? Youth, parents, teachers and significant adults in the lives of children need education to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and we must provide opportunities to ensure that youth develop safe and responsible online practices and behaviours.”12

It is possible however, that maintaining healthy interpersonal relations (on or offline) is more complex than driving a car, and that parents are concerned, informed and responding – just not the way law enforcement and companies selling web-monitoring programs might hope or expect.

Fallacy 4: Bullies have bad parents.

In addition to not keeping up with the pace of technology, not taking bullying or cyberbullying seriously, and not responding with enough urgency, parents are criticized for being part of the problem, even the cause of the problem. It’s not unreasonable to say that parents play a key role in shaping their children’s success at cyber (or real-world) citizenship. But if we are going to say parents are “probably […] the biggest challenge” (as US cyberbullying researcher Justin Patchin13 did), then we had better be very clear about what the barriers are, and how we intend to address them.

Aside from appeals for parent education and (often conflicting) prescriptions for how parents should be responding to cyberbullying, there wasn’t much in the Senate committee discussion for a parent to walk away with, except perhaps shame and hopelessness. Marvin Bernstein of UNICEF said we must “remain vigilant”;14 MacKay suggested parents may be “overstating the difficulty”15; how hard can it be to just teach our kids to be good people? Shapka16 said we are getting the wrong messages; and Patchin said that while most of us are good parents, “2 per cent or 5 per cent” of us are just plain bad, and that’s “where we tend to see the problems”.17 While the messages are mixed and confusing, there’s one that comes across loud and clear: whether your kid’s a bully or a victim, it’s probably your fault.

What about this “bad parenting” argument?

“Oftentimes,” explained Bernstein, “the victims of physical punishment, those who are being abused or neglected within their own homes, become the very students who are engaging in bullying behaviour.”18 While there may be some truth to this, it’s not the whole picture. Stan Davis highlighted that children who are online or real world bullies one day, may be victims or witnesses the next.19 The Internet and social media are blurring the lines between who’s a likely bully and who’s a likely victim. Power dynamics can be different online, retaliation comes cheap, and “role-switching” (as it’s called in the Senate Committee Report) is more common in cyberspace.

Davis points out, “if we start using the nouns to label – […] cyberbullies do this, bullies do this or victims do this – kids become either stigmatized or let themselves off the hook.”20 I suspect the same can be said for parents. As true as it may be in a given home environment, calling a parent “bad” isn’t going to be much help. Meanwhile, those of us who are pretty sure we’re “good” parents might keep right on thinking that bullying is something that only affects “those people over there”; somehow our kids are immune. Evidence and experience suggest it’s not so simple – kids that society would otherwise consider to be good kids, with good parents, are both bullied and bullying online.

So, why are parents falling short? I can think of lots of reasons. If bullying prevention depends on fostering open and honest relationships between kids and adults (per Shapka), and creating climates of mutual respect in which cruelty and bigotry are not tolerated, (which I believe it does,) then the barriers seem obvious to me. On one hand, parents (and other adults) are operating in the same social context as their children, generally doing the best they can with the tools they have. We are all under cultural (including religious and familial) pressure to approach discipline, conflict and cultural diversity in ways that may or may not actually be the best way to prevent and combat bullying. Adults and children alike are obviously not immune to the discriminatory tropes that underlie much of bullying, and adults in particular should be aware of how easy it is to pass their prejudices on to kids, consciously or otherwise.

There was general agreement in the Senate Committee that “we have to do more, as a society, to support parents in their parental role” (New Brunswick’s Acting Child and Youth Advocate, Christian Whalen21); “there is a need for tremendous support and guidance for parents” (Davis22). Suggestions for what this support might look like however, were limited to public awareness campaigns and cyberbullying courses (which, according to one presenter,23 parents don’t bother to attend, because they don’t understand how important it is …). But I think the support that parents need goes beyond this.

Too little was said about the tremendous material and economic barriers that prevent many parents from having the time and information to “parent well”. Parenting well means different things to different people, but whatever it means, it takes time, information and confidence. Witnesses to the Senate Committee have suggested that “good” parenting requires fostering open and honest relationships, creating climates of mutual respect, and being educated about issues like bullying and cyberbullying. The reality for many parents is that they are increasingly working long hours outside the home, struggling to make ends meet,24 and under tremendous pressure just to provide the necessities of life for their kids. If parents aren’t attending courses about cyberbullying until their own kids are involved, it’s not because they don’t care; it’s because they’re prioritizing.

Does parent-shaming obfuscate the real issues?

I have serious doubts about the usefulness of emphasizing the role of individual “good” or “bad” parents, in a discussion that seems to ignore real concrete challenges parents face, especially if they are also, as Shapka would argue, getting all the wrong messages about how to protect their kids. In my last several months pouring over parliamentary debate about cyberbullying, I’ve been just as struck by what’s left unsaid, as I am by what’s said. Overwhelmingly, what’s missing from the discussion is serious acknowledgment of the broad social (including economic) inequalities that underlie bullying. Jane Bailey has focused on discriminatory tropes – the sexism, racism and homophobia that permeate corporate and media messaging. Would it be any wonder if girls are maladjusted and uncomfortable in their own bodies; society tells them every day that they should be!

It may be easier for policymakers to think they are addressing a problem if it’s a simple matter of legislating punishment for bad kids and education for bad parents. But it strikes me that this is a distraction from important underlying social barriers and inequalities. Meanwhile, messaging which simultaneously blames and disempowers parents serves only to instill a sense of hopelessness, sending the message that this isn’t a problem that can really be solved.

1 “Youth are digital natives. They have never experienced a world without technology. Adults are immigrants; it is very new for us. Ninety-eight per cent of Canadian youth use communication technology daily. They acquire technological competence much faster than their parents and they know much more.” Faye Mishna, Dean and Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (University of Toronto) witness: Senate, Standing Committee on Human Rights, Evidence, 41st Parl, 1st Sess [Senate Committee debate], Issue 11 (30 April 2012).

2 “Our parents do not understand, to the same extent their kids do, how these technologies work. They do not understand them either as a threat or as an opportunity. They do not know how to talk to their kids about it. […] They understand this stuff better than we do, and if we are going to work with them and guide them, we will have to understand it just as well.” David Birnbaum, Executive Director (Quebec English School Boards Association), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 13 (14 May 2012).

3 A Wayne MacKay (Professor and Associate Dean of Research, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

4 “the reason that children often do not go to their parents for help is out of their fear that they will have their cell phone taken way, their Facebook account cancelled or something else. To them, it means they are out of touch with the world and it feels almost like a death to lose that.” Stan Davis, Co-researcher, Youth Voice Project (Stop Bullying Now), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 am).

5 “The other key piece of information we got from them, interestingly enough, was that the reason they did not report many incidents is because they were scared of losing their technology or the parents shutting down the Facebook page.” Rola AbiHanna, Guidance Consultant, Student Services Division (Nova Scotia Department of Education), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 pm).

6 “Indeed, work that we have done has shown that the more parents try to control their children’s online activities, the more likely their children are to report engaging in risk behaviours such as cyberbullying. In contrast, if parents have an open and honest relationship with their children such that their children feel comfortable disclosing the things that are happening to them online, reports of online bullying are significantly reduced.” Jennifer Shapka, Associate Professor, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education (University of British Columbia), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 13 (14 May 2012).

7 “critically, parents must absolutely maintain open lines of communication. […] “Adults must become safe havens for youth.” Faye Mishna, Dean and Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (University of Toronto) witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 11 (30 April 2012).

8 “I think parents should be aware, and they should know and should talk to their kids. […] It is the way we connect. If you cut those out, yes, you definitely would feel left out. […]I think it depends on your relationship with your parent. If you talk to your mom or dad a lot, then you can talk about this,” Mariel Calvo, Student (Springbank Middle School), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 14 (4 June 2012).

9 The term “digital divide” was used repeatedly. According to the Senate Committee Report, “the ‘digital divide’ means that parents do not understand the cyberbullying issue as well as their children. […] There are common misunderstandings that are created by the current digital divide between generations” (pp 65-66).

Valerie Steeves and Media Smarts have found in their research that it’s just as much a fallacy to imagine that kids are born with tech and media savvy, as it is to assume that parents are lacking.

10 A Wayne MacKay (Professor and Associate Dean of Research, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

11 Stan Davis, Co-researcher, Youth Voice Project (Stop Bullying Now), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 am).

12  Faye Mishna, Dean and Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (University of Toronto) witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 11 (30 April 2012).

13 Justin W. Patchin, Co-director, Cyberbullying Research Center (University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

14 “there needs to be some kind of campaign, some public awareness campaign so that parents are understanding that this is reaching a certain level of concern within the school system, and they should be attempting to remain vigilant and support their children.” Marvin Bernstein, Chief Advisor, Advocacy (UNICEF Canada), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 14 (4 June 2012).

15 “In some ways, probably parents and adults — I would be a good example — are overstating the difficulty. There are still basic things like respect, responsibility, and a sense of community and accountability.” A Wayne MacKay (Professor and Associate Dean of Research, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

16 “[… continued from note 6 above …] This pattern of findings is in direct contrast to the fear-based messages that parents are currently getting from popular media.” Jennifer Shapka, Associate Professor, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education (University of British Columbia), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 13 (14 May 2012).

17 “The vast majority of parents are decent or good parents, but the 2 per cent or 5 per cent who are not good or decent parents are where we tend to see the problems.” Justin W. Patchin, Co-director, Cyberbullying Research Center (University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

18 Marvin Bernstein, Chief Advisor, Advocacy (UNICEF Canada), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 14 (4 June 2012).

19 See note 20 below.

20 “We invented the term  “bullying ” because we thought it would help us understand the phenomenon. The difficulty is that along with the verb come all these nouns which are not helpful. We start labelling children as bullies, cyberbullies or victims, and I would like to plea that we avoid these words. One child may be mean towards someone at one point, have someone else be mean or be a witness at another point. However, I found if we start using the nouns to label — in other words, cyberbullies do this, bullies do this or victims do this — kids become either stigmatized or let themselves off the hook.” Stan Davis, Co-researcher, Youth Voice Project (Stop Bullying Now), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 am).

21 Christian Whalen, Acting Child and Youth Advocate, Office of the Ombudsman of New Brunswick (Canadian Council of Provincial Child and Youth Advocates), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 14 (4 June 2012).

22 Stan Davis, Co-researcher, Youth Voice Project (Stop Bullying Now), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 am).

23 “The problem we are wrestling with is how to legislate that. How do you force parents to learn it? I did over 50 school presentations last year, and I did parent presentations in most of them. On average, about 15 or 20 parents showed up for the meetings. You can get the schools involved and you can create opportunities for parents to learn about these technologies and the problems, but unless their child is experiencing something like this, often they do not show up.” Justin W. Patchin, Co-director, Cyberbullying Research Center (University of Wisconsin-Eau Clair), witness: Senate Committee debate, ibid, Issue 15 (11 June 2012 eve).

24 Stats Canada and the Vanier Institute’s “Current State of Canadian Family Finances” report are good places to find solid stats and trends with respect to work and income for Canadian families.

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