Girls Online: Policy Discourses in Various Jurisdictions

What are policymakers saying about girls and technology in Canada, the US, the UK, the EU, Australia and New Zealand?

Between 2011 and 2013, the eGirls Project asked student researchers from the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law to look into how legislators and policymakers talk about girls online in various jurisdictions. What are perceived to be the main issues concerning girls online? What solutions are proposed? What’s missing from the debate?

The policy review papers below are not intended to be exhaustive. They reflect the unique approaches of their student authors, and are intended merely to provide examples of current trends. Read together, they highlight some of the similarities and differences between jurisdictions.

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Canada Federal

Research and paper, March 2012, by Hannah Draper.
Canada Federal Word Cloud

Hannah Draper‘s original review of Canadian policy discussion (1994-2011) was the inspiration for exploring policymaking discourse in other jurisdictions. If anything, in the brief time since its publication, Canadian parliamentary attention to children’s use of technology has increased. Topics like cyberbullying, now trending in mainstream consciousness, and new perceived threats, like sexting and sexploitation, have come to the fore since 2011. Hannah’s original review nevertheless traces an historical journey from the early euphoria about the economic and liberating potential of the information superhighway, through the emergence of concerns about the “dangers” of new technology (including exposure to violence, luring, sexual exploitation and child pornography), discussions about online hate and freedom of speech. In the early 2000s, the age of consent was was hotly debated, and beginning in 2005, exposure to sexualized content, children’s privacy rights, cyberbullying and ISP liability emerged as common topics for discussion.

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Canadian Provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia)

Research and paper by Claire Feltrin.
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In the last five years, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia have focused especially on cyberbullying. The attention of the provinces to this issue was at least partly due to some high-profile youth suicides in which cyberbullying was said to be a factor. Gender-specific language and discussions, although rare, do arise in the context of cyberbullying debates and there seems to be growing recognition of gender-specific consequences. The realm of education was the preferred sphere for confronting cyberbullying, however, there have been some hints of expanding responsibility of actors outside the education system, to include Internet service providers and cellular phone companies.

The Nova Scotia government has been the most active in studying and responding to cyberbullying, having launched a Report that is referred to regularly by youth advocates, anti-bullying activists, and the Federal government, including the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights. Since this paper was written, Nova Scotia has become the first Canadian government to enact controversial legislation effectively criminalizing cyberbullying (Cyber-safety Act, became law on August 7, 2013).

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United States

Research and paper, May 2013, by Jill Lewis.

 US Word Cloud

In the United States, a number of laws have been passed federally and at the state level, relating to youth and technology. A far greater number of laws have been proposed and discussed without ultimately being passed into law. With regard to girls specifically, a prominent theme is the underrepresentation of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (called STEM). Children’s privacy (including protection from targeted marketing and sexually explicit content), cyberbullying and sexting are also common targets for proposed legislation. Discussions about cyber safety tend to focus on the importance of education – primarily for parents and community. Less discussed policy issues include the media sexualization of women, luring and child pornography. These issues seem to have been trumped by trending issues such as cyberbullying and girls’ and women’s STEM engagement.

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United Kingdom

Research and paper by Nerissa Yan.
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Between 2007 and 2012, there were several waves of British parliamentary discussion about the use of online and mobile technology by children and young people. Discussions about cyberbullying, sexting and child sexual exploitation have focused heavily on “cyber safety”, reducing symptoms and filtering content, rather than addressing underlying issues. While some policy issues (including sexting) were recognized as tending to affect girls more than boys, there has been very little discussion about the deeper issue of gender inequality. At the same time, British policy and lawmakers only briefly mentioned the economic benefits of online and mobile technologies.

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Australia & New Zealand

Research and paper, May 2013, by Suzie Dunn.
Aus & NZ Word Cloud 2

In Australia and New Zealand, legislators have discussed the impact of technology on children at great lengths. Legislators viewed technology as both an asset and a detriment to children. It was regarded as contributing to comprehensive education (especially in rural communities), training children to become successful participants in the economy, and facilitating communication. Conversely, technology was viewed as a tool for sexual predators to access child victims, as a tool for destructive behaviour, especially in relation to cyberbullying, and it was condemned for exposing children to inappropriate violent and sexual content. In general, New Zealand legislators were more focused on technology in education, while Australian legislators discussed a broader range of evils associated with the Internet. Legislators generally opted to use gender-neutral language in discussions about child pornography, luring/grooming, and child sexual exploitation. Girls were referred to specifically in discussions about media sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexting. When girls were mentioned, they were generally seen as victimized by technology rather than empowered by it.

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European Union

Research and paper, August 2013, by Julia Williams.
EU Word Cloud
In the European Union discourse about children and digital technology, the focus is predominantly on increasing opportunities and mitigating risks. The success of Europe’s digital economy, and the ability of European children to compete in future, is seen to depend on successfully raising a digitally skilled workforce. Meanwhile, children are perceived to be at risk mentally, physically and emotionally, from online dangers like grooming, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment, as well as exposure to pornography, violent content and terrorist propaganda. At the same time, the European Parliament has expressly recognized the potential of the internet and social media in general as instruments for positive political change globally. Perhaps more than in other jurisdictions, gender inequality is recognized as contributing to enhanced risks for girls, especially in discussions related to cyberbullying, sexual harassment and media sexualization. It remains to be seen whether these issues will attract further gender-based analysis and whether the goal of balancing opportunity and risk can be realized.

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