Report

A social problem, not a technological problem: bullying, cyberbullying and public policy

1 Aug 2014
Description

Outlines the scope of the cyberbullying problem, the conceptual framework within it must be understood, and develops principles by which policymakers can address the cyberbullying problem.

Introduction

Bullying among children is a significant and serious issue. In recent years, the phenomenon described as “cyberbullying” has received a large amount of social, political, and academic attention.

The Commonwealth government has announced that it is seeking legislative change to deal with cyberbullying. The government plans to institute a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner with power to takedown harmful content directed at children from the social media sites.

The Children’s e-Safety Commissioner is a serious threat to freedom of speech.

The purpose of this paper is to outline the scope of the cyberbullying problem, the conceptual framework within it must be understood, and develop principles by which policymakers can address the cyberbullying problem. Without understanding the cyberbullying phenomenon it is impossible to devise effective policy that will not have unintended consequences and threaten basic liberties like freedom of speech. Unfortunately it is not clear that the government has clearly understood the causes, consequences, and characteristics of cyberbullying.

This paper argues that cyberbullying is a subset of bullying. It is bullying by electronic means. It is not a problem of a different kind from bullying in an offline environment.

Cyberbullying is a social problem, not a technological one.

There are a number of possible responses to bullying. Traditional bullying (of the offline kind) has been dealt with through various prevention programs, mostly run directly through schools.

Furthermore, many existing legislative controls are readily available to individuals who feel they are being unlawfully cyberbullied. Australians are already protected from bullying and bullying-like behaviour through threats of violence and stalking offences, defamation and privacy law, and a host of laws directed at offensive and harassing conduct. Unfortunately these existing remedies are poorly understood by the community–and, it appears, policymakers.

The Commonwealth government’s proposed e-Safety commissioner will add little protection to victims of bullying. Furthermore, it poses a serious threat to freedom of speech and digital liberties.

Parts of this paper are drawn from the Institute of Public Affairs’ submission to the Department of Communications 2014 inquiry Into the ‘Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children’, the article ‘The Cyberbullying Moral Panic’, published in the April 2014 edition of the IPA Review, and ‘Combatting the cyberbully myth’ published in the Sunday Age on 23 March 2014.

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2014
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