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Cyberbullying and Online Sexual Exploitation in the Lives of Girls and Young Women Workshop Overview


Federal-Provincial-Territorial Status of Women officials collaborated to organize a one-day workshop in October 2013 on cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation in the lives of girls and young women. This is an emerging issue and a priority for multiple jurisdictions. The main purpose of the workshop was to enhance understanding and knowledge of the issue as it relates to both self-exposure and exploitation by peers, and to discuss promising responses. Attendees included government officials, academics, non-governmental organizations, young people, law enforcement, and school representatives.

A wide array of presenters shared their expertise throughout the day. Presenters included national and local organizations, academic experts, a youth panel as well as government officials from across the country. Topics ranged from privacy and diversity considerations, to prevention and intervention initiatives from various sectors, to youth perspectives on the issues.

Key Insights:

Some forms of cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation are gender-based violence.

  • Sixty-seven percent of police-reported cases of intimidation on the Internet are from women and young girls.Footnote 1
  • In cases of child luring on the Internet, about 9 in 10 (90%) of victims are girls.Footnote 2
  • Girls report being victimized by cyberbullying more often than boys in grades 6 to 9, and rates of reported electronic bullying remained fairly consistent across grades for girls.Footnote 3
  • Researchers from Ontario's The eGirls Project, which is investigating the relationship between gender, privacy and equality in online social networking, highlighted that girls or young women are more likely to experience negative reactions from peers if an intimate picture of themselves is sent to others than if an image of a boy or young man is viewed by others.
  • A presenter from the Department of Psychology at Queen's University introduced emerging evidence that links cyberbullying to an increased risk of suicide and mental health problems, and that girls are more at risk of internalized responses (e.g., depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal).

Cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation, particularly sexting, is increasing as children and youth rely more on technology.

  • The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a registered charity providing programs and services to reduce child victimization and enhance the personal safety of children, started receiving reports from youth related to sexting in 2005 and has seen a dramatic increase in reporting in recent years.
  • The Ontario Provincial Police shared that their Child Sexual Exploitation Unit recorded 233 cases of sexting in 2012, but that this very likely is an underestimate as many instances are never reported to police.
    • Current laws related to self/peer exploitation only apply to individuals who are over 15 years old and are directed at adults victimizing children, which limits legislative and enforcement responses to sexting.

Considerations for addressing the issues:

  • A common definition and criteria for identifying cyberbullying does not currently exist, and would be useful in order to provide effective supports.
  • New technology facilitates different ways of engaging in bullying and being victimized, but core bullying behaviours are not new. The role and influence of both social norms and social media must be addressed in the context of unequal relationships between genders.
  • The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada emphasized that the issue of privacy is important, as well as the protection of children's rights.
    • Contrary to popular belief, young people seem to have a highly developed notion of privacy. The issue may be more about equipping youth to accurately assess the risks associated with their actions.
  • Many presenters underlined the importance of being inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, and cultural backgrounds (including considerations for Aboriginal people, immigrant and refugee populations, etc.) to account for the different experiences of diverse groups.

Effective approaches to prevent and respond to cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation involve multi-faceted and multi-sectoral efforts.

Presenters outlined the following approaches to be used concurrently:

  • School-based programs for youth aged 12-14 (a key age for discussing healthy relationships) and programs on these issues throughout high school.
  • Educating teachers/schools and parents, with an emphasis on building healthy relationships and good communication between youth and adults, instead of zero tolerance (suspensions and punishments) and surveillance methods.
  • Youth engagement in the development of resources and programming, and raising awareness by incorporating young women trainers and role models to inspire other girls and young women.
  • Engagement of partners through forums like interdepartmental working committees, community models with key stakeholders, etc.
  • A comprehensive solution that requires not only effective legislation and law enforcement, but also research, community-based programming, etc.
  • Work with website/social network engineers to enhance their understanding of the issues, with an emphasis on gender-based online violence, and to explore ways to ensure safe spaces in social media forums.
  • Further research will help us understand the issues, and to identify evidence-based programs and potential legislative changes for preventing cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation.

Seeking youth input is an essential piece of the puzzle in understanding and addressing the issues.

The Youth Panel also highlighted the following:

  • Cyberbullying is a real form of gender-based violence and abuse, and needs to be named and recognized that way.
  • Mandated early education of children about respect and compassion is essential.
  • Trusted adult allies to youth, in particular parents/guardians, are key to prevention and intervention.

Youth need to be provided with the right to express their sexuality. Given that the Internet is a part of today's culture, particularly among youth, it is important to promote healthy ways to engage online.

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