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ChangeMaker: The Downside of Criminalizing Cyberbullying

It is widely believed Albertan Bill Belsey first coined the term "cyberbullying," a fusion of Sci-Fi writer William Gibson's word "cyberspace" and the offline term "bullying. We spoke to him about the biggest bullying myths, the best intervention strategies, the downside to proposed legislation that would criminalize cyberbullying.

Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to not-so-ordinary Canadians who are making a difference.

Bill Belsey built an anti-bullying domain that became an empire.

It is widely believed Albertan Bill Belsey first coined the term "cyberbullying," a fusion of Sci-Fi writer William Gibson's word "cyberspace" and the offline term "bullying." The word was born of necessity. Shortly after Belsey founded the website in 2000, kids from all over the world began posting stories about their online aggressors, "long before Born This Way or It Gets Better," before there was much of anything about bullying online.

Soon after, Belsey launched Canada's National Bullying Awareness Week, which marks its tenth year this week. And as a father of two teenagers with over 20 years of teaching experience, we can't think of a better authority on anti-bullying activism.

He has to pause our phone call a few times to get his classroom settled, but has some time over his lunch break at Spring Bank Middle School in Alberta, near Calgary, where he teaches Grades 5 to 8.

We spoke to Belsey about the biggest bullying myths, the best intervention strategies, the downside to proposed legislation that would criminalize cyberbullying, and what adults should never do when they want to know "what really happened" in the schoolyard.

Bill Belsey is a changemaker.

How did you first get involved in the issue of bullying?

It was not long after the school shooting in Taber, Alberta [at W.R. Myers High School in 1999], a peaceful little farming community not far from where we live. I have a daughter and a son and I care for kids very much. I was very upset. Then stories came out about the shooter -- not to excuse the shooting in any way -- but he had been bullied for many years. I thought "what can I do?" I'm not a psychologist; I'm not a PhD or an academic. But I have been involved in technology for many years and I do work with kids. I thought I could build a website where kids could come and learn that they're not alone in bullying, to have them understand that it's not their fault.

I just wanted to help even one kid overcome bullying. Last year had over 10 million viewers to the site. If you Google it, it's now one of the leading websites on bullying in the world.

Why do kids bully? And why does it seem to happen most among teens?

Bullying reaches its peak in middle school years and in early high school. Of all the things we do as humans, relationships are the most complex things that we navigate. When you're a teen, confusion reigns when it comes to relationships. You're seeking autonomy. You're still physically -- in terms of brain development and in so many areas -- so immature. Our brains don't fully form until our early 20s in many cases. So it's not surprising that many teens and tweens will make inappropriate decisions when it comes to relationships.

Bullying is a very sensitive social issue right now. What's the biggest misconception currently spreading?

There are a bunch. One is that bullying is this uncontrollable plague that is going through the roof. But actually research is showing that bullying is slowly -- and I say slowly -- on the decline.

[There are] myths like just hit them back, talk about retribution. You can't bully a bully into not being a bully. [That's why] the idea of zero tolerance needs to be examined. In many cases, in schools, [zero tolerance] means you bully and you're out [the bully is expelled from school]. Well...out where? What does that change? It changes nothing.

What we have to do, in schools anyway, is train teachers to deal with it. That's so important because when folks like me visit schools and say [to students] "Please tell an adult you know and trust [if you're being bullied]," well, if the adults haven't been trained, they can make the situation worse.

How do you train the adults? What, ideally, should adults do when a child comes to them and says they've been bullied?

First, for parents, they need to be calm. As a parent, that's easy to say but really hard to do. When you find out your kid is being bullied, your panic button is going off. So, often parents try to bully the school into helping their kid. That's ridiculous. We don't want our kids to have that behaviour and yet that's the behaviour we're displaying sometimes.

In terms of teachers, I'll tell you the don'ts: You don't want to have the bully and victim in the same room and say "what really happened?" Because you won't find out what really happened. When you put the bully and victim in the same room together, you've essentially taken away what little power the victim had left and given more power to the aggressor because now they know who ratted on them.

What does a successful bullying intervention strategy look like?

It's complex and layered. Number one: we need to ensure the safety of the child being victimized. Some parents feel their kids need to leave their classroom, school or even go to a different community. That's not right. It's paramount to ensure their safety. Second, we need to have consequences for bullies, but they need to be formative consequences; consequences that teach. Have the patience to work with those kids to achieve power and control in their lives without hurting others. Bullying is a learned behaviour.

In a school environment, leadership is absolutely critical. The principal needs to understand this and not simply suspend the kid [bully]. In some cases that has the reverse effect, as in, [peers say] 'oh that kid's cool, they got suspended -- they don't have to do any work!' In middle school, this can be seen as a positive thing.

The third piece, what often gets forgotten because we're looking for blame and retribution, is that we need to involve the peer group. Most bullying happens when peers are together and adults aren't around. So kids need to be involved in solutions. There's nothing like when older kids present to younger kids. So I created the Peer Power Presentation.

This year we have so many [requests], so it's free to download for kids who want to make a difference. It's filled with stories, poems, drawings, all done by kids around the world.

What do you think of proposed anti-bullying legislation? Should bullying or cyberbullying be a crime?

I was asked to speak to the Canadian Human Rights Commission last year, on Parliament Hill [in Ottawa], I was speaking before the Senate Human Rights Commission and there was a sub-committee on bullying.

I said cyberbullying is an act of passion. Kids are living in the moment and [the moment] is where their brains are at in terms of psychosocial development. And they're using synchronous technology that's also of the moment. It's no wonder that really good kids might say things online that they would never do in real life.

Do you think that a 15-year-old girl who was jilted by her boyfriend and is really mad at some other girl, do you think she is going to go, "Wait a minute, maybe I better not send a threatening text because there's bill C-247 in Ottawa?" I think not. Legislation makes adults feel good.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit or follow

Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger

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