Online Harms Act too long in the making

  • March 14, 2024

Give your children L-O-V-E

It’s legislation long overdue. The introduction of Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act, is badly needed protection for the vulnerable — particularly children and youth — against traumas arising from an unsafe and unregulated digital world.

The proposed act identifies seven categories of harmful content, three of which directly relate to children. These include content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor, bullies a child and induces a child to harm themselves.

“For too long, we have tolerated a system where online platforms have offloaded their responsibilities onto parents, expecting them to protect their kids from harms that platforms create or amplify,” says a Feb. 26 federal government news release announcing the bill.

Online platforms such as Facebook and Twitch are mandated to implement, and report on, a wide range of safeguards — including labelling, blocking, flagging, removing content that sexualizes children and victims of sexual violence, and installing defaults for parental controls — or risk strict penalties.

The government also plans to amend an act respecting the mandatory reporting of Internet child pornography by persons who provide an Internet service to improve the reporting of online child pornography offences and ensure that “Internet services” include social media and other types of platforms in the definition of “Internet services.”

This legislation comes at a time when the online world has become increasingly dangerous for children. Children fall victim to sexual exploitation in several ways. Cybertip.ca, Canada’s tipline for reporting the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, lists methods predators use to manipulate children. Some of these include pretending to be an agemate, using flattery and promises of gifts, exchanging sexual photos and blackmailing the child with photos or videos taken by predators.

The Canadian government’s website Online Child Sexual Exploitation paints a grim picture of the situation in this country: 4.3 million online child exploitation cases were reported from 2014 to 2020; there has been an 88-per-cent increase in sextortion cases since 2020; and 39 per cent of luring attempts in the last two years involved victims aged 13 years and under.

The consequences of sextortion and sexual exploitation are devastating. Witness the case of British Columbia teen Amanda Todd, who exposed herself online when she was 11 years old. For years afterward, a Dutch man named Aydin Coban relentlessly pursued her, distributing the photo he took of Amanda to her classmates as he continually tried to blackmail her into doing more. Gripped by severe anxiety and depression, Amanda hung herself when she was 15 years old.

Bill C-63 also protects children against cyberbullying, which occurs when the perpetrator harasses, embarrasses, stalks, threatens or targets their victim through a variety of electronic devices. There can be serious, severe consequences for victims: eating disorders; isolation; low self-esteem; school failure and absenteeism; depression; anxiety; poor concentration; and suicide.

In a recent survey of 1,002 girls and young women across Canada, Plan International Canada found six out of 10 girls have experienced online harassment and abuse. It typically begins around the age of eight and is at its worst between the ages of 14 and 16. The most common types of abuse reported are: “abusive and insulting language (72 per cent), purposeful embarrassment (64 per cent), body shaming (61 per cent), sexual harassment (55 per cent) and stalking (51 per cent),” says the survey.

Another devastating online danger is postings enticing children to harm themselves. These are typically done through so-called “challenges” featured mainly on TikTok daring children and young people to perform life-threatening stunts, eat poisonous substances, choke themselves or one another, go missing for days on end, among many other activities.

The Online Harms Act will hopefully protect children and youth from all these dangers, but we cannot stop there. We need to continue to hold owners of online platforms accountable for what gets posted and distributed. Individuals, watchdog groups and law enforcement officials must be vigilant in monitoring the digital world and acting when victimization occurs.

Parents, caregivers and others closest to children and youth have a special responsibility to monitor what sites children are participating in. A Public Safety Canada website on cyberbullying puts forth “L-O-V-E” advice for parents: Listen to your child; Offer support and advocacy; Validate your child’s feelings; and Explore resources together.

Better yet, let’s try to wean our children and youth off the Internet. Let’s encourage them to spend their time investing in church, school, hobbies, athletics, face-to-face friendships and other activities in which they can grow in healthy, happy, safe ways.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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