By the spring of 2013, the tragic deaths of four young Canadian girls over the previous three years – Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Jenna Bowers‑Bryanton, and Kimberly Proctor – had thrust the realities of online harm and violence into our consciousness. Their lives were all cut short, in part due to a common threat: technology and social media.
The public outcry over these deaths lead to a series of emergency meetings in Winnipeg between then‑prime minister Stephen Harper, the families of these poor girls, and my organization, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
I remember those meetings still. There was a real sense of urgency and purpose in the room. We were optimistic we could fix the problems putting our kids in harm’s way on the internet.
“As a society, we have to do everything we can to ensure that the kind of events that befell these beautiful young girls do not befall other of our beautiful children in the future,” Mr. Harper told the press during the event in 2013.
Late last week, an immense sense of relief washed over me when I learned that the Dutch man who tormented 15‑year‑old Amanda Todd, who later took her own life, was found guilty of extortion, harassment, communication with a young person to commit a sexual offence and possession and distribution of child pornography in B.C.’s Supreme Court. It took 10 long years, untold resources, and a concerted commitment by law enforcement and justice officials, but her aggressor was finally brought to justice.
Still, in my short conversation with Amanda’s mother Carol last week, it’s clear she is not letting her guard down. If anything, she is doubling down on the need to do more.
That’s because she knows what my organization knows: as we speak, there are many more Canadian kids fighting silently, often in plain sight of us, against online tormenters. There are far more than the public or parents imagine.
Crime statistics released by Canadian police, self‑reported victimization, and the deluge of young Canadians we’ve seen come to our organization for help are symptoms of a public safety emergency unfolding in front of us. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, given that social‑media networks that didn’t even exist in 2013 have become unimaginably pervasive among our vulnerable youths.
Today’s sextortion crisis – which is increasingly targeting Canadian boys – was explicitly foreshadowed by the story of Amanda Todd a decade earlier. And yet, despite the few measures that eventually emerged from those meetings in 2013 – such as the creation of a new criminal offence for the non‑consensual distribution of intimate images – nothing has changed to proactively address the source of the harm: the digital spaces that give anonymous offenders direct, 24/7 access to our children.
The hundreds of reports we’ve received from the public this year alone suggests offenders are taking advantage of our laxity around these platforms, targeting children largely on Instagram and Snapchat – applications that virtually all school-aged kids interact with daily.
Just few a months ago, Daniel Lints, a warm and loving 17‑year‑old boy from the small town of Pilot Mound, Man., died by suicide after being blackmailed online by an anonymous person threatening to distribute intimate images of him to his friends and family. “I feel like he was murdered,” his father, in tears, told the Canadian Press.
Unlike in all other industries in this country, our laws impose virtually no product safety standards on social media platforms. There are no recalls if the design characteristic of a platform or a website is shown to harm our children or, at the very least, pose a risk. Instead, even as the reports of online harm continue to pour in, the discourse is overwhelmingly focused on what parents should do to protect their kids, as though the harm is inevitable. Few are seeking accountability from those at the helm of these apps that allow for such predation and harm.
The truth is that we are all complicit in accepting a status quo where technology companies are free to colonize our digital lives without oversight – even if it puts our children at risk.
We must take urgent action and demand online guardrails to keep our children safe. If nothing else, we owe it to those four girls who put Canadians on notice a decade ago.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on August 17, 2022.