Chapter 3: Understanding Digital Citizenship

Jennifer Peters; Agnieszka Gorgon; Carmen Gelette; and Alana Otis


Freedom of speech, digital addiction, cyberbullying, and privacy violations are all issues we may face on a daily basis. Could your review turn into a defamation suit? Are your apps spying on you? Are your devices affecting your health and wellness? Do you know what it takes to conduct yourself in a safe and respectful way in your online world? Find answers to these questions along with others in this chapter.

Chapter Topics

  1. Introduction
  2. Social Media
  3. Privacy
  4. Security
  5. Defamation
  6. Harassment
  7. Health and Wellness


Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the benefits and risks related to conducting online transactions.
  • Select the appropriate tools, language, and behaviour to conduct positive online interaction and to avoid breaking federal and provincial laws.
  • Recognize behaviours to protect and promote your online identity and so you don’t compromise anyone else’s online identity or presence.
  • Predict the mental and physical consequences of overusing digital and online devices and services. Analyze your own use, recognize any negative patterns, and develop healthy online and digital habits.
  • Demonstrate ways to maintain privacy and security online.


In this chapter, we will look at some considerations you should make when using social media, and the impact social media use can have on relationships and job searching. We will review how to protect your online privacy, including security threats from spam, phishing, malware, and hacking, as well as looking at the tracking capabilities of different apps and websites. Our behaviour online can have serious real-world consequences, and so this chapter will provide you with an introduction to defamation, slander, and libel, as well as with ways to identify online harassment, including cyberbullying, and what you can do if you are a victim. Finally, we will look at how you can examine your own digital habits in order to improve your physical and mental health.

Social Media

Social media is defined as a group of online communities where people communicate and share information and content. Popular examples of social media sites include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp. According to a recent Angus Reid poll about 98% of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four use social media at least occasionally (Angus Reid Institute, 2016).

We will review some considerations you should make when using social media for personal, educational, and professional use.

Your Digital Footprint

The information you share online can last a long time and may be seen by thousands of people all around the world.

The video below is a TEDx Talk in which the presenter delivers a spoken-word piece titled “Digital Footprints.” The piece reflects on responsible use of social media and how decisions we make about the content we share online may have long-lasting consequences. The presenter, Michelle Clark, is a teacher and public speaker.

A transcript of the performance is available if you prefer to read the text rather than watch and listen to the video.


Activity 3.1

In this activity, you will learn more about what you should or shouldn’t post online.

Try the activity, Post It or Private: Should I Share This On Social Media?” 

A text-only version of the activity is also available.

When Social Media Goes Wrong

Poorly thought out, inappropriate, or offensive messages on social media can have serious consequences. The article “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” focuses on the story of a public relations professional who sent out, on her personal account, a tweet that was interpreted as being racist and insensitive (Ronson, 2015). Despite having only 170 Twitter followers, within hours her tweet became the number one worldwide trend on Twitter and received tens of thousands of angry responses. Sacco lost her job, had employees of a hotel threaten to strike if she stayed there, and received criticism from her family. Months after the incident, after being limited in where she could find employment, she was still under scrutiny for her career choices. She even found it challenging to date as people would look her up online and see the negative and controversial things that had been written about her.

Modern stories of the consequences people face due to content on social media can be compared with the public punishments for crimes that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States. Ronson (2015) found that many people in these historical records felt that public punishments often went too far, with the crowds encouraging worse punishments than what may have been fair.

Full article: “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life

Losing Your Job Because of Social Media

In Canada people have lost their jobs because of content they posted on their personal social media accounts. Even comments made on your own time and meant only for your personal circle of friends and family members may put your career at risk.

People have been fired because of social media postings that were or were seen to be: sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ+, or prejudiced or offensive in other ways; posting about, participating in, or encouraging criminal activity; and posting bullying or harassing comments. More detailed accounts of these instances can be found in the article “14 Canadians Who Were Fired for Social Media Posts.”

Social Media and Job Applications

An increasing number of employers are using social media to screen job applicants. While some content on public social media can harm your chances of being hired, other content may make you stand out as a potential asset for a company.

A poll by America poll CareerBuilder (2016) found that 60% of employers used social media sites to research job candidates. This number had increased from 52% in 2015 and 11% in 2006 (CareerBuilder, 2016). The same poll found that 59% use search engines like Google to research candidates (CareerBuilder, 2016), a number that is also increasing. Companies hiring for information technology and sales positions were the most likely to use social media to screen potential employees (CareerBuilder, 2016).

Instances where using social media can be good for your career: 41% of employers said they were less likely to give someone an interview if they couldn’t find any information online about the person (CareerBuilder, 2016). Information found on social media that employers see as positive includes:

  • Evidence of how the candidate’s background fits the job qualifications.
  • Evidence that the candidate’s personality seems to be a good fit with the company’s culture.
  • Evidence of a wide range of interests.
  • Evidence of great communication skills and a professional image.

Content or information on social media that may hurt your chance of being hired includes:

  • Inappropriate or provocative pictures, videos, or comments.
  • Evidence of drinking or using recreational drugs.
  • Discriminatory comments.
  • Negative or overly critical comments about previous employers or co-workers.
  • Evidence of sub-par communication skills.

More detail about the survey’s results can be found here: Number of Employers Using Social Media to Screen Candidates Has Increased 500 Percent over the Last Decade.

Social Media and Relationships

Social media can allow you to connect with others, both people you’ve met in person and people you meet online. It can have both positive and negative impacts on our romantic relationships, our friendships, and our relationships with family.

  1. Social media can bring people together. In a 2015 Pew survey, 83% of teens using social media said it made them feel more informed about and connected with what is happening in their friends’ lives. The same survey found that 94% of teens spend time with friends through social media.
  2. It’s good practice to ask permission before sharing a picture of someone else. In a Kaspersky Lab survey, 58% of people reported feeling upset or uncomfortable when a photo of them was shared that they didn’t want made public.
  3. While learning more about the lives of friends and family can be a positive thing, there is such a thing as too much information. According to the same Pew survey, 88% of teens surveyed felt that people overshare information on social media.
  4. Honesty is as important online as offline. While most millennials think online dating is a good way to meet people and that friendships can be formed online, many of them have reported feeling disappointed or misled when they discovered that friends or potential romantic partners hadn’t represented themselves accurately online.
  5. In the Pew survey, 77% of teens felt people were less authentic on social media compared to in person. However, in the same survey, 85% of teens agreed that people might show a different side of themselves online, and might feel more comfortable discussing serious topics on social media compared to in person.
  6. Social media can provide a safe place for some teens to get support: 68% of teens surveyed in the Pew survey said they had asked for and received support through social media during difficult times in their lives.

Pew survey: Teens, Technology and Friendships: Chapter 4: Social Media and Friendships

Social Media Tips

Think carefully before you post. Anything you share online can stay there a long time, even after you delete it.

  • Don’t post anything you may regret later.
  • Check your privacy settings.
  • Your content may be visible to and shareable by more people than you realize. You’ll learn more about privacy and settings in the privacy section of this chapter.
  • Make a good first impression.
  • Social media isn’t just used by family and friends. Many employers are starting to use and monitor social media to screen job applicants.
  • Consider your health.

Use of social media can have an impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health. You’ll learn more about health and wellness later in this chapter.


Activity 3.2: Test Yourself

  1. Have you ever posted something online that you later regretted? If you could go back and change that posting, what would you do differently?
  2. How might social media benefit you in your career or personal relationships?
  3. Are there consequences of not using social media at all?


Whenever you interact with online content your activities are not entirely private. You leave a digital footprint when you access websites, search Google, or download and interact with apps. What kind of impact can this have on your life? Why should you care? This section will help you become more aware of issues around digital privacy and will identify areas that might be of particular concern to you.


Activity 3.3: How Much Do You Already Know?

Before you continue reading, see how much you know about privacy by taking this quiz: Privacy Quiz developed by the Office of Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Terms of Use and App Permissions

Let’s face it, very few people read the “terms and conditions,” or the “terms of use” agreements prior to installing an application (app). These agreements are legally binding, and clicking “I agree” may permit apps (the companies that own them) to access your: calendar, camera, contacts, location, microphone, phone, or storage, as well as details and information about your friends.  While some applications require certain device permissions to support functionality—for example, your camera app will most likely need to access your phone’s storage to save the photos and videos you capture—other permissions are questionable. Does a camera app really need access to your microphone? Think about the privacy implications of this decision.

When downloading an app, stop and consider:

  • Have you read the app’s terms of use?
  • Do you know what you’re giving the app permission to access? (e.g., your camera, microphone, location information, contacts, etc.)
  • Can you change the permissions you’ve given the app without affecting its functionality?
  • Who gets access to the data collected through your use of the app, and how will it be used?
  • What kind of privacy options does the app offer?

Download and review the checklist Privacy and Mobile Apps: Tips for Protecting Your Mobile Information When Downloading and Using Mobile Apps, developed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, to find tips on how to guard your privacy. Download the Terms of Service; Didn’t Read browser add-on to get instant information about a website’s privacy policies and terms-of-use agreements.

Are you interested in learning more about app permissions and what they mean? Take a look at this GFCLearnFree video tutorial.

Cookies and Tracking

Have you ever considered why products you searched for on Amazon show up in your Facebook feed, pop up in your Google search results, or appear on YouTube in advertisements? Cookies—small pieces of data with a unique ID placed on your device by websites—are online tracking tools that enable this to happen. Cookies can store your website-specific browsing behaviour and any site-specific customization (for example, your location preferences), as well as keep track of items added to a cart on online shopping sites, such as Amazon. In addition, they can track your purchases, content you’ve viewed, and your clicking behaviour.

The biggest concern with cookies is that they enable targeted online advertising by sharing your usage and browsing data with advertisers. In addition, certain advertisers use cookies that can span across multiple websites (third-party cookies), collecting extensive data about your browsing behaviour and enabling advertisers to generate a detailed user profile of you based on your site-specific activities. This profile is anonymous; however, in addition to being a potential privacy violation, it can compromise equity of future information access.

Interested in learning more about website cookies? Watch this video Website cookies explained” by Guardian Animations for a comprehensive introduction.


Downloading Tips

What can you do to prevent targeted advertising from appearing as you search or from showing up on your social media feeds? One way to bypass this data collection is to use a private browsing window, available in most browsers. How can you find private browsing? Look under File in your browser of choice, and see if an Incognito Window (Chrome) or a Private Window (Firefox; Safari) option is available. Private browsing prevents cookies from collecting data on your browsing behaviour.

Device Fingerprinting

Device fingerprinting is a process of identifying the device being used to access a website, based on the specific configuration of the device. You may own a number of devices (a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone) each of which is configured based on your preferences. The goal of device fingerprinting is to create a bridge from a user’s online identity to their real-world identity as a method of tracking consumer behaviour. Device fingerprinting is used by advertisers to connect with potential customers, and in combination with cookies it tracks user behaviour to develop a highly individualized user profile. Privacy awareness website Am I Unique? refers to device fingerprinting as the “cookieless monster.”

A fingerprint can be created based on the following information about your device:

  • What operating system (iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, etc.) is used.
  • What browser and browser version are used.
  • What content (plug-ins, fonts, add-ons) has been installed.
  • The location (determined by device location settings or the IP address).
  • Its time zone settings (which can be adjusted automatically by the network provider).

What can you do to prevent device fingerprinting?

  1. Check your device fingerprint: Am I Unique? My Fingerprint.
  2. Install a script-blocking browser extension.


This section will focus on device and Internet security (or cybersecurity), addressing Internet-based threats such as: spam, malware, viruses, and hacking. The aim of Internet security is to protect all data (including personal data) from unwanted intrusion, theft, and misuse. It is important to keep security in mind as you navigate your digital and virtual worlds.

Activity 3.4: How Much Do You Know?

Before you continue reading, see how much you know about cybersecurity by taking this Cybersecurity Knowledge Quiz

Common Security Threats


Spam messages, in the form of emails and texts, are “unsolicited commercial messages” sent either to advertise a new product or to trick people into sharing sensitive information through a process called phishing (more about phishing below). Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) protects individuals by outlining clear rules about digital communication processes for businesses. Sending spam messages is a direct violation of the law. Businesses that send unsolicited emails to individuals are legally required to provide an “unsubscribe” option for those who may have wanted the messages at one time but who have changed their minds and no longer want them.

Protect yourself: Tips from Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation:
  1. Don’t try or buy a product or service advertised in a message you receive from an unknown sender.
  2. Don’t reply to a message that seems suspicious to you, or click the “remove” or “unsubscribe” link.
  3. Messages coming from businesses you are a customer of should have a working “unsubscribe” link to help you stop future messages.
  4. Never visit websites advertised in a suspicious message, and, in particular, beware of links in such emails.
  5. Fraudsters can make messages look like they come from people or organizations you know; this is called “spoofing.” If you are unsure about an email message, don’t open it.

Got spam in Canada? Submit information to the Spam Reporting Centre. Canadian specific


Phishing is the attempt to steal sensitive information including passwords, usernames, or credit card information through the use of email or any other personal messaging system (e.g., text messages, a messaging app like WhatsApp, Viber, etc.).

Here’s an example: You receive what looks like a trustworthy message asking you to log in to your personal account, maybe your banking account. The link in the message takes you to a fake website, created to mimic the real site. The process of logging in to this fake website allows hackers to collect your sensitive information, providing them with your complete banking login details. This information can then be used to log in to your account and steal your assets.

Protect yourself from phishing:
  1. Do not reply to emails asking for your personal information.
  2. Never enter sensitive personal information on a pop-up screen.
  3. Do not open attachments from an unknown person/organization.
  4. Install antivirus and firewall software on your devices, and keep them up to date.


“Malware” is short for “malicious software.” Malware is typically installed on a user’s device for the purpose of stealing personal information. Types of malware include: viruses, worms, trojans, adware, spyware, and ransomware. Watch this video Malware: Difference Between Computer Viruses, Worms and Trojans,” for a brief introduction to malware.

Adware. A type of malware that installs pop-up advertising (ads) on a device. The ads are typically unwanted, and can be very annoying. Some adware can track personal information such as browsing data, and can record keystrokes.

Ransomware. A type of malware that encrypts or locks files on your computer/device. Hackers require a payment—a ransom—before they will allow you to access your information again.

Spyware. Installed without user knowledge, and used by hackers to spy on people to get access to personal information, including: passwords, data, or online activity. Once spyware is on your computer, it can copy, delete, share, and compromise your files; control your programs; and enable remote access, allowing someone else to control your computer.

Trojan. In an online context, a Trojan horse, commonly known as a trojan, is malware disguised as legitimate software. Once installed, it allows hackers access to your computer.

Virus. An executable program (it requires user action) that a user may have unintentionally installed on a computer, and that has the potential to corrupt data and compromise the operation of the computer. A virus needs to be opened (executed) for it to infect a computer.

Worm. A self-replicating computer program that spreads automatically across a computer, or a computer network, exploiting vulnerabilities. Computer worms are self-acting and do not rely on user activation. Worms are considered a subclass of viruses.

Hacking and Hacktivism

Computer hacking is a form of “creative problem solving” that takes advantage of computer and network vulnerabilities.

Why do hackers hack?

  1. Intellectual curiosity—to see how things work.
  2. Personal protection—to patch their own networks.
  3. Enjoyment—to have fun with unsuspecting users.
  4. Activism—to support a cause.
  5. Financial gain—to make money by identifying software glitches.
  6. Criminal activity—to cheat people out of sensitive information, and for financial gain.

According to Techopedia, hacktivism “is the act of hacking a website or computer network in an effort to convey a social or political message. The person who carries out the act of hacktivism is known as a hacktivist.” Technology enables hacktivists not only to spread their message, but also to mobilize people on a global scale. These virtual activists use both legal and illegal tools to launch politically and socially motivated computer attacks in support of free speech and human rights. Hacktivists are not typically financially motivated, but instead come together to fight injustice.

Examples of hacktivism include:

  1. Speak2Tweet. A voice-to-tweet service created by Google and Twitter engineers to support Arab Spring protesters during Egypt’s Internet blackout in 2011. Read more about Speak2Tweet in “Speak2Tweet, Spreadsheets and the #Jan25 Revolution.”
  2. Anonymous. This globally distributed group self-identifies as supporting the “continuation of the Civil-Rights movement” but has been criticized for their activities and identified as a potential national (US) threat. Read about the group’s operations in “8 Most Awesome Hacks Conducted by Anonymous Hackers.
  3. Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer, and a hacktivist. He campaigned for open access to scholarship, and against Internet censorship bills in the United States. In 2011, Aaron was arrested for attempting to download all of MIT’s JSTOR (JSTOR is a subscription-based academic-journal platform) collections, which was a violation of the licensing agreement. Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013. For a comprehensive insight into Aaron Swartz’s life, read “Requiem for a Dream.”

One of the more common ways hacktivists disrupt networks is through DoS and DDos attacks.

DoS & DDoS Attacks

Most websites have an infrastructure in place that can accommodate a large number of access requests per day—think millions. A Denial of Service (DoS) attack takes place when hackers overwhelm a website with too many requests—billions or trillions of them. A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) is when the attack comes from a large number of computers at once. This causes network overload, the website stops responding, and appears to be down.

DoS and DDoS attacks are made possible through the use of botnets. Botnets are networks of remotely hijacked devices injected with malware and controlled by hackers. Botnets are also called zombies, or zombie bots. Read more about botnets in this post.

Wireless Networks

Secure Wireless Networks

Do you have an Internet connection at home? If so, you most likely have a secure wireless network. Protected by passwords, secure wireless networks are the best kind to use when accessing and sharing sensitive information like: banking and payment details, your SIN (social insurance number), and any other information you’d like to keep private and protected.

Open Wireless Networks

If you have ever accessed a Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, a mall, an airport, or at school, you most probably connected to an open (or “public”) wireless network. Open networks are typically unsecured, and you can connect to them without a password. While this is convenient and reduces your data usage, public Wi-Fi networks pose a number of security risks, so try not to access any sensitive information when connected to one.

Safety Tips

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

One way of ensuring privacy and the security of your data when browsing using a public Wi-Fi network is to use a VPN, or a virtual private network. VPNs create an encrypted tunnel through which you can access information online, away from “prying eyes.” This protects your privacy and ensures security.

Passwords and Encryption

Passwords are your first line of defence against external intruders. Complex passwords that are eight characters or longer and include a combination of upper/lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols are a great first step for keeping your information secure. Interested in checking the security of your passwords? Take a look at “How Secure Is My Password?

  • Two-factor authentication, or two-step authentication, is a login process where the user is asked to provide two authentication points, such as a password and a code shared through a text message. Two-factor authentication enhances login security.
  • Biometrics such as iris scanning, facial recognition, voice recognition, and fingerprinting are yet another way of securing your devices, but they have their own security issues. Read the current issues with biometrics in “How Biometric Authentication Poses New Challenges to Our Security and Privacy.”
  • Encryption scrambles data so that it becomes unreadable to those without a public key, “given by your computer to any computer that wants to communicate securely with it”. Encryption makes information secure as it is transmitted in code, and appears to those without the key as a random series of letters and numbers.

Internet of Things (IoT) and Security

There are approximately 8.4 billion connected “things” in the world. Maybe you are a proud owner of one or more of those things. Fitness and health trackers, smart TVs, video game consoles, voice activated assistants, smart thermostats, connected baby monitors, networked security cameras, and cars are just a few examples of what comprises the Internet of Things (IoT).

Every device connected to a network is open to security threats. Have you heard of hackers taking control of a car, or speaking to a baby through an unsecured baby monitor? How about the flaw in voice assistant Alexa, which turned Amazon Echo into a recording device? Learn about the security implications of the Internet of Things so that you don’t become its next victim.


This section introduces defamation and Internet defamation. How we conduct ourselves online, in the virtual world, can have some very serious real-world consequences.

What Is Defamation?

Defamation, or untrue statements that are harmful to someone’s reputation, can be separated into two categories: libel (written statements) and slander (oral statements). The statements can be about a person, business, organization, group, nation, or product.

Defamation laws have been adopted by many countries worldwide. The United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed by 169 countries, states in Article 17: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation” (United Nations, n.d., p. 10). Each country has its own interpretation of this article as well as its own penalties for violations. Ensure you understand your local defamation laws before speaking or publishing commentary, or when travelling in or moving to a new country.

What Is Not Defamation?

In Ontario, a harmful statement may not amount to slander or libel if one of the following defences applies:

Made only to the person it is about:  The comment was only made to the person mentioned in the statement, and not read or overheard by anyone else.

True statements: If it is demonstrably true, and the statement is made honestly and not maliciously.

Absolute privilege: Absolute privilege means it is a statement made in court (as evidence in a trial) or in parliament.

Qualified privilege: Qualified privilege protects statements made non-maliciously and for well-meaning reasons. For example, if an employer is requested to give a reference for an employee, and they give a statement that is their honest opinion.

Fair comment: The defence of “fair comment” may apply in situations where statements made were about issues of public interest, as long as the comments were honest statements of opinion, based on fact. If statements were malicious, this defence will not apply.

Responsible communication of matters of public interest: This defence is available in libel cases. It allows journalists the ability to report statements and allegations in cases where there is a public interest in distributing the information to a wide audience. However, this defence only applies where the news or information is urgent, serious, and of public importance, and where the journalist has used reliable sources and tried to report both sides of the issue.


Activity 3.5: Is it Libel?

Are you ready to test your knowledge of libel? This activity will use example scenarios to explain what may or may not count as libel.


Try the activity, Is it libel?

An accessible RTF version of the activity is also available.


Case Study: Defamation

Astley v. Verdun, [2011] ONSC 3651.

Bob Verdun, a resident of Elmira, Ontario, was unhappy with the appointment of Robert Astley to the Board of BMO Financial Services. He expressed this dismay in emails to BMO employees and orally at shareholders’ meetings, “alleging [Astley’s] involvement with the Clarica Life Insurance Company and its role in the development of a controversial Waterloo recreation complex made him unfit for the job.”

It was found that all statements by Verdun about Astley were defamatory and that Verdun acted with malice. The jury awarded damages of up to $650,000 against Verdun. The court ordered a permanent ruling for Verdun, restraining him from publishing anything in any medium whatsoever about Astley.

St. Lewis v. Rancourt, [2015] ONCA 513.

Former University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt was accused of defamation for a public blog post in which he referred to University of Ottawa law professor Joanne St. Lewis as “a house negro.”

Rancourt used the defence of fair comment but the jury found his statements defamatory and malicious. In a court of appeal Rancourt claimed his freedom of expression was violated, but this argument was dismissed by the court. In total St. Lewis was awarded over $750,000 in damages.

Awan v. Levant, [2014] ONSC 6890.

In 2008, law student Khurran Awan was part of a Canadian Human Rights Commission and an Ontario Human Rights Commission complaint against Maclean’s magazine over a cover story they claimed was Islamophobic. Former lawyer and conservative commentator Ezra Levant wrote nine blog posts during the hearing commenting that Awan was a “serial liar” and anti-Semite. During the defamation trial brought forth by Awan, Levant tried to use the defence of fair comment, as well as his reputation as a provocative pundit. Fair comment did not stand, as Levant was found to have made the comments with malicious intent. A court of appeal held up the original finding. Levant was to pay a total of $80,000 and remove the blog posts.


Tips to Avoid Libel

Don’t underestimate the power of posting something online.
Posting something online is often public and permanent; be sure your comment could not be considered defamation.
Never post messages when you are angry.
Walk away and cool down before you post online or send emails/text messages.
Choose your words wisely.
Writing a negative review can be acceptable; however, it doesn’t have to be mean or malicious.
Defamation can affect anyone.
People of all ages can be victims or unwitting perpetrators.
Watch what you repost.
Don’t retweet or repost something that could be considered defamatory.

Citations and Credits


Written by Jennifer Peters, with contributions from Joseph Chan and Noé Chagas.


In this section you’ll learn about online harassment, including cyberbullying. The section will give you an overview of what harassment is, when harassment is a crime, and resources for assistance if you or someone you know is experiencing harassment.

What Is Harassment?

“Harassment is a form of discrimination. It involves any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time. Serious one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.”

From the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is harassment through electronic technology. This may include harassment using text messages, social media, or online chat. Cyberbullies may harass their victims anonymously and can easily share their harassing messages and content with a large audience.

When Are Online Harassment and Cyberbullying Considered Crimes?

Some forms of online harassment are considered crimes under the Criminal Code of Canada. There is not one section alone in the code that refers to online harassment; potential offences are detailed in different sections of the Criminal Code and include:

Child pornography and non-consensual distribution of intimate images. It is illegal to make, distribute, possess, or access child pornography. Child pornography can include material that shows or describes a person under the age of eighteen engaged in sexual activity or material that advocates sexual activity with a person who is under eighteen. It can include pictures, videos, audio, writing, or any other visual representation.

Counselling suicide is recommending or advising someone to take their own life. There are exceptions to allow certain types of professionals, such as health care professionals, social workers, or therapists to provide information on legal medical assistance in dying.

Defamatory libel, as discussed earlier in the chapter, is a written untrue statement harmful to someone’s reputation.

Extortion, involves trying to force someone to do something through threats. An example could be threatening to share personal information about a person unless that person does something for the harasser.

False messages are when someone sends a message with information they know is incorrect, with the intent to cause harm. Indecent messages are typically messages of a sexual nature sent with the purpose of causing harm or annoying a person. Harassing communications are any other repeated messages sent to cause harm or annoy a person.

Identity fraud can be pretending to be someone else for the purpose of doing them or someone else harm, or to gain advantage for yourself or someone else.

Incitement of hatred is when someone makes negative public statements to encourage others to harass or cause harm to an identifiable group. Identifiable groups for this law include people recognized by colour, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, mental disability, or physical disability.

Intimidation can occur when someone uses the threat of violence or threat of punishment against a person, a person’s family member, or property to force a person to do something they have the right to refuse to do, or to prevent them from doing something they have the right to do.

Mischief in relation to computer data can include destroying information or content (data) on a computer or device, or changing the data in such a way as to damage it or make it unusable. It can also occur if a person is denied access to data they have the right to access on their computer or devices.

Non-consensual distribution of intimate images was added to the Criminal Code in 2014 through the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. An intimate image is defined as an image where someone is nude, exposing their genital region, anal region, or breasts, or engaged in explicit sexual activity. It is illegal to share intimate images without the permission of the person in the photo.

Stalking, is also called Criminal Harassment. This could include sending repeated threatening emails, texts, or direct messages, or leaving repeated threatening messages in online comments. The threat could be towards a person or towards someone they know.

Unauthorized use of a computer can involve accessing someone’s device or account without the right to do so. Other examples include disrupting or intercepting any function of a computer or device, or sharing the passwords for someone’s device, allowing another person or persons to access or disrupt the function of that device.

Uttering threats includes threatening to cause physical harm, to damage or destroy someone’s belongings or property, and/or to harm a pet.

Content Warning

The following case study involves topics such as self-harm, cutting, physical abuse, suicide, and other content that may be upsetting to some readers or viewers.


Case Study: Online Harassment – Amanda Todd

The Amanda Todd case is a well-known Canadian cyberbullying case that influenced our current harassment and cyberbullying laws. In this video Amanda Todd discusses her experiences with bullying, both online and in person. Content warning: This video contains references and images of self-harm and cutting.

My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, Self-Harm (Video)

Access a transcript of the video, “My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, Self-Harm“.

Reaction and Impact

After Amanda Todd’s death, Bill C-13, Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, was brought into effect. This law added non-consensual distribution of intimate images as a form of harassment to the Criminal Code, but also caused controversy as it gave authorities more power to access and investigate the online activities of any Canadian. Some felt this law could lead to an invasion of the privacy of Canadians. Some critics also felt the new law covered ground already included in the Criminal Code under child pornography law.


While the Amanda Todd case brought cyberbullying and mental health into the spotlight, bullying still remains a serious problem for Canadian youth.


Related articles

Anti-Cyberbullying Law, Bill C-13, Now in Effect

5 Years After the Death of Amanda Todd, Her Story Still Resonates


Activity 3.6: Reflection

  • Canada has anti-cyberbullying laws that were put in place after the Amanda Todd case through Bill C-13. Do you feel these laws do enough to protect Canadians? Does the law violate Canadians’ rights to privacy?
  • What could you do to help someone experiencing online harassment and bullying? How can you help prevent online harassment and bullying?

Are You or Someone You Know a Victim of Harassment?

The following free resources provide information and support.


A free, confidential helpline for students at Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities. They provide “professional counselling and information and referrals for mental health, addictions and well-being.”

Aimed at teens, this website provides tips and practical advice for victims of cyberbullying, including how to report cyberbullying, what to do if sexual images or videos of you are shared online, and how to get emotional support for you or others.

Crash Override

Offers help and resources for those experiencing online harassment.

Amanda Todd Legacy Society

Information and advocacy on bullying and mental health.

Resources Cyberbullying

What Are the Potential Legal Consequences of Cyberbullying?

Media Smarts: Find Resources

Tips to Avoid Online Harassment

  • Know your rights.
  • No one deserves to be harassed, online or offline. Laws such as the Criminal Code of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Act offer protection from harassment.
  • Consider your words and actions.
  • Sharing personal, sensitive, or intimate content that was given to you in confidence can hurt others. Your words and actions have a great impact on others even if you are not face-to-face. Information can be shared quickly and easily online so may be sent to many more people than you intended.
  • Know your school’s code of conduct.
  • Most schools have anti-harassment policies that include protection from online harassment.
  • Know your workplace policies.
  • Many employers have anti-harassment policies.

Credits’s page on Cyberbullying.

Get Cyber Safe from the Government of Canada.

Stop pages on cyberbullying.

Health and Wellness

This section explores the effects of digital habits on your mental and physical health. Included here are tools and techniques for examining personal digital use, identifying warning signs, and making changes that benefit your health and wellness.


Activity 3.7: Self-Quiz

Try the activity, “Digital Health and Wellness.”


People who do continuous, intensive computer work, such as data entry, for prolonged periods are at increased risk of developing a number of health problems. These include: visual fatigue, headaches, upper limb musculoskeletal injuries (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome), and back pain.

Desk Set-Up

  • Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor (or on a footrest), and your thighs roughly parallel to the floor.
  • Your chair should be fully adjustable and provide lumbar support.
  • The top of the monitor should be in line with your eyes at about arm’s-length distance.
  • Your elbows should be at roughly 90 degrees when using the keyboard and mouse, with your wrists extending straight from the forearm. Use a wrist rest or armrest so your wrists do not dip down.
  • Make sure your lighting is adequate, with no glare on the screen. Anti-glare screen protectors are available for your monitor.
  • Consider the benefits of a stand-up desk.

Task Design

  • Take short brisk walks throughout the day. Besides improving your physical health, this will help relieve stress and improve concentration.
  • Try using the mouse with your non-dominant hand for a while. This will cut down on RSI (repetitive strain injury) risk—and it’s good for your brain!
  • Do gentle stretches regularly throughout the day.
  • “Stretch” your eyes once in a while. Focus on a distant object for thirty seconds, and then on  mid-range object for thirty seconds.
  • Use a customizable app, such as BreakTaker, that will remind you to take a walk, stretch, or exercise your eyes.

Smartphone Habits and Mental Health


Current research has shown that the interactive use of a smartphone, computer, or video game console in the hour before bedtime increases the likelihood of both reported difficulty falling asleep and having unrefreshing sleep. The same effect is not noted for watching videos or listening to music, which are characterized as passive technology use.

These studies also report that people who leave their phone ringer on while sleeping (mostly young adults and adolescents) report being awakened by the phone, and having difficulty returning to sleep. Even if the ringer is turned off, people may wake spontaneously and check or use a device before returning to sleep. This supports the view that texting or otherwise engaging with your phone is an arousing activity that is incompatible with sleep.

Additionally, the blue light emitted by computing devices affects levels of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone that regulates the body’s natural clock, or circadian rhythm. Disruptions to your circadian rhythm can cause fatigue, drowsiness, irritability, and an overall decrease in mental functions. Students who feel they must use their computer at night can use an app such as f.lux, which will adjust the light from the screen to match their local level of daylight in real-time.

Memory, Mood, and Muse

Our online habits can affect the way our brains function and consolidate memories. Typical online behaviour involves performing quick searches and jumping quickly from page to page, while responding to messages and notifications that each set us off on yet another tangent. This feels good because human brains release dopamine as a reward for finding new information. However, as Nicholas Carr states, “living in this perpetual state of distraction/interruption … crowds out more contemplative, calmer modes of thinking” that are necessary for memory consolidation, learning, and knowledge synthesis (Epipheo, 2013).

This constant consumption of content jeopardizes creativity, innovation, and higher-order thinking. In our attempts to prevent “boredom,” we immediately pull out our phone to fill any spare sliver of time, thus preventing the mind from the critical processes of reflection and daydreaming, which are not only relaxing, but are also known to lead to new insights and ideas.  Additionally, the behaviour of constantly checking social media and constantly consuming content has been linked, in several studies, to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Internet Addiction

Addictive behaviours around Internet use include:

  • A preoccupation with online activities that interferes with real-world social or occupational functioning.
  • The experience of withdrawal symptoms (e.g., irritability, trouble sleeping, cravings) when attempting to reduce the activity.
  • Hiding or lying about the amount of time you spend online.
  • Being dependent on Internet activities to escape from negative feelings.

Internet habits may be associated with other “behavioural addictions” such as shopping or pornography, but gambling disorder is currently the only behavioural addiction in the DSM-5.

Internet addiction is not considered a distinct mental disorder, as it lacks some criteria of conventionally recognized addictions and may be a symptom or manifestation of other, existing disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association has recommended Internet gaming disorder for further study.

Techniques for Adjusting Smartphone Habits


Take a day or two to track how often you actually check your phone (most people greatly underestimate the number of times). Keep a log of how you are using your smartphone: What makes you reach for your phone (are you lonely, bored, feeling self-conscious)? What sites or functions are you spending your time on? Use paper and pen, or an app such as BreakFree. Once you have identified your triggers, reflect on why and how you have developed these habits. Are there underlying issues you seek to resolve or ignore by spending time on your phone? Think about ways you could benefit from using your time differently.

Set Goals and Limits

Set specific goals and develop a timeline that will work for you, using incremental progress (e.g., start by cutting out your smartphone use fifteen minutes before bed; gradually increase this to one hour). Set boundaries of time and place that align with your goals (e.g., on weekday mornings, I will spend only twenty minutes on social media; I won’t use my phone at the dinner table or on the bus).

Try This

  • Change the settings on your phone and go through your applications to turn off notifications that you don’t really need.
  • Adjust your mindset: accept that you can’t keep up with all breaking news or gossip; you don’t need to comment on every post, or respond to every message right away.
  • Play the phone stack game when at a get-together with friends & family.
  • Tell your friends and family that you’re cutting down and ask for their support. Maybe they will join you in the endeavour.

Digital Health and Wellness Tips

Check your desk: Assess your workstation with the Ontario Ministry of Labour Guide. Small changes can make a big difference in your comfort.

Sleep tech-free: Experts recommend that you eliminate smartphone use in the hour before bed, and avoid charging your phone in the bedroom.

Get mindful with your mobile: Is real life passing you by while you check your phone and scroll endlessly? Taking a day or two to track your mobile habits will illuminate any areas of concern.

Never text while driving! Not only is it extremely dangerous, it’s against the law. If you are a pedestrian, pay attention to your surroundings instead of your phone; don’t text while crossing the street!


College Libraries Ontario. “Digital Citizenship: Health & Wellness.” The Learning Portal (2018). Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.



Angus Reid Institute. (2016, October 20). Trolls and tribulations: One-in-four Canadians say they’re being harassed on social media. Retrieved from

CareerBuilder. (2016, April 28). Number of employers using social media to screen candidates has increased 500 percent over the last decade. Retrieved from

Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How one stupid tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s life. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Labour. “Computer Ergonomics: Workstation Layout and Lighting | Health and Safety Guidelines.” (December 2015).  Retrieved from

Gradisar, Michael, Amy Wolfson, Allison Harvey  et al. “Sleep and Technology Use of Americans (2011 Poll Findings).” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 9, no. 12 (November 2013): pp. 1291- 1299.

United Nations. (n.d.). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved from

Schmerler, Jessica. “Q&A: Why is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep?” Scientific American (September 2015). Retrieved from

Epipheo. (2013, May 6). What the internet is doing to our brains [Video file]. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. “APA’s Survey Finds that Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress.” (February 2017). Retrieved  from

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Mobile Device Addiction Linked to Depression, Anxiety.” Science Daily. (March 2016).

Smith, Melinda, Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal. “Smartphone Addiction: Tips for Breaking Free of Compulsive Smartphone Use.” (July, 2018).

“How to Beat an Addiction to Cell Phones.” Retrieved from on August 15, 2017.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013..


PLEASE NOTE: This chapter provides information ONLY. We do not provide legal or other professional advice. If you require legal advice, speak to a lawyer. The information in this chapter is related to the Canadian landscape at time of writing.



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Digital Citizenship Toolkit Copyright © by Jennifer Peters; Agnieszka Gorgon; Carmen Gelette; and Alana Otis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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