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Even after four years of immersion in research on cyber-bullying, Shaheen Shariff is anything but nonchalant when discussing her area of expertise.
"Kids can hide behind screen names, they can set up websites to harrass classmates, it's amazing," the Education professor said. "There have even been some children who've committed suicide."
As global a phenomenon as the computer networks that make it possible, cyberbullying is beginning to attract the attention of researchers from around the world. Eight researchers, criminologists and lawyers from North America, Europe and Asia, boasting expertise in, among other areas, race and ethnic relations, digital literacy, critical pedagogy and law, will be at McGill Feb. 9-11 to discuss how to fill the policy vacuum that makes it difficult for educators to respond appropriately to cyber-bullying. The summit is part of Shaheen Shariff's newest research project, for which she won a two-year, $143,000-plus grant in November.
"It's such a unique combination of people. It's fabulous that they agreed to do this," said Prof. Shariff, whose project aims to develop legally informed guidelines to help schools combat cyber-bullying.
Her proposal was one of seven in a field of 114 to win the prestigious International Opportunities Fund grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Of those seven, she is among three researchers whose work is being funded for two years instead of one.
Over the three days, the researchers will get the project rolling. An education professor from Japan and a criminal lawyer and a humanities professor from China will join their discussions via teleconference.
The November funding announcement allows Prof. Shariff to extend—and take to the international level—a national study on whether schools have an obligation to prevent cyber-bullying in virtual school environments.
Since 2005, she has been collaborating with colleagues at Simon Fraser University with a Standard Research Grant from the SSHRC of $92,000. Their work has also centred on developing legal guidelines on cyber-bullying for school administrators, in addition to gathering data on the phenomenon through surveys of grade 6-8 students and their teachers.
"In the next two years, we'll be doing almost exactly what we've been doing on the national project," she said. "We'll review emerging case law and statutes and look at cases of cyber-bullying internationally and how they're being handled. We'll be looking at developing international guidelines for policymakers."
An assistant professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education since 2002, Prof. Shariff has already established herself as a leading authority on cyber-bullying. It is defined as electronic social cruelty, prevalent among teens.
It can take many forms, including on-line "hit-lists" that threaten particular students, abusive remarks in emails and blogs and voting sites on which students can negatively judge teachers and school administrators, as well as other students.