Time for legislation to protect our young from cyberbullying
Other jurisdictions have enacted laws to tackle cyberbullying head on and developed strategies and safe practice regimes to protect children from it. Hong Kong should join them
More than two decades after Hong Kong launched its current regime for safeguarding personal data entrusted to government and businesses, information posted on social networks remains unprotected by law. As a result, more than half of a sample group of the city’s secondary school students have had personal details and photos circulated on social media and instant messaging apps without their consent. That is according to the findings of a survey of 2,120 Form Two to Form Five pupils conducted by Polytechnic University earlier this year. This caused more than 20 per cent of them to feel mildly to severely depressed and anxious, while close to 16 per cent said they felt stressed.
The survey was undertaken to shed light on the practice of “doxxing”, or tracking down and circulating personal details. But it has drawn attention to the wider issue of cyberbullying. It is not new. In this space 11 years ago we noted that discretion in what is revealed in social networking is often lacking, especially among young people. And like the internet the problem knows no borders. While pupils show awareness of the need to protect personal data like ID cards and bank information, researchers say they do not show the same sense of caution with social data such as photographs, relationships and friends, potentially fertile material for mischief. Other jurisdictions have enacted laws to tackle cyberbullying head on and developed strategies and safe practice regimes to protect children from it.
This sets Hong Kong apart. It has no such cyberbullying law. Calling for tougher legislation, Professor Edward Chan, who led the Polytechnic study, says perpetrators are usually prosecuted under other laws not designed to counter bullying, such as defamation, copyright infringement and publication of obscene articles.
Legislation to criminalise cyberbullying does not take the place of education of the young in the exercise of discretion on social media, and parental guidance. But statutory penalties can serve as an important deterrent in an integrated approach combining responsible parenting, school education and the law with a clear element of accountability. Self-harm and suicide are not unknown as a result of cyberbullying. We should not risk being prodded into belated action by tragedy that might have been prevented.
There may be valid reasons for not having rushed into legislation, such as the right to free speech. But cyberbullying is an increasingly serious problem. There is a need to strike a balance. The internet is difficult to regulate in a free society. What we said 11 years ago holds good. In return for its freedoms of information and association, everyone has a responsibility to exercise care in disclosing personal information. Parents and teachers should set the example.