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Mothers of teens who died by suicide after being targeted online urge passage of bill

The mothers of two Canadian teens who died by suicide after they were targeted by online tormentors urged parliamentarians to pass new legislation introduced Monday to protect kids on the internet.

“Sometimes you have to wait for something good,” Carol Todd said in an interview on Monday, just before the federal Liberals finally introduced their long-awaited Online Harms Act. 

It was frustrating not to see the bill introduced earlier, said Todd. 

Todd’s daughter Amanda posted a video on YouTube detailing her ordeal after she was targeted by an online sextortion scheme that ultimately led her to take her own life in 2012 in Port Coquitlam, B.C. 

She used flash cards to describe the experience of being blackmailed and extorted by an anonymous attacker, who convinced her to expose herself in front of a webcam. 

Dutch national Aydin Coban was convicted in the B.C. Supreme Court in 2022 of child pornography, child luring and criminal harassment. 

The new Liberal bill, which seeks to add a slate of new measures to hold social media giants accountable, would create a new regulator to govern complaints and establish a new ombudsperson to field public concerns. 

It could be part of Amanda’s legacy, Todd said, after the video she posted prompted so many conversations between parents and children. 

“Amanda’s legacy continues to live on, and I think that it’s a teaching experience for all of us,” she said. “And if she were watching from wherever, she would be proud of that.”

Leah Parsons, the mother of a Nova Scotia teenage girl who died by suicide following the distribution of intimate images taken without her consent, also said she wants to the bill become law promptly.

Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh was taken off life support following a suicide attempt in 2013. 

An intimate photo of her was taken without her consent at a 2011 party and shared with other students at her school and beyond, resulting in extensive cyberbullying. 

Two boys were later charged, and an independent review of the case later concluded Parsons “did not receive the support and assistance a young person in crisis required.” 

In a telephone interview on Monday, Parsons said, “I definitely agree with the fact that somebody has to put legislation in to protect our youth online. That absolutely has to happen.”

She added: “These social-media platforms need to be accountable for what’s happening on their platforms.”

Parsons said she agrees with the concept of a ombudsperson to advocate for parents and others concerned about images circulating on the internet, and she supports having a regulator who can enforce the removal of the content.

“That would be beneficial, rather than complaints going to some artificial intelligence bot that comes back with a declaration that the image or video is ‘not against their community standards,'” she said.

Parsons said her 14-year-old daughter was recently stabbed and videos of the incident were circulated. She found herself once again struggling to have the images removed from the internet.

“We have to step in as a society,” she said. “The adults have to step in.… If it goes on the internet, it has to be taken down immediately.”

Children, she added, are “just not equipped to deal with the ramifications of this kind of abuse coming towards them.”

Parsons said she believes existing criminal law, which bans the sharing of intimate images, is simply not being enforced, and she finds that some police forces aren’t properly informed about the prohibitions.

Having a body that could monitor and act on public complaints would help “fill that gap,” she said.

“You need people whose job it is to look into this and make sure the images get taken down and that the internet platforms are held responsible,” she said.

It’s unclear how quickly the bill could pass. 

Todd said she worries that it won’t get unanimous support, and she’s hoping to see good bipartisan communication as Parliament debates the merits. 

“It’s the lives of our kids,” she said. 

“I’m talking about everyday life, and just something that happens online — that can happen in a split second  — can make a young person spiral so deeply.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling or texting 988, Canada’s national suicide prevention helpline.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2024. 

Chuck Chiang and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press


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