News Online | March 2005
Producers: Lani Selick, Alison
Aired: Oct. 10, 2002 on The National |
Updated March 2005
Knight's life at school has been hell. He was teased, taunted
and punched for years. But the final blow was the humiliation
he suffered every time he logged onto the internet. Someone
had set up an abusive website about him that made life
"Rather than just some people, say 30 in a
cafeteria, hearing them all yell insults at you, it's up there
for 6 billion people to see. Anyone with a computer can see
it," says David. "And you can't get away from it. It doesn't
go away when you come home from school. It made me feel even
He felt so trapped he decided to leave
school and finish his final year of studies at
These days the internet is a crucial part of
teenage culture. Kids can't imagine life without it. They run
home from school and the first thing they do is log on. They
"talk" for hours using instant messaging, bulletin boards and
chat-rooms. But the chatter and gossip can spin out of
control, slip into degrading abusive attacks.
survey found that 14 per cent of young Canadian users had been
threatened while using instant messaging; 16 per cent admitted
they've posted hateful comments themselves.
case, the website about him had been active for several months
before a classmate told him about it.
kid from school sent me a message on the internet saying, 'Hey
Dave, look at this website,'" says David. "I went there and
sure enough there's my photo on this website saying 'Welcome
to the website that makes fun of Dave Knight' and just pages
of hateful comments directed at me and everyone in my
Whoever created the website asked others to
join in, posting lewd, sexual comments and smearing David's
"I was accused of being a pedophile. I was
accused of using the date rape drug on little boys," says
Along with the website, there were nasty e-mails
David: "Here's an e-mail, 'You're gay, don't ever
talk again, no one likes you, you're immature and dirty, go
wash your face.'"
CBC's Joan Leishman: "Why do you
think they were picking on you?"
David: "I don't know.
I honestly don't know. I'm not different from any other
the Knight's home near Burlington, Ont., David's mother Nancy
says one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole affair
was that the bullies who went after her son hid behind the
anonymity of the internet.
"It's a cowardly form of
bullying," says Nancy Knight. "It's like being stabbed in the
back by somebody (and) you have no way of ever finding out who
they are, or defending yourself against the words they say. So
it's more damaging than a face-to-face confrontation with
somebody who is clearly willing to tell you what he or she
things of you."
Nancy says the electronic bullying
seemed to have a different affect on David than even the
verbal attacks and bruises.
"After this bullying
started, he began withdrawing completely, isolating himself
from everyone," she says. "I guess it's a matter of not
knowing who knows about you sort of makes you feel you don't
want to know anyone."
adults don't understand how damaging cyber-abuse is. But a
group of Grade 8 students at Deer Park Public School in
Toronto says it causes deep emotional wounds.
students at Deer Park Public School
happened to a friend of mine," says one girl. "And people were
sending her weird messages about her physical appearance and
how she may have been overweight or not pretty and things that
would hurt her feelings."
"One of my friends was
checking his e-mail and it was kind of a threat, like me and
my brother are going to beat you up," says one boy. "People
may think it's funny, but actually it frightens people quite
When the students are asked if any of them
have used the internet to make fun of kids they know, one girl
admits she has.
I used to be best friends with this girl and one night, me and
my friends were just kind of, I don't know why, but we just
decided to be kind of mean to her. We started calling her all
these names and everything. After that, I regretted it… I
tried to be her friend again, but she didn't want to because
like she didn't want me to hurt her. So I guess I deserved it,
but it made me feel really bad because I knew I shouldn't have
me feel really bad because I knew I shouldn't have done
When David's parents learned of the website
about him, they asked police to investigate, to try and find
out who was behind it and have it removed from the web. But
the site stayed up.
Constable Kevin McCart won't comment on David's case, but he
says, in general, internet bullying is tough to investigate
unless it crosses the line into death threats or other
Constable Kevin McCart
"It's an unfortunate situation, but
quite often are hands are tied," says McCart. "There's nothing
supporting a criminal offence by which we can investigate and
obtain records and identify the person responsible for setting
up the site."
As for schools, they often say their
hands are tied, too. They usually want clear evidence the
material is being sent from a school computer, and that can be
hard to prove. All too often, students do their dirty work
So where do you turn?
Knight family found themselves trying to solve the problem on
their own. Finally, Nancy contacted Yahoo, which in this
instance was the website host.
"Hidden somewhere among
the advertising on that website was a contact number down in
California for the head office of this service provider, and
so I phoned them and asked them if I could have this web page
removed," she says. "I waited a couple of weeks and checked
the web page and found that it was still there and so I called
them again and asked them to take it down again, and again the
same thing. Nothing happened."
Yahoo is just one of
thousands of internet companies and most allow people to set
up websites. They all have policies telling users not to post
offensive material. But in reality, most of the time people
can say whatever they want.
Yahoo wouldn't comment on
the David Knight website.
Thompson, president of the Canadian Association of internet
Providers, says it isn't the job of the providers (the ISPs)
he represents to decide what should or should not be on the
"ISPs are not censors, they are not morality
police, and we don't think Canadians want their ISP to be
making determinations as to what is appropriate content for
them or their families to view,' says Thompson. "That is a
decision to make in their own homes based on their own value
systems and their own interests."
The champions of free
speech on the internet strongly support this position.
think that free speech is an important value in Canada and I
think that we should start at an early age to tell kids that
this is an important value," says Jeffrey Shallit, who speaks
for a group called Electronic Frontier. "When a person is in a
position of authority says 'Look, you say this and I don't
like it and therefore I'm going to censor it,' we are sending
students really the wrong message. We are saying free speech
isn't a value that we support.
"It sounds trite but
people say 'sticks and stones can break my bones, but names
will never hurt me,' and I think that part of the response
should be to tell people, look, this is name calling, no one
is coming after you with brass knuckles or a baseball
very easy to say that censorship's a bad thing, but I don't
think you'll ever understand how much it hurts until you see a
website up there about your family," he says.
Joan Leishman: "This is the site that was posted about David
Knight. What's your reaction?"
Jeffrey Shallit: "My
immediate reaction is that this looks pretty mild compared to
some things I've seen. I've seen things far worse than
CBC's Joan Leishman: "But if that was posted
about you child, how would you feel? What would you tell
Jeffrey Shallit: "I'd be very unhappy. What would
I tell him? I think I'd tell him the same thing, that people
are jerks and people are mean and just ignore it. And who's
going to be looking at this? It's not like the whole school is
going to be logging on to see this. It's just the guy who
wrote it and his small number of friends. So they can get
their laughs and you just ignore it. You hold your head
"Freedom of speech protects the thought we hate
just as much as the thought we like. It's not a pleasant
lesson to learn all the time, but we know in societies where
they don't allow freedom of speech that the consequences are
Still, the potential for kids to use the
internet as a weapon for bulling is enormous. A recent survey
- 99 per cent of Canadian students have used the internet.
- 48 per cent use it for a least an hour a day.
- Nearly 60 per cent use chat rooms and instant
internet has really given everyone a voice and they've decided
to use that voice to either criticize people or make fun of
them in some sort of way," says one of the students at Deer
Park Public School in Toronto.
A student at
Deer Park Public School
"(With) the internet,
you can really get away with a lot more because I don't think
a lot of people would have enough confidence to walk up to
someone and be like, 'I hate you, you're ugly,'" says another
student. "But over the internet you don't really see their
face or they don't see yours and you don't have to look in
their eyes and see they're hurt."
So why don't kids
just turn the computer off, not read the messages at all?
David tried that for a while but he says today kids can't just
drop out of the wired world, nor should they have
"I should have a right to be able to log on to the
internet or use my cell phone or check my e-mail without
having people sending me those messages," he says. "I mean,
sure you could just hide from everything, you could shut the
door to your room and sit in a chair for the rest of your
life, but that wouldn't work out too well."
How big a
deal is this? Is it something students can read and forget or
is it something that they find incredibly
"It's a huge deal... it should be taken
seriously," says one student.
"Even though they may not
be getting physically hurt, a lot of people are getting hurt
emotionally," says another student. "Sometimes when they're
hurt physically, their scars will heal. But when you're hurt
emotionally, that could stay with you for the rest of your
life and you may be going to need help for the rest of your
life and it may not ever heal."
the Knight family did get Yahoo to take down the website about
David. But it wasn't easy. It took seven months of messaging,
phone calls and, the family thinks, the threat of legal action
before it was removed.
piloting a plane
"When companies don't step in
and say, 'You're not allowed to post this. We're gonna take it
down,' basically they're promoting it, they're allowing it to
go on," says David Knight. "The message is, 'Yeah, we agree
with this and it's causing trouble for people, it's
David is now trying to recover from the
bullying and beginning to realize his dream. He's learning to
fly, hoping to become a fighter pilot in the Canadian Armed
Forces. David's starting to soar beyond the nightmare
delivered to him by the new technology that, now, all of our
children have access to.