Changing the culture on cyber bullying

Katy Haigh

Policy Researcher
Universities UK

Universities UK's 2016 'Changing the Culture' report set out a strong direction for universities to address violence, hate crime and harassment affecting university students, but online harassment was an area that required further attention.

Universities and organisations including the NUS, Jisc and Tell MAMA have highlighted that the internet is becoming an even more prominent vehicle for harassment and hate crime. As social media is already a part of students' everyday life, and something that many students use extensively as users of numerous social media platforms, managing online harassment is inherently complex.

As technology develops, and social networking sites continue to expand, online harassment continues to grow and take on many forms. The lines between on and off-line harassment are becoming increasingly blurred among young people.

For many, seeing and experiencing harassment and abuse is just part of being online. This highlights a huge disconnect between the perception that this behaviour is simply 'banter', 'a laugh' and something not to be taken 'too seriously'. And the real impact such behaviour can have both on the victim – who's physical, emotional and mental wellbeing can be severely impacted – but also on the perpetrator themselves. They are often unaware of the impact such actions have on other people, but also on their own employability and career prospects.  

Deep-seated, discriminatory attitudes are emerging as 'normal' forms of online communication among young adults who have grown up in the digital age. There is, generally, a lack of understanding about how online content can serve to exacerbate stigmas and stereotypes about individuals or groups of people.

As highlighted in the government's refreshed 'Action Against Hate: 'two years' on' published this week, understanding of online hate crime is limited and data on prevalence of hate crime is patchy.

In 2008, 71% of students in an NUS survey did not report online harassment to anyone; with many of them reporting that they did not know of any person who they could inform. Many people who experience online harassment and attempt to seek support are left dissatisfied; many feel they are not taken seriously by law enforcement, social media platforms, or their places of work/study. Only 38% of participants reported that the university provided adequate support when they did inform someone.

It is essential therefore that work is done to raise awareness of the impacts of online harassment, and to ensure that students are properly supported to tackle it.

Universities UK has been working with the support of the University of Bedfordshire and Dr Emma Short Director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research, through their successful catalyst funding bid, to investigate the causes, scope, and impacts of online harassment to develop new guidance for the sector to enhance institutional practice in this area.

Today, Universities UK has invited academic experts, professional staff and other key stakeholders to a roundtable event, chaired by Bill Rammell, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire, to explore how best to support the sector in tackling online harassment. The outcomes from the discussion will inform the development of the guidance.

The guidance will be available to universities by the end of  2018 and will provide a set of principles to underpin a strategic framework to support an institution-wide approach to preventing and responding to online harassment. 

Universities UK's members have been working to tackle violence against women, hate crime and harassment across the sector and, with this new guidance, we will support the sector to change the culture in the online world as well.

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