By: Celia Carr- Assistant External News Editor
Research out of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia found that online abuse that has been so prevalent among teenagers is carrying through to post-secondary.
Papers regarding the research that were presented at a symposium in Vancouver on March 13 states that undergraduate students are harassing their peers on social media, and additionally that instructors are on the receiving end of the bullying more than ever before. Whether it’s online groups which belittle certain professors or coworkers doing the harassing, students are not the only ones subject to bullying in university.
“When you look at cyberbullying among younger kids, or kids in middle and high school, usually by age 15, it dies off,” said Professor Wanda Cassidy, an education professor who worked on the study with two others. “What was surprising was the fact that it is happening in universities to the extent that it is.”
While a majority of the studies have been done on cyber abuse involving elementary and teenage students, research on bullying between adults is limited. Cassidy and her colleagues were interested in doing research on how university students fit into the realm of cyberbullying, and, how it affects faculty members.
Over 2,000 people were surveyed and 30 participants from four Canadian universities were interviewed qualitatively — two in British Columbia, one in the Prairies and one in Atlantic Canada.
Although some of the data from two universities is yet to be received, information that has been made available so far indicates that roughly one in five undergraduate students has been cyberbullied, primarily through Facebook, text messages and email, according to Cassidy. Some students said they were the target of rude and inappropriate slurs.
“[I was called] a ‘spoiled little rich bitch,’ mocked my bulimia in public messages to others on Facebook, messaged me multiple times telling me my boyfriend was cheating on me, that I was nothing more than ‘a clingy bitch, slut and loser,’” said one of the students who was interviewed in a focus group.
Faculty members also said they’ve been harassed online by students or colleagues. This is more prominent between female faculty members than male. In one interview, a professor said she was attacked via emails and text messages from a student who called her “lousy, incompetent and useless.”
“I am reporting you … they will take away your licence, you are so stupid,” one of the messages to the professor said.
Another incident in a university was when a professor found herself fighting with a colleague who was convinced she was gossiping about her.
“She texted me 73 times in one day, and over a week it was about 180 messages. When I didn’t respond, it was worse,” she said.
However, where elementary and high school bullying tends to fade more often than not, Cassidy notes that the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with more adult consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.
“There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal … which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.
“There should be some element of security that they don’t have to worry about colleagues bullying them, but obviously they do feel like maybe there’s no way out, there’s no way getting around it.”
Cassidy remarked that the sense of hopelessness is not uncommon in these situations, especially because it is often more difficult to punish perpetrators in online situations.
Furthermore, as more communications occur online, it becomes harder to avoid the angst that comes with reading a potentially abusive email or comment, Cassidy stated in closing.
Cassidy commented that the website Rate My Professor, allows students to post comments about their professors, both good and extremely awful, which is particularly distressing for instructors.
“Insulting and lied about me,” said one instructor, who claimed a student wrote unjustified and untrue remarks on the website.
“I did not really feel good about going to that class knowing that someone was hating me. I almost talked about it with the class, but decided not to. It was pretty depressing and unmotivating. It was also pretty mean.”
“You just have to forget about it and hope that it’s not affecting [whether students will] take your course, or other professors are looking at it and it’s your reputation.”
Roughly half of the students and faculty interviewed said they’ve tried to stop the cyberbullying but less than half of them reported a successful attempts mostly due to policies which do not enforce anti-bullying. The study suggests that the first step to dealing with bullying issues regarding university students and faculty would be to implement policies that enforce anti-bullying.
The research team for the study examined 465 policies from 75 universities between Nov 2011 and Jan 2012.
Margaret Jackson, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University said that many of the universities seemed reluctant to acknowledge that online harassment in higher education is considered cyberbullying.
“The connotation seems more applicable to younger individuals,” Jackson said. “I think we’ve moved through that now, so there is an appreciation that if this isn’t cyberbullying, it might be cyber harassment.”
“I think there needs to be an appreciation on the part of faculty and students that there is an impact to their behaviour and they should be acting respectfully,” Jackson said.
One of the papers from the study will be published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education this year.