Every Learner Everywhere

Are Students Experiencing Harassment on Your College or University’s Digital Learning Platforms?

Trolling has become a part of online life, particularly for women and minoritized students. According to 2018 research from the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of young people in the United States have experienced cyberbullying and harassment online, and 4 in 10 Americans have experienced online harassment.

The 2020 edition of the annual technology survey by EDUCAUSE found that college students from marginalized groups are often subject to cyberbullying from peers, and the large majority — 78 percent in the EDUCAUSE survey — happens on personal social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately, however, institutionally sponsored platforms are not immune to trolling and cyberbullying, and 12 percent of college students who report harassment say it happens in the courseware and other platforms used for coursework.

For example, students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are more likely to be harassed “in environments or apps their institution provides or sponsors” than their peers, the survey showed. More Black, Latino, and Asian students reported harassment on those platforms, and Black students were also more likely than individuals of other races and ethnicities to be harassed on platforms their instructors had recommended.

If the threats and bullying normally associated with personal social media accounts are also happening on the digital platforms required for their academic work, it raises the question of the responsibility educators have to ensure safe online environments.

Who is harassed at college?

According to EDUCAUSE, 84 percent of students say they have not been harassed online at college. But among those who are, women and minoritized students receive more of it and receive more harmful forms of it, such as hate speech, threats, and having intimate images of them shared without permission.

Similarly, research collected by Hollaback!, an anti-harassment advocacy group, shows that 67 percent of students have been harassed (online or otherwise) at college, particularly affecting female, Black, Latino, Indigenous, and LGBTQ students.

A 2020 report by the Association of American Universities found that 59 percent of undergraduate women experience harassing behavior on campus, including non-consensual sharing (or the threat of sharing) of intimate images and videos. LBTQ students — particularly transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students — also suffer high harassment rates at school, with 65 percent of trans and nonbinary students reporting harrassment on campus.

Such behavior is usually sexual in nature and can escalate to violence; according to RAINN, the anti-sexual violence network that operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 26 percent of female students and 23 percent of trans, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming students are sexually assualted at college.

A more qualitative view of how pervasive online harassment is can be understood from the growth on Instagram of “Black at” accounts — social media accounts such as @blackatharvard where students and alumni call out racism at individual schools. The incidents shared on these accounts, many of which are anonymous and were not reported to the schools, include microaggressions, racist harassment, and sexual harassment and assault of Black women.

What are common forms of online harassment?

Several kinds of behaviors fall under the umbrella of online harassment, including doxxing (releasing the personal details of an individual on the public internet without consent), swatting (reporting a threat from a target’s home to trigger a police raid on that location), and cyberstalking (using electronics to stalk or threaten a target).

The most common online harassing behaviors, according to the EDUCAUSE survey, are hate speech, trolling, hacking, message bombing, and sexual harassment.

Hate speech: Hate speech is abusive or threatening speech, expressing prejudices against a specific group, such as a racial group, a religious group, or LGBTQ people. Slurs and other pejorative terms are included in hate speech. 

Trolling: Trolling is the deliberate posting of inflammatory messages, the derailment of online conversation, or the attempt to start fights online. A wide range of obnoxious online behavior can be categorized as trolling, and usually people who engage in trolling behavior are doing this for their own amusement. Hate speech can also be used in trolling, however. 

Hacking: Hacking happens when one person enters the account of another. Hackers may use their entry into another person’s account to steal information, to stalk their victim or to steal photos with which to threaten or embarrass the victim. An alarming 23 percent of students in the EDUCAUSE survey who experienced online harassment reported this form of it.

Message bombing: Message bombing is the constant sending of messages — either via text or social media — to a victim. At a minimum, these messages can be annoying but are often more damaging. The contents of the messages may be menacing, and the barrage itself is experienced as a threat. A phone or account that’s being bombed may be unusable. Message bombing campaigns might also run up account service charges.

Online sexual harassment: Online sexual harassment encompasses a range of behaviors, including unwanted messages or images of a sexual nature. It can also include coercion to participate in sexual behavior, threats, or blackmail. Fifteen percent of students reported sexual harassment. 

How can instructors promote safe online learning environments?

Despite the fact that many students are harassed on institutionally sponsored platforms, very few are reporting it, according to EDUCAUSE. Just 4 percent reported abuse to their instructors and only 6 percent took their harassment to the administration.

Most students “handle” harassment themselves by blocking accounts, avoiding hostile online spaces or ignoring it. Many seem resigned to the harassment, in fact. One student told EDUCAUSE that her harassment didn’t feel like a big deal because she’s used to it: “It kind of comes with being a girl on the internet,” she said. Others said they felt reporting harassment would cause them greater trauma than handling it themselves and moving on.

Related reading: Bringing Trauma-Informed Teaching Into the Online College Classroom

If students are not reporting harassment, it can be difficult to know when it happens and on what platforms. Signs that harassment may be happening may include suddenly avoiding certain platforms that are used in class, withdrawing from class discussions while still turning in work, or dropping out of class altogether.

While instructors cannot force students to come forward, there are some steps instructors can take to encourage students to report harassment.

  1. Discuss anti-harassment policies. At the beginning of a course, talk openly about anti-harassment policies of the institution or department. If there is no policy, develop one for your own class. By emphasizing that such behavior is against class policy and that harassing behavior is illegal, you’re setting a tone in your class that shows you’re aware of cyberbullying and its harmful effects. 
  2. Encourage students to come forward. Let students know that you have an open door policy when it comes to harassment. If they’re experiencing something that makes them uncomfortable, they should speak to you. 
  3. Reach out. When you suspect a student is being harrassed, reach out and ask. 
  4. Listen. When students do reach out, take their complaint seriously, and help them take the proper action.
  5. Assess harm. PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual suggests employers work with harassed employees to assess the likelihood of harm to a victim, calling in security. College instructors may need to contact campus safety, but you should always work with the student when you escalate the incident to the proper authorities. 
  6. Document incidents. Keep a record of the harassment incidents that happen in your class. This may be necessary for legal reasons or useful in informing the administration of harassment incidents so that better reporting and anti-cyberbullying policies can be developed. 

Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19: Faculty Playbook provides several resources related to the above recommendations, including sample language to include on the syllabus.

Handling harassment on college platforms

Colleges and universities, for the most part, have anti-harassment policies in place, but there’s a lot of work to be done to reduce the number of online harassment incidents.

These steps range from a need for more training around cyberbullying — for all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students — to more streamlined reporting mechanisms that won’t retraumatize victims. Institutions should also make sure there are consequences for the harassers, and codify that in student codes of conduct and handbooks.

Trolling may seem like a regular part of life for college students, but colleges have more power to police online behavior than the police themselves, who often struggle to prosecute online harassers in distant jurisdictions. When online harassment on a college-sponsored platform has clearly defined consequences, institutions can act to minimize bullying and the harm it causes victims.