Q: It can be tough to know what to do about cyberbullying, especially if the bully is anonymous. What steps can college students take to protect themselves?
A: Even if the cyberbullying is anonymous, students should still report the cyberbullying to a trusted administrator at their college or university. Reporting it to a resident assistant, faculty member, advisor, or better yet, campus security is a really good idea. When I worked in higher education, there were occasions when our campus security and IT department were able to determine who was behind the cyberbullying even though it was anonymous. Or, there are times when they will be able to ascertain who it is by examining the content of the posts.
Even if they can’t determine who the cyberbully is, they can offer the student resources they may need at the time. Most college campuses have access to counseling services and other resources that can help a student understand and deal with cyberbullying. Also, if colleges know that there is cyberbullying occurring on campus, they can take measures to prevent it, which includes educational programming at orientation, or in the residence halls, etc.
Most colleges and universities have some type of disciplinary process or student conduct office, and also have rules against any form of bullying or harassment. If administrators or campus security can locate the cyberbully, they can pursue disciplinary action if the cyberbully is a student; or, if the cyberbully is a non-student, they can help the victim get in touch with local law enforcement or seek other types of interim measures like restraining orders through the courts. Cyberbullying is serious, and sadly, has resulted in students taking their own lives, like Tyler Clementi, Amanda Todd, etc. Colleges and universities understand this and should be proactive if the student reports the behavior.
Q: Some states have initiated legislation that fights against bullying, but what about cyberbullying? Are there any promising court cases or legislation on the horizon?
A: Every state has some form of anti-bullying law or policy, but each state is different, each state defines bullying in different ways, and many of them apply to elementary and secondary schools, not colleges and universities. In many cases, it is the behavior that will be examined and not whether the bullying is occurring in person or through some form of technology. The analysis will be whether the behavior meets the elements defined by the state law or policy. However, some states are being more proactive and actually adding the term cyberbullying or electronic bullying into their laws and policies.
Also, if the cyberbullying is a result of harassment based on a protected class, i.e., race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc., then the behavior will constitute a violation of federal law, which all colleges and universities that receive federal funding must comply with. It is important for students to know what their college or university policies are regarding bullying and harassment, and to take some type of action when they see cyberbullying happening. Unfortunately, in many cases, there are other people who know that the cyberbullying is occurring. This is why bystander intervention is so important. If a person knows that someone is the victim of a cyberbully, that person should take some type of action to stop the behavior. Types of action they can take may involve reaching out to the victim, telling a friend or family member, or reporting the cyberbullying to campus safety.
It is important to note that some will take the position that cyberbullying is a form of free speech and to prevent it would be a violation of our constitutional right under the First Amendment. Public colleges and universities have to deal with this argument. Private colleges and universities do not.
Q: What can colleges do to reduce the problem of cyberbullying?
A: Many colleges and universities are grappling with whether they should take steps to ban certain social media apps that allow anonymous posts because of the detrimental impact they have on students. Some have banned certain apps, while others have determined that banning the apps is not the answer and that the best course of action is preventative programming and education. Programs designed to educate students about what constitutes bullying and the long-lasting impacts it can have on the victims are critical. Bystander intervention programming is also critical. Posters and bulletin boards in the residence halls and in commuter lounges, etc., that are designed to educate and also inform students about where they can go or who they can talk to if they are the victim of cyberbullying is really important.
The students need to see the colleges and universities take action to stop cyberbullying when it is occurring. If students know that the school takes it seriously, that it has policies and procedures designed to prevent the behavior, the students will be more likely to report cyberbullying when they see it or when it is happening to them.
Colleges and universities also have to educate their faculty and staff about the perils of cyberbullying. As hard as it may be to hear about, schools need to talk openly about cases like Tyler Clementi, Jessica Logan, Hope Witsell, etc., so that faculty, staff and students know about the dangerous consequences that can result because of cyberbullying. Schools need to have trained counselors available to talk to faculty, staff and students who may be triggered during educational programming because they too may have been the victim of cyberbullying.
Q: Anything else you might like to add about cyberbullying of college students?
A: Suicide is the most severe consequence of cyberbullying, but there are many other symptoms that can result when a person is the victim of cyberbullying. Victims are at greater risk for depression. They are also more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. Therefore, it is critical that college students understand that they do not have to handle cyberbullying alone, and that there are so many people on their campus who can help them, if they just reach out. Students need to be reminded that talking to someone is the first step to making the pain associated with cyberbullying go away.