Social Media and Campus Bullying: The Challenge of Online Anonymity

Social Media and Cyber Bullying on Campus

Posted on 2 June 2015 |

cyber bullyingOne the hottest, unplanned topics among attendees at NASPA15 in New Orleans was an anonymous social media tool called Yik Yak.  

What had been a largely positive and helpful stream of comments turned ugly and vulgar. Comments on attendees' sexual activity, appearance and general worthiness from the behind-the-screen anonymity disrupted the otherwise positive atmosphere of the event. Were this a casual gathering of university students, it would have been simply problematic. But that this should occur at a gathering of professionals and student volunteers from college Student Affairs offices only adds to the disturbing nature of the postings. These are the very people charged with addressing the problem of campus violence and sexual harassment, and yet they were clearly among the ones abusing their fellow attendees with crude comments and cruel observations. 

Only a few weeks later, in an attack unrelated to NASPA, but definitely tied to Yik Yak, Grace Mann, a student at Mary Washington University, was killed after being threatened repeatedly on Yik Yak.  What is perhaps most disturbing is that the UMW was allegedly well aware of the threats, but failed to take any action to try and find the sender or protect Ms. Mann. A year earlier. students at Colgate had protested the racist messages on Yik Yak, including a number of death threats. According to student leaders of the protest, nothing was done. 

These stories, which are just the tip of the anonymous social media site's issues, are nothing new. Hateful, threatening posts have existed on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media forums since social media started. Hiding behind avatars and pseudonyms, people have displayed a horrific willingness to taunt, shame, threaten and embarrass people who had no way to identify, much less confront their harassers. And the cyber bullying trend shows no sign of slowing down, even when depression, physical assaults, murders and suicides are the end result. 

So what are colleges doing?

The sad answer in too many cases is "Nothing." Administrators in the Grace Mann case cited First Amendment protection for the communications, and said they had no recourse. Most college campuses in the US and UK are simply not prepared to address the realities of cyber bullying, especially when anonymous apps like Yik Yak make it so hard to trace the message sources. 

What those schools may not realize is that failing to properly training students, faculty and staff on bullying prevention, and failing to act affirmatively to investigate, report and act on instances of online threats and bullying can put their schools squarely on target for Clery Act and Title IX violations, and the consequent loss of federal funding. 

What should schools be doing? 

There's no way to get rid of online sites like Yik Yak. But there are ways for colleges and universities to deal with the harm they can cause, including:

1) Taking student reports of cyber stalking, threats and bullying seriously and investigating the situation. A threat against body or property received online is just as serious as one received in person (as the many tragic cases demonstrate) and should be treated as such.
2) Providing mandatory training for all members of staff and the student body on the harm caused by online bullying
3) Offering counseling services to people experiencing online attacks or threats.
4) Developing a standard for dealing with students or staff members found engaging in cyber-attacks, including loss of scholarships, expulsion and loss of job. The standard should also include filing charges with the proper authorities when threats of harm or violence are made.  

Online threats and insults aren't going away. But with the right training, on-campus resources and an administrative commitment to zero-tolerance, it is possible to reduce the impact. 

Image credit: http://www.fixers.org.uk/

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