Changing the online culture

Ella Rhodes reports on new guidelines around harassment and welfare.

In a move to help universities in the battle against online harassment Universities UK and the University of Bedfordshire recently published guidelines on how best to deal with harassment and raise awareness of it. Changing the Culture: Tackling online harassment and promoting online welfare draws on evidence including higher education institutions’ existing practice, research from academia and anti-bullying charities, and the Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme developed by the University’s National Centre for Cyberstalking Research (NCCR).

According to anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label there has been an increase in the number of those aged 12 to 25 who have experienced online harassment from 17 per cent in 2017 to 30 per cent in 2019. While there’s an assumption that ‘digital natives’ know how best to spot and deal with harassment online this is not always the case, and UUK’s research also found that many who work in universities felt there was a great deal of complexity in responding to, and recognising, online harassment.

The report makes more than 20 recommendations including using the term ‘online harassment’ in policies and ensuring it is clear to staff and students that cyberbullying can constitute harassment or a hate crime, moving accountability for tackling online harassment to senior leadership teams and involving students in developing, executing and assessing initiatives to tackle online harassment while including students’ unions, academics and other staff.  

Dr Emma Short, Director of the NCCR and a Reader in Cyberpsychology said that universities should not assume that students always recognise abusive online behaviour or themselves feel equipped to respond to it. ‘There is a clear responsibility to safeguard students both from abuse, and the perpetration of abuse through a lack of awareness.’

The NCCR’s Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme, a one-day training course, was used as a case study in the development of the guidelines. Short said it was designed to create a positive culture change, aiming to increase understanding of what constitutes unacceptable online behaviour and promote greater preparedness to seek help when encountering it.  

‘Our initial findings did indicate a general tolerance of negative behaviours and a minimisation of possible risks, but changes in attitudes following the training were achieved. Most people indicated the course had increased their readiness and willingness to take action if they witnessed harmful online interactions.’ 

Download a copy of the full report.

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