University of Bedfordshire takes action against online harassment

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Researchers from the University of Bedfordshire have worked with Universities UK (UUK) to develop new guidance aimed at helping universities prevent and respond to all forms of online harassment.

The guidance issued today (date) Changing the Culture: Tackling online harassment and promoting online welfare [LINK to full report], uses evidence from the Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme developed by University’s National Centre for Cyberstalking Research (NCCR).

Dr Emma Short, Director of the NCCR and a Reader in Cyberpsychology said: “Universities should not assume that students always recognise abusive online behaviour or 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.”

While conducting the research to create this guidance, many universities highlighted the inherent complexity of addressing online harassment as various social media platforms are used extensively by students as part of everyday life.

Dr Short said: “The Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme was designed to create a positive culture change, aiming to achieve an increase in understanding about what constitutes unacceptable online behaviour and promote a 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.”

Bedfordshire was awarded catalyst grant funding by the Office for Students to develop the Bedfordshire Cyber Awareness Programme and it forms a vital part of the University’s Peer Assisted Learning Leaders (PAL) training.

The UUK guidance for universities includes principles and detailed recommendations for universities.

Some of the recommendations the guidance calls on universities to follow include:

  • Moving accountability for tackling online harassment to the senior leadership team
  • Meaningfully and consistently involving students in the development, execution and assessment of initiatives to tackle online harassment, as well involving students’ unions, academics and all staff
  • Updating partnership agreements such as the student contract or code of conduct to include expected behaviours in the online sphere
  • Adopting the term ‘online harassment’ in policies and making clear to staff and students that what can be referred to as ‘cyberbullying’ can constitute harassment or a hate crime
  • Implementing accessible reporting mechanism(s) for students to make a disclosure or report
  • Collecting data on how online harassment is experience within the student cohort and providing governing bodies with regular reports on online harassment
  • Working with partners including schools and colleges to provide early information to students on arrangements to tackle harassment and consequences of inappropriate behaviour online
  • Regularly reviewing policies and using tools such as the University of Suffolk’s higher education online safeguarding self-review tool to support this
  • Encouraging staff as role models in championing appropriate online behaviour
  • Considering adopting the questions on the National Student Survey (NSS) relating to student safety.

The guidance is an extension of UUK’s work to help universities tackle harassment, hate crime and gender-based violence.

OfCom reports that 99% of 16-24 year olds in the UK use social media at least weekly.

According to Ditch the Label’s annual bullying survey*, 69% of all respondents said they had been abusive towards another person online.

*Ditch the Label holds one of the largest datasets on online bullying and young people.

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