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Cyberbullying a problem at Canadian universities, study shows

Researchers say universities need stronger policies and more public education to counteract online bullying.


Three researchers at Simon Fraser University report that cyberbullying is a growing concern at Canadian universities and that universities will need to address it forcefully, with clearer policies than the ones now in place.

Wanda Cassidy, associate professor of education and director of SFU’s Centre for Education, Law and Society (or CELS), Margaret Jackson, professor emerita of criminology, and Chantal Faucher, postdoctoral fellow at CELS, are among only a handful of people in the world examining cyberbullying at universities. Since 2012, the three have been working on a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to investigate cyberbullying at four Canadian universities. They surveyed more than 2,000 students and teaching staff, conducted focus groups and interviewed 30 individuals to learn more about experiences of cyberbullying.

So far they’ve found that roughly one in five student respondents experienced cyberbullying. Depending on the school, between 11 and 17 percent were victimized by people they knew from university. (Results so far are from three of the four institutions.) While some students reported being harassed by text messages or email, most were targeted on Facebook. They recounted experiences such as finding altered images of themselves on social media, being mocked for academic failures and mental illness, and receiving offensive texts from ex-partners.

As for teaching staff, 72 to 79 percent re-ported being extremely or somewhat concerned by cyberbullying against themselves. Some had been bullied by students (Dr. Cassidy herself was the target of harassing emails from a student in a distance education class); however, more reported being cyberbullied by colleagues. The researchers found that women were disproportionately affected: women accounted for 74 percent of students and 70 percent of professors who had been bullied.

A female faculty member told Dr. Cassidy that a male colleague would “barrage” her with “horrendous” emails criticizing her work and calling her incompetent – actions he initially denied, but later told her she deserved. Most problematic, said Dr. Cassidy, “was that when she went to her seniors, nothing was done; she was told ‘there’s nothing in our policy and he’s permanent staff.’ ” The woman escaped the situation two years later when the man left the department. Dr. Cassidy said she has hundreds of pages of transcripts from participants describing incidents like these.

As part of the project, Dr. Jackson scanned policies of 74 universities across Canada. Though not a single policy used the term “cyberbullying,” she identified 465 policies that could be used to address it, from student codes of conduct to acceptable computer-use policies to harassment and discrimination policies. She said the first priority to counter bad behaviours is to clearly define the criteria for cyberbullying under existing policies. The next is to get the message out.

“In one focus group, a student said they knew there were some great policies and resources available, but they did not know that they included cyberbullying,” Dr. Jackson explained. If there is a policy and people don’t know about it, added Dr. Faucher, “it’s almost as if there were no policy.”

The researchers also recommended “preventative policies” that set out the parameters for a civil and responsible campus community. “The solution is not just policy, zero tolerance or expulsion because that’s not always effective,” said Dr. Cassidy, adding all stakeholders had to be engaged in “changing the way we do things.”

Both teachers and students reported in the surveys that they had experienced negative effects from cyberbullying on their work, their mental and physical health, and their sense of safety. Of those teachers who said they’d been bullied online, more than half felt like quitting and 20 percent at two of the universities said they felt suicidal as a result of the attacks. “Cyberbullying is not the kind of thing that can be laughed off,” Dr. Cassidy said. “It dominates your thinking, it affects your sleeping and your overall satisfaction at work.”

At SFU, both research and open consultations are now driving policy development and programming around cyberbullying. According to Terry Waterhouse, chief safety officer at SFU, addressing online behaviours has become a priority as course delivery and university communications increasingly move online.

To better understand what’s going on in the university’s online communities and how to keep them safe, Dr. Waterhouse asked Dr. Cassidy, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Faucher to present their findings at a public symposium. More than 115 staff, faculty, administrators, students and other stakeholders of postsecondary institutions in B.C., Alberta and Washington State gathered at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver in March to discuss cyberbullying.

The symposium reinforced the fact that students and faculty know cyberbullying is a problem at the university but “they hear silence on the issue,” said Dr. Waterhouse. One student attendee pointed out that the university’s plagiarism policy is expressly covered in classes and syllabi at the start of a new term. Why not address cyberbullying and harassment in similar ways?

“We’re trying to use this [symposium] as part of the developmental process so we’re not creating the policy in a vacuum,” Dr. Waterhouse said. An effective solution will marry public education with clear policy, he said. It’s an approach backed up by the research.

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