Cyberbullies have grown up.
Research out of Simon Fraser University suggests that the online abuse that has been so prevalent on the teenage battlefield is carrying through to the arena of adults at Canadian universities.
Papers to be presented at a symposium in Vancouver on Wednesday say that undergraduate students are harassing their peers on social media, instructors are on the receiving end of student-led online smear campaigns, and faculty members are belittling their colleagues in emails.
“When you look at cyberbullying among younger kids, or kids in middle and high school, usually by age 15, it dies off,” said education Prof. Wanda Cassidy, who worked on the study with two others.
“What was surprising was the fact that it is happening in universities to the extent that it is.”
While many studies have been done on cyber abuse involving adolescents, research on the behaviour among adults is limited. Cassidy said she and her colleagues were curious to know whether teens who bully others online still do it after entering university.
The research team also wondered whether faculty staff are being targeted in cyberspace.
They surveyed over 2,000 people and interviewed 30 participants from four Canadian universities — two in British Columbia, one on the Prairies and one in Atlantic Canada.
Though some of the data from two universities are still trickling in, the available information so far indicates roughly one in five undergraduate students has been cyberbullied, mostly through Facebook, text messages and email, Cassidy said.
Some students said they were the target of crude slurs.
“Called me a ‘spoiled little rich bitch,’ mocked my bulimia in public messages to others on Facebook, messaged me multiple times telling me my boyfriend was cheating on me, that I was nothing more than ‘a clingy bitch, slut and loser,'” said one student who was interviewed in a focus group.
Faculty members — mostly women — also said they’ve been harassed online by students or colleagues.
In one interview, a professor said she was bombarded with emails and text messages from a student who called her lousy, incompetent and useless.
“I am reporting you … they will take away your licence, you are so stupid,” the professor recalled from one message.
In another school, an instructor found herself fighting a losing battle against a colleague who was convinced she was gossiping about her.
“She texted me 73 times in one day, and over a week it was about 180 messages. When I didn’t respond, it was worse,” the instructor said.
Cassidy said the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with grown-up consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.
“There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal … which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.
“There should be some element of security that they don’t have to worry about colleagues bullying them, but obviously they do feel like maybe there’s no way out, there’s no way getting around it.”
The sense of helplessness is not uncommon, Cassidy said. The anonymity granted to cyberbullies makes it difficult to go after perpetrators.
And as more communications occur online, it becomes harder to avoid the angst that comes with reading a potentially abusive email or comment, Cassidy said.
She added that the website Rate My Professor, which allows students to grade teachers anonymously and post comments, is particularly distressing for instructors.
“Insulting and lied about me,” said one professor, who claimed a student wrote defamatory remarks on the website.
“I did not really feel good about going to that class knowing that someone was hating me. I almost talked about it with the class, but decided not to. It was pretty depressing and unmotivating. It was also pretty mean.”
There are ways professors can combat negative comments, such as posting a video rebuttal, but for the most part, many feel there is little they can do, Cassidy said.
“You just have to forget about it and hope that it’s not affecting (whether students will) take your course, or other professors are looking at it and it’s your reputation.”
Just over half of the surveyed students and faculty said they tried to stop cyberbullying. But less than half of them reported success. Cassidy said that’s partly because few university policies specifically address online bullying.
The research team examined 465 policies from 75 universities between November 2011 and January 2012.
One of the researchers, Simon Fraser criminology professor emerita Margaret Jackson said that many of the universities seemed dubious that online harassment in higher education should be considered cyberbullying.
“The connotation seems more applicable to younger individuals,” Jackson said. “I think we’ve moved through that now, so there is an appreciation that if this isn’t cyberbullying, it might be cyber harassment.”
The study found most universities did have policies around student conduct, discrimination and harassment, but not all were specific to online venues.
Jackson said devising clear-cut policies is a good start, but universities should also put resources into counselling and prevention to reduce cyberbullying.
“I think there needs to be an appreciation on the part of faculty and students that there is an impact to their behaviour and they should be acting respectfully,” Jackson said.
One of the papers resulting from the study will be published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education this year. Two other papers are being peer-reviewed.