Cyberbullying: a virtual menace takes its toll on college students

Cyberbullying is becoming a serious problem on college campuses. Girl Image via www.shutterstock.com

It’s easy to think of college as a time for freedom from problems you might have had in high school, like bullying. You might also think that students have become more confident in their identities, so bullying may not be as hurtful.

However, new research shows that cyberbullying is becoming a serious problem on college campuses, especially for female students. Depression and even suicidal thoughts have been found to be high among victims of cyberbullying. In fact, cyberbullying has been associated with a three-fold increase in depression in female college students.

My recent study with the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team of the University of Washington, that looked at cyberbullying and its negative consequences amongst female students at four universities in the Midwestern and Western US in the fall of 2012, found that a fourth of the students had experienced cyberbullying.

In our study, 27% of women had experienced cyberbullying at some point during their college years, whether as a bully, a victim, or both. These rates of cyberbullying are comparable with those seen amongst high school and middle school students, where cyberbullying was believed to be the worst.

Cyberbullying carries a high risk of depression

Earlier studies on cyberbullying have shown that girls in middle and high school were not only at a greater risk of cyberbullying but also had higher rates of suicidal behaviors. Even those who had cyberbullied others were found to have increased odds of depression and alcohol abuse.

Amongst the cyberbullying behaviors in college, sexual harassment was most distressful.

Sexual harassment was amongst the worst forms of cyberbullying. Girl image via www.shutterstock.com

Such behavior included unwanted sexting or other sexual content, such as sexually explicit text messages or emails.

Other cyberbullying behaviors in college included hate speech and hacking of personal online accounts: 26% of students had experienced hate speech. And half of the students reported either hacking another person’s online accounts or being victims of hacking.

Our research shows that some other cyberbullying behaviors, such as posting embarrassing photos, revealing secrets without permission, or creating an online profile with an intention to harass, were quite similar to those seen in high school.

Different perceptions of cyberbullying in college

It was interesting to note the differences in what is perceived at the college level to be a bullying behavior. Studies have shown that college students see some cyberbullying behaviors differently than younger students.

For example, cyberbullying insults in younger teens might attack another person’s physical appearance, while in college, cyberbullying could consist of attacking someone’s personal beliefs and identity. Interestingly, name calling, which is explicitly seen to be hurtful in high school years, was dismissed by college students as a joke or taken to be a sign of childish behavior.

Another difficult area when it comes to cyberbullying in colleges, is that authorities do not know what to do about it. Whereas in middle and high school, the school might have jurisdiction to enact consequences for bullies or reach out to victims, in college such measures are not in place.

Most colleges and universities have policies about sexual assault, hazing and discrimination, all of which are on a spectrum of aggression that includes bullying, but there is little in these policies that can check cyberbullying.

Should authorities intervene?

Even students feel that college authorities should not interfere. A previous study has suggested that college students feel that school officials or law enforcement should not intervene if cyberbullying is happening.

Often the bullying party remains unknown. Even during our research, we were unaware whether the cyberbully was a friend, acquaintance, romantic partner, or an anonymous stranger. As the field of research is very young, we do not know how much that matters.

In terms of addressing this problem, authorities are faced with complex issues. Policies addressing social media and other electronic behaviors in student codes of conduct are, as it is, slim, and cyberbullying in particular is unlikely to be addressed.

Furthermore, campuses rightly value freedom of speech, which could offer protection to online bullies.

It is important then for students to learn early on about their digital footprint and the impact that negative posts can have on their future relationships and employment.  Colleges too can work toward creating a climate of respect online and in-person, as well as offer support to those suffering from the negative impact of cyberbullying.

Finally, if students see cyberbullying, they should voice their concerns over it, instead of remaining silent. As a researcher, I believe that building a supportive community will enable a healthy dialogue on the issue.