As acceptance letters come in, students get excited about what their college years will hold, but one thing most don't plan for is dealing with harassment from their peers.
Don't people stop picking on each other when they graduate?
Unfortunately, young adults continue to target and harass one another beyond the halls of high school. A college campus, once full of friendly faces, can still turn into a minefield for students if they’re the target of bullying.
It wasn’t too long ago that a group of male students at a New England college created a private Facebook group where they gossiped, insulted, and spread rumors about the girls that lived across the hall.
The environment on this residence hall floor, usually united with constant chatter in the common room and group dinners in the dining hall, suddenly shifted when one of the guys admitted to the online discussions. The news spread quickly. Girls demanded to see what was written and were horrified at the things said about them and their roommates.
Some girls completely stopped socializing with the rest of the hall, too embarrassed and shocked by what they saw. Other girls spoke up, hurt by the boys they lived with and trusted as their friends. The incident divided the floor and left students feeling vulnerable in the place they lived for the rest of the school year.
Today, this type of behavior is on everyone’s radar and has a name. “Verbal bullying includes taunting, name-calling, making threats, and belittling the target. Physical bullying can include hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, biting, and taking personal belongings. Psychological bullying consists of spreading rumors, social exclusion, intimidation, extortion, and sexual harassment,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and the Founder and Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College.
Cyberbullying, as named by today’s media, occurs when someone is targeted or victimized online through forums, social network groups, or directly through instant messaging or texting.
Victims on campus
Bullying, both on and offline, leaves students feeling anxious and exposed, as if they’re naked in front of the entire world. Instead of focusing on classes, grades, and new opportunities, victims of bullying might stay home or skip class to avoid running into their harasser. They might experience isolation, depression, and anxiety as a result of being targeted or humiliated by a peer. In extreme instances, students have been driven to violent behavior or even suicide from being bullied.
Many students aren’t aware of how frequently bullying occurs after high school—and they don’t expect it to happen to them. A study conducted in 2008 at Union College in Schenectady, New York, found 82% of the students surveyed had witnessed bullying on campus. All of the students in the study said that bullying in college occurs at a higher rate than in high school.
According to researchers, students might not even realize they have been bullied, or that they have been bullies themselves, until they are directly asked about it. “Sometimes conversations are insulting and casual to be funny, but if you keep repeating those insults and you aren’t reacting to the emotional response of your victim, you are bullying them,” says Dr. Alexis Kennedy, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who also studies college cyberbullying.
Now a common method of harassment, cyberbullying is generally perceived differently than offline behavior; the online threats are more often dismissed because they don’t seem as “real.” The separation of a screen prevents the harasser from properly judging the consequences of their actions, or how they might affect someone else. “There is a perceived anonymity,” says Dr. Kennedy. “They say things they would never say face-to-face because they can’t see the other person’s reaction.”
College administrators and students in particular are working to discourage bullying in their campus communities because of the potentially tragic consequences.
A highly publicized incident awakened the country to the seriousness of this issue last September. After an extreme invasion of privacy and being victimized online by his roommate, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, committed suicide. Since the incident, the student body has united under a campus-wide Civility Project, which they say “will test the hypothesis that a community-wide effort to cultivate small acts of courtesy and compassion in our daily lives will result, over time, in a more charitable campus culture—one marked by an increase in thoughtful communication and a decrease in hostile encounters.”
At Boston University, the student body is rising up in protest against RateBU.com, a website where students can log on with their school e-mail accounts to upload and “rate” pictures of their fellow classmates.
“RateBU.com detracts from a feeling of comfort and safety on campus,” wrote the school’s student union in a resolution that officially condemned the website, which was created by a fellow student, calling it “an offensive website that does not accurately represent the views of the student body or the culture that the student body strives to create.”
Patrick O’Brien, a sophomore at the school, recently had his picture put up on the site by a friend, but without his permission. “The site is no joking matter. I honestly had mixed feelings because I was creeped out that someone took my profile picture and put it on RateBU.com, but then you kind of want to see how you are ranked. These types of sites create all sorts of feelings that range from feeling violated to being curious.”
What can you do?
According to Dr. Kennedy, students don’t think about they way they treat each other because they don’t see their peers as offenders, abusers, or harassers. “The trouble with young adults is they don’t want to hear about it because they think it doesn’t apply to them, and then when something does happen they don’t know where to turn,” she says.
Remember there are resources to help if you are being victimized. Counselors, friends, and family can help you feel safe again when someone has targeted you in this way. “What I want students to understand the most is that they are never alone in dealing with this,” says Dr. Englander, who also published research on college cyberbullying in 2010. “There are many resources and people they can turn to today for support and help with these situations.”
“It’s very hard for people to not defend themselves, and they have to basically ‘sit on their hands’ and not let the other person get to them,” says J.A. Hitchcock, President of Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) and WHOA-KTD (Kids/Teen Division) (www.haltabuse.org). When a situation does arise, and you are targeted, don’t retaliate, she says. “It’s a natural reaction and that’s when things can get out of control. The bully/harasser knows they’re getting to you and they’ll continue to escalate. It’s almost as though it boosts their ego.”
A good way to prevent bullying is to protect yourself and your privacy. Think of social media networks as a wall in a bathroom stall that people scrawl things all over. Once you post personal details of your life online, they become material for anyone looking to target you.
“Sharing any information about yourself online turns that information into public property,” says Dr. Englander. She recommends even keeping your relationship status to yourself. Make sure you know your privacy settings too; the default settings aren’t necessarily the most secure. Finally, try searching for yourself online. What pops up? If you don’t like what you see, you might be able to do something about it.
Today’s “Immersion Generation” has transformed the standards for communication and socialization, so it might seem like a disadvantage to stay offline and totally isolate yourself from social media. Specialists compare using social media to driving a car. It’s convenient and practical, but there is a risk every time you get behind the wheel that you will have an accident. All you can do is make sure you’re doing what you can to protect yourself, just in case.
By monitoring your own behavior online, you can help stop this trend. “We as a community can only prevent bullies from bullying,” says O’Brien.
Combat cyberbullying in your community
- Respect other people and treat them the way you want to be treated.
- Don’t contribute to cyberbullying by forwarding or adding to cruel messages.
- Don’t be afraid to stand up to the cyberbully and report his or her behavior to a teacher or trusted adult. The cyberbully is the one in the wrong.
- Never tell anyone your online passwords or your cell phone PIN. Never leave your cell phone lying around.
- Never share personal information, such as your home address or phone number, online.
- Never take naked or compromising pictures or videos of yourself or your friends on your cell phone. Even if you just share them among your friends, they can soon spread like wildfire. And it’s illegal.
- Think before you react to something online.
- If you are being victimized online, block the person doing it from your Facebook page or instant messaging account and communicate only with people you know.
- Raise awareness of the serious consequences of cyberbullying with your friends and your community.
- Talk to your parents about what you do online; don’t shut them out of your online life.
- If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.