As an admitted social media (SM) junkie, I often write about and publicly celebrate the virtues and values of SM. Accompanying my strong endorsement of SM is the equally resounding call for responsibility and positivity when going social. In a recent Socialnomics.net column titled “Campus Cyberbullying: A Tragic but Preventable Crime” I wrote about cyber bullying and cyber stalking, while discussing some best practice examples that included Clarion University, Millersville University, and the University of West Alabama. These campuses utilize clear policy statements, provide external resources, and internal support mechanisms for victims or witnesses of cyber bullying. Sadly, as my cyber bullying research continued, I found much more disturbing behavior (and plenty of material) to write more about this topic, specifically for Student Affairs Professionals (SA Pros).
The Unexpected Cyber Bully
Many of us in student affairs are familiar with a cyber bullying story, may have heard about or navigated a cyber stalking case, or perhaps helped a student deal with a relationship gone wrong via a public social media breakup. In these cases, no matter how negative the experience, the bad actor(s) make sense to us, even if their behavior and choices do not. However, there are a few cyber-bullying stories that shockingly involve public figures who are far beyond the bounds of our judicial process or expectation. In 2010, Andrew Shirvell, the assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan was fired for his blog posts about University of Michigan student Chris Armstrong, then president of the Michigan Student Assembly. Shirvell used his blog to describe Armstrong as “a radical homosexual”, a “Nazi” and “Satan’s representative.” In April of 2014, Aaron McCorkle, an openly gay Winston Salem State University student, was victimized by local radio personality DJ Brian “B-DAHT” McLaughlin. “DJ B-DAHT” tweeted overtly negative comments about McCorkle’s sexual orientation during a campus election.
Loss of Life
Among the most hurtful cyber bullying stories are the students who have been driven to suicide. The popular belief that cyber bullying suicide is limited to adolescence is very inaccurate. Among incidents that ended tragically for victims, some have involved college campuses. These heartbreaking stories include 19 year-old Alyssa Funke, who was a straight-A student and a freshman at University of Wisconsin River Falls. Alyssa committed suicide in 2014 after being cyber bullied by her high school classmates. In 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, a talented 18 year-old violinist, committed suicide after a webcam-spying incident involving his roommate and another student. My sympathy is extended to the families and friends of these two young people and every other student who has completed a suicide attempt due to cyber bullying.
The Anonymous Victim
In addition to the documented acts of cyber bullying and cyber stalking where the victim is commonly known and identifiable, there are numerous websites that allow students to post Anonymous Confessions. These web pages are where posts describing allegations of rape victimization, risky and unhealthy behaviors, and more recently expressing feelings of anguish or suicidal ideations over being targets of cyber bullying are commonplace. In a traditional campus experience, an SA Pro has leverage to identify these students and seek out the individual to help them mitigate their negative experiences through intervention or referral as needed. The anonymity provided by these confession websites takes this ability away from us.
With all of these evolving challenges related to cyber bullying, here are a few ideas for SA Pros to empower students to navigate these issues and shape the campus-wide perspective.
1. Clarify Our Position
SA Pros often get the first opportunity to engage new students through orientation, campus life, housing and residence life, or other student services. Using these early communication points to educate the community about cyber bullying can help students know where to make reports if they become victims or witness negative cyber behavior. We can also teach students about the impact of their comments or posts when they may not realize they are adding to an already harmful situation. Devoting time during orientations, welcome weeks, or opening week in housing to discuss cyber bullying or cyber stalking, explain policies, and provide outlets for support can be great teaching moments.
2. Teach Our Peers
How many times do we talk to our campus colleagues and are shocked (or sometimes not) that they don’t have Twitter, Facebook, read blogs, or otherwise engage in SM? This also represents a population that may not be as familiar with cyber bullying. Even frequent SM users may find additional facts and trends on these issues helpful. The SA Pro who infuses cyber bullying into conversations and plans related to training, student communication, or programming may help their peers and colleagues have more familiarity with this aspect of the student experience. Providing data or facts on cyber bullying can lead to new directions in training professional and para-professional staff, program strategies, and how we engage our students.
3. Influence Our Policies
A large number of our student affairs roles have us directly in the middle of student engagement and interactions. Other SA Pros are in positions to adjudicate cases, make referrals or provide counseling, or respond to a range of behavioral and social issues. Fewer of us have the opportunity to write the very policies that we enforce. However, we can still have major influence on those who do write, review, and refine our campus policies. Collecting and sharing information and trend data about cyber bullying or cyber stalking with other stakeholders on our campuses can make the difference when policy decisions are made.
4. Continue Our Preparation
As an SA Pro, our expertise is built from our training, our education, and our experience. Some of us often face moments where we must teach about our profession and the scholarship that supports our work each day. Similarly, attending or leading trainings and educational forums related to cyber bullying can prepare us to help our students, teach our colleagues, and sharpen our expertise. I encourage SA Pros to seek out training or workshops, join anti-bullying campaigns, support faculty research, and participate in professional development that addresses cyber bullying.
During my career, seeing any student be hurt or lose their life never gets easier. Today, we are engaging an evolving, sometimes anonymous or unfamiliar, yet raging foe in cyber bullying. As we serve our campuses and students each day, seeking to shape and positively influence lives, cyber bullying is a burning flame that threatens all of our students. We have to be ready to extinguish the match before the fire rises.
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