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Cyberbullying on the Rise, on Campus

Some faculty members maligned online by students, colleagues

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As greater numbers of people use the Internet and more work is conducted online, expect cyberbullying to spike as well, says Thierry Guedj, associate director of BU’s Faculty & Staff Assistance Office. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Cyberbullying: it’s not just a teenage battlefield anymore.

Last November, a 49-year-old Missouri woman was convicted on charges related to a case in which she created a fake MySpace persona to dupe her daughter’s middle school nemesis, who later committed suicide. Colorado prosecutors recently used 19th-century libel statutes to pursue a criminal case against a 40-year-old man who posted defamatory comments about his ex-girlfriend on Craig’s List. Teachers have found themselves on the receiving end of smear campaigns on Facebook and RateMyProfessors.com, a popular Web site where college students dish about their instructors — from workloads to teaching styles to the flattering cut of their jeans.

BU students and professors are not immune, says Thierry Guedj (GRS’01), associate director of the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office, a confidential campus resource that offers free counseling and referral services for University employees. Guedj, a Metropolitan College adjunct assistant professor of psychology, who specializes in children’s and family issues, has had to educate himself about online harassment as more victims are finding their way to his door. With the number of online users exploding, he says, the phenomenon is expected to only get worse.

“Technology is at the crossroads with behavioral health,” Guedj says. “Whether it’s a dating site, MySpace, or a professional networking site, there are individuals who are vulnerable, such as teenagers, to what other people think of them. And there are people who are more on the antisocial side of things, who enjoy hurting and exploiting people. These people are dangerous — in the workplace and in the schools — and can do a lot of damage.”

BU Today asked Guedj what victims of cyberbullying can do if they are attacked, and how to avoid becoming a target in the first place.

BU Today: The increased media attention would suggest a spike in online harassment. Is the Internet creating more bullies?
Guedj:
I think it’s a pathology that used to take other forms. If online aggression were not an option, people would find other ways to be aggressive. It’s just a new way of doing business except that the Web offers the sense of anonymity and almost unlimited power. If you’re unseen, you feel invulnerable. You think you cannot be found out. People feel much more at ease displaying aggressive behaviors when they don’t see the person they’re hurting. There’s this sense of objectification of the victim, which is very easy to do online, but a lot harder to do in person.

Middle-schoolers and teens tend to be seen as the primary perpetrators and victims. How is this playing out among college students?
I’ve seen it more on the high school level, but both in high school and in college, there’s been a lot of cyberbullying around sexuality and spreading rumor and gossip, particularly about the sexual promiscuity of certain individuals.

Any advice for parents who suspect their children are being harassed?
Often, for kids who are being attacked, there is a lot of shame associated. They already feel awkward. They’re going to be afraid that if something happens online their parents are going to be mad at them. They’re going feel doubly victimized, first by the perpetrator, then by authority figures who don’t respond in a kind, supportive way. I would really encourage students to immediately reach out to friends and family or professors or whoever is a resource. And to the people who are authority figures, I would encourage them not to be judgmental and to offer support and kindness rather than criticism.

What about online harassment in the workplace?
I’ve been in touch with several faculty members who have been cyberbullied through RateMyProfessors.com. Professors have been accused of things they didn’t do, or their reputation has been sullied. One faculty member told me that a student had accused him of showing up high in class. Others have made veiled comments that a faculty member might be sexually harassing them. We had a case where a faculty member was harassing another faculty member by putting a bad rating on my RateMyProfessors.com. So there has been student-on-professor, and professor-on-professor harassment. It really hurts them badly when they read that about themselves online. People have become quite depressed about it.

What can someone do to combat this?
Typically, what I’ve advised people is to put it out in the open. For example, for a professor accused online, I would immediately tell them to speak with their department chairman and say that someone is spreading rumors about them online that are untrue, and that the chair and university authorities should be aware and hopefully launch an investigation into who is perpetuating these crimes or libel behaviors. For staff, the first thing is to immediately tell a supervisor, then seek help with the Faculty and Staff Assistance Office, and maybe get some legal assistance if they need to.

What moral or ethical responsibility do sites like Facebook, MySpace, and RateMyProfessors.com have when it comes to cyberbullying?
I can’t comment on the legalities of their responsibilities. But their sense is that it’s a first amendment issue and people should be able to say whatever they want, and it looks as though Web site owners can’t really be held liable for content that’s being posted to their sites. But RateMyProfessors, for example, has created a new feature called “Professors Talk Back,” which is a way for professors to respond to accusations or characterizations that they feel are unfair. That’s the way some sites have dealt with it. They give a right of response to the aggrieved party.

Some prosecutors are dusting off archaic criminal statutes and finding other creative ways to confront cyberbullying. That seems to indicate that technology has far outpaced the means to combat its abuses.
That’s a point I always make. Technology moves about 10 times faster than the legal process. Even in the rules process in business or academia, the technology is always at least 10 steps ahead. I don’t see any solution to that. To be honest, I think technology is going to increase in speed of evolution, and there’s absolutely no way anybody can keep up in the legal or business or academic community. What we can do is have general ethical rules about using media properly. But there’s no way we can have specific rules for every technology and every new way of interacting socially online.

What’s the most important things people should know about online communication and interactions?
Even though the Internet gives the illusion of anonymity or confidentiality or privacy, it’s mainly an illusion. What I tell people about e-mail and Facebook and things like that is, if you don’t want the world to see what you just wrote, don’t write it. I tell people to act as if there was no privacy, because there is none. What the Internet gives is the illusion of privacy, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. There is less anonymity and privacy than ever. Eventually, everything that gets written and communicated can be traced to its originator. If there’s any sense that you make a communication that could be controversial, you should probably abstain.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Cyberbullying on the Rise, on Campus

  • Anonymous on 01.07.2009 at 4:59 pm

    Disagree

    I have to disagree with the section about RateMyProfessors. For one thing, comments like “prof. was high one day in class” cannot be taken too seriously. It may just be a joke as to the professor’s demeanor and personality.

    Also, I find it rather frightening that something like “veiled comments that a faculty member might be sexually harassing them,” is seen as cyberbullying and not a serious indicator of a potential crime. I don’t think people just make random lies about sexual harassment.

    RateMyProfessors is one of the few resources available to students at large to get real information about professors. There is no other real forum for students. It is very important to catalog events like the mistreatment of a student.

    For example, the policy of BU is that grades cannot be protested to anyone high than the professor. That means cases like mine, where I brought a test to review with my professor and he falsely accused me of changing my answers, cannot be taken up with anyone. I had to sit and listen to him tell me how he “can clearly see how I wrote over his red pen grading marks,” which is really frustrating considering I did not change anything and that he would not admit that he made an error correcting my exam in the first place.

    Without something like RateMyProfessors, there would be no other way for students at large to know about professors who display poor conduct.

    My last comment would be that if professors are upset and getting depressed over their ratings, that is their own problem. No one is trying to stop sports writers from critiquing professional athletes. Take a page out of the pro athletes’ book, don’t look at the sports section (or in this case RateMyProfessors) if you can’t handle it.

  • Anonymous on 01.09.2009 at 9:15 am

    Cyberbullying - Personal Responsibility

    In response to ‘Disagree’ – I am amazed that a college student would be so ignorant as to ignore vital points in attempting to make an argument. Cyberbullying is an ‘anonymous act’ – so anyone can lie, spread rumors, damage your reputation or make false allegations with no statement of fact whatsoever. If students are using the RateMyProfessors site – they should be aware that the comments may be true, they may be lies, or they may be the result of a disgruntled student (or as revealed in the article – a competitive coworker). The comments are simply opinions. Sports writers claim their work – they use statistics, comparisons to other players – and they sign their work openly so everyone knows who wrote it, giving the opportunity for rebuttal.

    You are missing the point entirely that the dangers of cyberbullying involve putting people in situations where they have no ability to prove themselves innocent. As for your complaints about sexual harassment, professors with poor conduct, or the issue with changing grades – you really should understand that there are already established policies and procedures of how to report any such issues to have them handled appropriately. Stating such things on the Internet is not a reporting mechanism and it will not resolve a real issue. Proper reporting may actually involve speaking to someone face to face and supplying facts for them to investigate. Speaking to your Dean or Department Head for guidance in such situations is usually a good idea.

    As for professors getting upset and depressed – perhaps it is because they don’t wish to be judged guilty without due process – you know – the American way……..

    So – since the Internet is here to stay – I’d encourage everyone to take more personal responsibility about what gets written and posted. Ruining someone’s life, job, family, etc. based on opinions and rumors – that is vicious, unethical, ignorant, and perhaps borderline criminal. Anyone entering the job force should know that employers are checking such sites, and even rumors can ruin your chances at a job, promotion, etc. You may want to think about how that could affect you personnally in your future, and be more proactive to keep the Internet a positive tool rather than a destructive one.

  • Anonymous on 01.27.2009 at 10:39 am

    disagree

    America would be taking a frightening turn for the worse if people were no longer able to write what they wished about others, even if they are lies. Can you investigate and prosecute people for verbally spreading rumors? No that would be ridiculous, pretty soon people would not even be able to form opinions. To look at it in a different way, think of all the journalists who were displeased with Bush and the war in Iraq. Now imagine that the government tried to criminally prosecute them for making slanderous remarks about the president, the backlash would be enormous at this perturbation of our fundamental right; the freedom of speech.

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