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7 ways UK universities should tackle online harassment

online harassment
Universities UK's guidance is the first national resource to help universities prevent and respond to online harassment and promote online welfare. Source: Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash

In the UK, one in two young people have been bullied online before the age of 25. From 2017 to 2019, the number of people who have experienced online harassment jumped from 17 percent to 30 percent.

These figures have been quoted by Universities UK (UUK), the representative body for UK higher education, in their latest report, Changing the Culture: Tackling online harassment and promoting online welfare.

As part of its work to help universities tackle harassment, hate crime and gender-based violence, the report lists seven principles to support universities in preventing and responding to this growing virtual malice. Only less than a quarter currently have adequate procedures in place, experts say.

“Misuse of social media and other online platforms can leave students exposed to abuse, affecting their mental health and well-being, disrupting their education and potentially impacting on their future employability and career prospects,” said Professor Debra Humphris, Chair of UUK’s Student Policy Network and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton.

“In order to tackle online harassment and cyberbullying, we must consider the specific threats it poses as part of our duty of care to all students. This needs to be acknowledged across institutions as part of strategic work to tackle violence, harassment and hate crime.”


A Department for Education spokesperson told The Guardian that the government expects universities to heed this guide and put measures in place:

“Online harassment is unacceptable in any circumstance and can have a devastating impact on the victims. We expect universities to follow this guidance and put robust policies and procedures in place, including effective disciplinary processes and ensure that victims are supported.”

The report distinguishes “online harassment” as opposed to “cyberbullying,” which is defined in UK law as inappropriate behaviour online that could constitute a criminal offence

Among acts of online harassment listed in UUK’s report include cyberstalking, doxxing, trolling and sexting. However, it acknowledges that there could be overlaps with cyberbullying and that as technology and social media evolves, more forms would emerge.

To help universities deal with these, UUK recommends the following principles and recommendations to UK universities:

  1. Sustain commitment and accountability from senior leaders
    Implement a whole-institution approach
    Engage students in a shared understanding of online harassment and in the development, delivery and evaluation of interventions
    Develop and evaluate prevention strategies
    Develop and evaluate response strategies
    Promote online safety and welfare
    Share knowledge and good practice

The University of Suffolk’s higher education online safeguarding self-review tool was highlighted as an example others could follow. Created by Professor Emma Bond, Director of Research and Head of Graduate School at Suffolk, this tool is a checklist on policies and practices free for any institution to use.

Bond said in the report: “Universities must better engage with the issue, raise awareness of how to report and better support students, as posting intimate images of non-consenting others along with identifying information leads not only to humiliation and embarrassment but could also increase the potential for further online and offline harassment, which could also be illegal”.

The report also highlighted University of Leicester’s suite of online modules to deliver hate crime training to staff and students. Based on real-life case studies, it offers good practice recommendations to increase knowledge and understanding. The modules can be accessed at www.centreforhatestudies.com.

At the University of Exeter Law School, a guide ‘How to Use Social Media Responsibly’ has been developed for law students.

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