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Cyberbullying in Graduate School: Awareness & Prevention

Cyberbullying continues to be a part of online learning, including graduate school. Awareness and prevention of cyberbullying are key to creating a safe space for master’s students.

Author: Taylor Cromwell

Editor: Staff Editor

Cyberbullying in graduate school? Yes, it happens. According to this study in the Procedia Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences, nearly 22% of college and graduate level students (that’s almost a quarter of all college students!) have been bullied. Additionally, 38% of college students say that they personally know someone who has been cyberbullied. While much of the discussion in the media around cyberbullying focuses on teenagers, this study shows that it extends into higher education, posing a risk for students at all levels.

Cyberbullying can also happen to instructors with nearly 34% or professors in undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs reporting that they have been the target of cyberbullying. It seems no one is exempt from the possibility of being bullied online.

Awareness and prevention of cyberbullying begins with understanding what it looks like and how it impacts graduate students and professors. This guide shares tips for online class “netiquette,” the basic principles of of civil discourse, recognizing and reporting cyberbullying, as well as a variety of resources for awareness and prevention. Keep reading to ensure that you know how to respond when you see bullying happen in graduate school or experience it yourself.

What is Cyberbullying?

Bullying is defined as a repeated aggressive behavior where one person (or group of people) in a position of power deliberately intimidates, abuses, or coerces an individual with the intention to hurt that person physically or emotionally. Sadly, it is not a new problem for graduate students, particularly with the rise of digital technologies and social media.

Cyberbullying has added another layer to this troubling issue. Cyberbullying (i.e., virtual bullying) is “an aggressive act or behavior that is carried out using electronic means by a group or an individual repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.” This abuse of power occurs through digital technology such as text messages, social media, and online forums.

Where does cyberbullying typically occur?

  • Cyberbullying takes place through digital devices (e.g., computers and cell phones), social media (e.g., Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram), messaging apps, and online forums such as Reddit. Essentially, any place where people congregate online is a potential medium for cyberbullying.
  • At the college level, cyberbullying can take place through email, text messages, online class forums, social media, “Rate Your Professor” types of websites and more. It is essential a form of harrassment.
  • Cyberbullying is also on the rise in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) games like Roblox, Call of Duty Black Ops, and Fortnite also include voice and text chats abused by cyberbullies.
  • Since most online relationships made during college and graduate school are formed online (i.e., through social media, virtual games, student forums, etc.) these individuals are especially at risk for cyberbullying.

What makes cyberbullying unique?

  • Cyberbullying is different from other forms of aggression and harassment because of its ability to be visible to someone’s peers or happen in private messages and not be visible to others. When cyberbullying isn’t visible to the public, the abuse and harassment can continue for long periods before being noticed or reported.
  • Cyberbullying spreads among a wide number of people because of the network effects of social media. The initial act is no longer confined to the bully and often spreads through large groups of people. This can ruin a person’s online reputation and lead to long-lasting harm.
  • Cyberbullying relies on a power imbalance, such as physical or psychological weakness, between the bully and the victim. That imbalance could also be based on numbers if a group is targeting a single person.

What are the types of cyberbullying?

  • Impersonation: When bullies pretend to act as a peer online. When social media accounts let you create your own name and photo, anonymous users can steal the information of those they want to bully and share harmful posts as that person.
  • Cyberstalking: Occurs when a bully intentionally tracks or follows someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable or fearful, leading to anxiety, distress, and fear.
  • Flaming: Usually begins as a private exchange where a bully insults or is mean to another person to provoke a more public fight online.
  • Outing: When someone shares your secrets and private information online. The bully typically knows the victim and seeks to harm them by sharing private details.
  • Harassment: May take many forms in an online space. In a broad sense, it involves something that causes harm intentionally to another person.
  • Trolling: Occurs when someone online seeks attention or causes a stir through inflammatory comments on social media posts. This is a public form of cyberbullying.
  • Catfishing: When a bully creates a fake profile or online account to intentionally trick another person. Bullies often use a variety of fake photos and names.
  • Denigration: When cyberbullies send or publish cruel rumors, gossip, and false statements to damage another’s reputation.
  • Exclusion: Involves being left out of events and plans. For online students, this might include being excluded from study groups or group texts.
  • Trickery: Similar to outing, has an added element of deception where bullies befriend their target to gain trust then abuse that trust and share private information.

How Does Cyberbullying Impact Online Graduate Students?

The percentage of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives has more than doubled since 2007. Online graduate students are at additional risk for cyberbullying in school since all their coursework and social interactions with other classmates occurs virtually.

Cyberbullying can lead to emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, embarrassment, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Certain forms of cyberbullying also harm someone’s online reputation in the long term, since many sites are accessible to schools, employers, and others for some time.

To help online graduate students who are victims of cyberbullying know they aren’t alone, the sections below give examples of what cyberbullying and its effects might look like.

Examples of Cyberbullying

  • Student to Student: Cyberbullying between students, particularly in graduate school, due to the high levels of perceived competition, can take place in many different areas online. Some of these areas include school messaging forums, text messages, and other private communication. The power imbalance can be physical in nature of position, age, or authority. It can also occur by virtue of numbers, where the victim is outnumbered by several people.
  • Student to Teacher: Some studies have shown that up to 30% of college professors, including online instructors of undergraduates, graduates, and doctoral students. have been the targets of cyberbullying by students. Students might use public forums like RateMyProfessors to share harmful and reputation-damaging information about an instructor, or they might bully instructors through emails or unwelcomed texts. Teachers fear that cyberbullying could impact future teaching opportunities and decrease student retention.
  • Teacher to student: When a teacher cyberbullies a student, power dynamics are likely at play. Teachers play a crucial role in creating a safe environment through skilled classroom management that doesn’t tolerate an environment of bullying, but sometimes they are the source of the bullying. If something like this is happening, it is always best to report these behaviors to the correct authorities in order to ensure students are safe on campus.

Effects of Cyberbullying on Students

  • Anxiety and depression. Cyberbullying can have lasting psychological and emotional effects, including putting individuals at greater risk for anxiety and depression.
  • Decreased academic performance. The impact of cyberbullying on academic performance shows through in a student’s study habits and exam scores since they often avoid school because it is no longer a safe environment.
  • Lowered self-esteem. Cyberbullying can also negatively impact a student’s self-esteem. Students who experienced cyberbullying have significantly lower self-esteem than those who have little or no experience with cyberbullying.
  • Increased absences. Over 60% of students who experience cyberbullying say that it affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school. As a result, some students skip school or certain events to avoid it.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family. When facing cyberbullying in isolation, some individuals draw inward and isolate themselves from friends, family, and other social interactions.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities. Students experiencing cyberbullying often avoid hobbies and other social activities, especially if they feel at risk of more harassment.
  • Substance abuse. Students who face long-term cyberbullying often develop substance abuse and addiction problems, including an increased likelihood to smoke, drink, and use drugs to cope with their experiences.
  • Self-harm or considering suicide. Individuals under the age of 25 who face cyberbullying are twice as likely to self-harm and attempt suicide than their peers who haven’t been harassed online. Call 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you or someone you know is considering suicide.

How to Support Master’s Students Dealing with Cyberbullying

When you’re being harassed, you may feel isolated and like no one else can relate. For this reason, receiving emotional support can be a lifeline for victims of cyberbullying. Consider the following suggestions to help you become a source of encouragement and support to someone dealing with cyberbullying.

  • Provide a listening and supportive ear. Reassure the person that sharing their experiences was the right thing. Listen to their struggles, so they don’t have to face them alone. A safe space to open up might be all a person needs to take steps to deal with cyberbullying.
  • Don’t blame the victim. Reassure them that this isn’t their fault. Cyberbullying victims often suffer in silence because they falsely believe they could be blamed for the situation or even ignored.
  • Help them collect and compile the evidence. With cyberbullying, there’s usually a digital evidence trail of the harassment. Go through interactions and document the instances of bullying. Take screenshots, which can be kept even if the original is deleted, as evidence to report specific instances of cyberbullying. Emails, texts, voice messages, and more can also be documented in this way.
  • Encourage them to report it or get help from authorities. Encourage the person to take action, maybe by reporting the bullying on a specific social media platform or to university officials. A strong support system can encourage those being bullied to get help.
  • Speak to a cyberbullying expert. An expert can help connect you to the resources you may need to respond and help the person recover.
  • Create a safety plan. People who are experiencing cyberbullying should create a safety plan for themselves. This could include changing passwords to social media sites, blocking those bullying them, and reporting any instance of bullying.
  • Encourage them to prioritize their mental health. Going through cyberbullying for an extended period is grueling, exhausting, and harmful to a person’s mental health. Encourage the person to prioritize their mental health by taking a break from social media or seeking professional help.
  • Let them know you are there for them. Support looks different to everyone, but just showing up and providing a listening ear is a great start for helping anyone going through a difficult period.

Online Class Etiquette and Civil Discourse

Online instructors should make an extra effort to set up and cultivate a safe place for discussion and debate. Instructors are often the first point of support for someone who is experiencing cyberbullying in an online college forum. To ensure an environment is healthy and safe, instructors can implement and strictly enforce etiquette guidelines. Below are some etiquette and civil discourse guidelines that instructors, as leaders, would do well to implement in their online courses to help stop cyberbullying.

  • Keep an open mind to the ideas and opinions of others. Students should be encouraged to share their ideas and opinions and feel safe doing so. By upholding a standard of openness, online instructors can encourage students to interact with their peers and be respectful during all interactions.
  • Be open to being challenged. Set guidelines about how to debate, disagree with, and challenge another’s opinion. Students should be open and willing to be challenged healthily and understand how such openness is critical to their learning and growth.
  • Ask clarifying questions respectfully. Asking questions can be an effective way to understand someone’s point of view and opinion. Being respectful in all interactions fosters healthy debate and discussion and discourages attacks and aggressiveness.
  • Assume best intentions. Assuming the best intentions of others fosters a healthy online learning environment. If you notice a grammatical mistake or error in another student’s work, for example, respond in the way you would want someone to tell you if you made the same mistake.
  • Think about what you are going to say and edit thoroughly before posting. In an online setting, you have the benefit of taking the time to properly read through a response and decide how to best communicate your idea. It’s best to think about how your response may be received and if you’re communicating it respectfully.
  • Recognize and value diversity and understand that it’s an opportunity to learn. Everyone in a class has a unique viewpoint and perspective. Classroom leaders can help students see the value that this diversity brings, and each student should feel obligated to respect and value that diversity as an excellent learning opportunity.
  • Acknowledge that others’ life experiences inform their perspective and respond in a way that recognizes those experiences. When encountering new ideas or different perspectives, recognize how life experiences shape viewpoints. It’s okay to ask questions about something you may not be familiar with but avoid putting others down because of their different experiences or perspective.
  • Avoid sexist, racist, homophobic, or victim-blaming comments and anything derogatory. Online courses need guidelines for the expectations surrounding debate, including what rhetoric isn’t tolerated. By not allowing derogatory comments or anything sexist, racist, homophobic, or victim-blaming, instructors create a safe place for students to learn.
  • If you see something, say something. Students can be advocates for their classmates. Instructors can create an environment where individuals feel comfortable speaking up and calling out inappropriate behavior.

Resources for Cyberbullying Awareness & Prevention

Educating yourself on the types of cyberbullying methods and the prevention resources available is the first step to helping those who experience cyberbullying. Finding resources to aid you in implementing what you’ve learned is the next step. The following resources provide tips for students, colleges, educators, and more to help them become more aware and take steps toward preventing cyberbullying.

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: The AFSP gives those affected by suicide a nationwide community empowered by research, education, and advocacy to act.
  • CNET Podcast on Cyberbullying: This podcast episode discusses facts and misconceptions about cyberbullying.
  • Cyberbullying Research Center: This is one of the leading online education resources for cyberbullying, including helpful data, research, and more.
  • Eluna Network: This nonprofit offers an online guide to cyberbullying awareness that includes examples and tips for prevention.
  • End to Cyberbullying Organization: This organization is dedicated to keeping anyone safe online. Learn about prevention, statistics and how to help.
  • How to Report Cyberbullying: This page provides a list of links for how to report cyberbullying on various apps and websites.
  • Maryville University Blog: This guide on what cyberbullying is from Maryville University Online will help you learn what you need to know about cyberbullying in college.
  • NPR Stories on Cyberbullying: This page includes past reports that NPR has done related to cyberbullying.
  • Out Online for LGBTQ Students: This report covers how Cyberbullying impacts LGBTQ students.
  • Psychiatric Times: This article covers what can be done about cyberbullying in college.
  • State-by-State Guide to Cyberbullying Laws: Find your state’s guide to the current cyberbullying laws and learn more about your specific state’s regulations.
  • Stay Safe Online: Created by the National Cyber Security Alliance, this site shares a ton of information on how to stay safe online, especially on social media networks, as well as information on privacy and what information should or should not be posted online.
  • stopbullying.gov: This site provides resources from government agencies about what cyberbullying is, who’s at risk, and how to prevent and respond to bullying.
  • Veto Violence: Veto Violence, an initiative through the CDC, focuses on stopping all forms of violence, including those related to bullying. It provides tools, training, and prevention tips.

Interview with an Expert on Cyberbullying

Krystal Walker

Krystal Walker, Director of Wellness Education, Youth Equipped to Succeed Krystal began her journey with Youth Equipped to Succeed as part of the merger with Aim for Success in July 2019, where she had been employed since 2013. As the director of wellness education, she oversees a team of professional speakers who deliver Wellness Education programs in schools and the community. Krystal also leads the YES Program Development Review and Evaluation Committee (PDRE) comprised of licensed counselors, educators, law enforcement, and medical professionals to ensure its wellness education programs are presenting the most credible research and effective, engaging content. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Krystal holds a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation psychology and a master’s degree in Christian education from Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her husband reside in Aubrey, Texas. Together they have a daughter.

1. What should students know about cyberbullying? What can it look like?

It’s good for graduate students and professors to realize that cyberbullying is a little more nuanced than traditional, in-person bullying because it takes place through technology: social media, text messaging, gaming platforms, etc. In some cases, cyberbullying can be more dangerous than in-person bullying because of the constant access these students have to technology. Think of it this way: if someone is being bullied at school, eventually they get to go home and get a break from the person mistreating them. But cyberbullying can happen at school AND home. In a way, a person who is cyberbullied may experience it 24/7. This can be incredibly difficult for students to navigate.

2. What factors are leading to the rise of cyberbullying over the past few years?

As technology continues to evolve, graduate students are more likely to make more connections online. We’ve all probably noticed that connecting with people online has made it easier for people to hide behind a screen and say whatever they want, to whomever they want, without putting much thought into how their words affect others. As a result, cyberbullying has been on the rise.

In addition to the advancements in technology, students today are facing significant cultural pressures and negative messages that generations before them never experienced. Years of increasing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other issues related to mental health among young people have only worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the permeation of social media.

It is because of these factors that the Biden Administration and the U.S. Surgeon General have called for coordinated and urgent action to address the current mental health crisis. Grad students and professors need help navigating these different pressures and cultural changes.

3. How can students help their peers who are facing cyberbullying?

If a grad student knows someone dealing with cyberbullying, there are a few things they can do. They could encourage them to refrain from responding to cyberbullying. We like to say, “the best response is no response.” Responding to bullying online won’t always solve the problem. Most of the time it is like pouring gasoline on a burning fire – it just gets bigger and more intense.

Lastly, especially if cyberbullying is leading to any type of self-harm, get them the help that they need. No one should feel pressure to fix their friend’s problems, but they can be a big help by helping seek the aid of a mental health professional.

5. Is there any other helpful information that we can share?

We believe that this generation of grad students (and college students as well) has the power to create a more positive online world. Through our YES cyberbullying and technology safety programs, we empower students to do their part in making the healthiest online connections so that this world can be a better place. Whether we realize it or not, we are all connected; we share this world, so let’s continue to challenge this generation to make our world kinder and a better place by putting an end to cyberbullying.