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10.1 Cyber bullying and harassment 

In the section 7, Managing your digital presence, we looked at the fact that, certainly on the part of young people, a considerable amount of inappropriate behaviour and behaviour that causes offence to others may stem from naivety and the desire to win peer approval rather than any malicious intent. In this section we look at how such behaviour, whatever the original intent, can have serious consequences both for perpetrators and victims.

Online bullying and harassment is often carried out by the same types of perpetrators and for the same reasons as in the physical world. In the digital world however the choice of victim may be more random and people can be subject to this type of persistent behaviour from complete strangers.

Behaviours that may constitute bullying or harassment can take a variety of forms and various terms have been coined to describe behaviours that specifically relate to the use of social media.


Creeping involves following another person's actions on social media such as looking at all of their posts and photographs without necessarily making any attempt to communicate directly with that person. As the name implies, this practice is not usually associated with healthy interest and may lead to other things. Teenagers appear to be developing a set of unwritten social protocols around how often, and in how many different fora, you might look up somebody you were attracted to without appearing to be a creeper.


Online stalking is akin to stalking in the physical world and involves persistent and unwanted contact with another person. High profile cases often involve obsession with celebrities but this can happen to anyone and often involves former partners or other people who feel they have been badly treated in some way. Stalking via a single channel can often expand to intrude on various aspects of everyday life.



Trolling involves deliberately upsetting individuals or groups of people by inflammatory material posted on the internet via blogs, micro blogs, chat rooms, wikis etc. Internet trolls may perpetrate types of abuse that are racist, sexist, homophobic, relate to religious views etc., or may carry out more seemingly random abuse such as defacing tribute sites dedicated to dead individuals in order to upset friends and family members

Webcam ratting

Ratting involves spying on an individual by taking control of their webcam using a piece of malicious software (known as malware or spyware) called a Remote Access Trojan (RAT). RATs can be difficult to detect because they do not usually show up in lists of the programmes you are using or have an obvious impact on system performance. Ratters are able to gain access to (and record from) the webcam without activating the indicator light so the victim is unlikely to know they are being spied on. The RAT virus is usually installed on the victim's computer by them clicking on a link or an attachment in an email. Videos and images obtained through ratting may be used for blackmail purposes - they can also be used to obtain confidential information including bank account details and other security information similar to other kinds of phishing attack (see section 10, When it goes wrong).

  Students are under a lot of pressure and bullying or harassment via social media can often be the last straw for some people leading to depressive disorders and even suicide. There have also been concerns that cries for help via social media posts have gone unheeded . The social network Facebook recognises this and in 2014 launched a guide Help a friend in need, specifically aimed at encouraging college students to look out for, and act upon, signs of emotional distress in their friends' social media posts. Facebook states:

People can report suicidal content from a post by clicking on the upper-right corner and following the prompts. Our team personally reviews these reports 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and provides people in need with resources in their local language from one of our 33 global suicide prevention partners.”

Awareness of bullying and harassment is probably strongest in terms of its association with young people but anybody can be affected. The prevalence of social media use is increasing the extent to which teachers and tutors are subject to abuse. Criticism on sites such as and The Student Room can often overstep the bounds of acceptability. There are a number of celebrity academic cases but this issue is something that many academics on social media may encounter.

  Cambridge classicist Professor Mary Beard (OBE) has been the victim of misogynist trolling on more than one occasion. In 2013 she appeared as a panellist on BBC Question Time and, in response to a question about whether the UK could cope with more immigration, she cited a recent report claiming that immigration had brought some benefits to the local area. Following this she received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault. As much of the material was too obscene to be broadcast or published in the press, such that reporting of the incident would not give the general public an idea of what was actually involved, Professor Beard took the bold step of publishing some of the material on her blog and re-tweeting some of the comments she received. “The level of the abuse was so shocking that even those accustomed to the cut-and-thrust of online debate were appalled.”

The result was that the Do not Start Me Off website, which encouraged anonymous posters to vent their anger on targets chosen by the administrator, was closed down. Later in the year another television appearance prompted abuse by an individual via Twitter and, again, Professor Beard decided to name and shame the perpetrator by re-tweeting the comments resulting in public outrage and an apology from the perpetrator. Reflecting on the nature of the abuse she has received, Professor Beard is quoted as saying:

“It was so ghastly it didn't feel personal, or personally critical. It was such generic, violent misogyny. In a way, I didn't feel it was about me.”  However, despite her capacity to deal with the matter effectively she also said: “Anybody who claims it makes no difference to them must either be very weird or lying.” 

Professor Beard concludes:
 “The medium is not the problem, it’s the people using it... We have to take part of the responsibility for policing it into our own hands. That’s why shouting out and making a fuss is important. It’s saying: Look, you do not need to sit there and fume or be told it’s better not to say anything because it gives the trolls the oxygen of publicity. You should say No!”




In many cases the precise sources of abuse and a higher education provider's relationship with, and level of liability for, the abuse may be far from clear cut. An example is a long running controversy surrounding Woodbury University, a private, non-profit university in California, who built a campus in the virtual world Second Life. The virtual campus was said to include educational spaces, designed mostly by students, including a mock representation of the former Soviet Union and a replica of the Berlin Wall. Linden Labs, the owners of Second Life, destroyed Woodbury's campus in 2007 and again, after rebuilding, in 2010 due to what it described as breaches of community standards and terms of service. The issue was reported to be that a number of trolls (also known as griefers) who committed acts of vandalism causing distress to other Second Life users, and destruction of features they had invested resources in building, were affiliated to Woodbury campus and that Linden Labs was responding to customer pressure to enforce community standards. Woodbury University denied the allegations and claimed that Linden Labs destroyed resources it had invested thousands of dollars in creating. The Dean of the University’s School of Media, Culture and Design is reported as saying that the policy of having an open facility, allowing freedom of expression and accepting affiliation from people who were not registered students, was in keeping with the University's Mission. The comments on articles about the incident (e.g. Young 2010) reflect the extent of controversy. Some commentators have gone so far as to say the University School of Media, Culture and Design behaved in a calculating and cynical manner and that the trolling/griefing was deliberately staged as a publicity stunt. Others, including examples on UK academic blogs, criticise Linden Labs for its destruction of educational resources and for its press silence on the matter.

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