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10.2 Exercising your duty of care 

Section 9 of this Toolkit looks at the legal issues relating to the use of social media in education but, in relation to bullying and harassment, it is worth looking briefly at the institution’s duty of care to its staff and students. Duty of care is a legal obligation (summed up in the law of Delict in Scotland and Tort in England, Wales and Northern Ireland). Jisc Legal (2003) states:

    “Duty of care is the obligation to exercise a level of care towards an individual, as is reasonable in all the circumstances, to avoid injury to that individual or his property.”
An institution would be liable to prosecution if a negligent act breached its duty of care. It is however an area of law open to considerable interpretation and as Jisc Legal goes on to point out: “Liability for breach of a duty of care very much depends on the public policy at the time the case is heard”.

As an institution you therefore need to think very carefully about how best to protect your staff and students from cyber bullying without inadvertently accepting liability for matters beyond your control. We discuss this in Section 8, The right to have your say, where we highlight the risk of giving students and staff a false expectation that the University will monitor all related unofficial social media groups and deal with inappropriate behaviour. Research in Australia (Rowe 2014) found that staff were more likely than students to believe that the institution has a responsibility to protect them from negative comment on social media sites outside the institution's control. The report concluded that a university may need to take action if an offensive or inappropriate comment on a student-run site is reported to them but that they should be wary about getting involved in an official capacity and that generally the preferred option is to advise the complainant to approach the relevant group administrator or social network provider to have the post removed or an offending site or account deactivated. It goes on to say that in the most extreme cases e.g. where a post is particularly offensive or involves a possible threat to the safety of an individual, more direct action may be appropriate and necessary to ensure the matter is dealt with quickly and to show support for the victim, although some such cases may be a matter for the police rather than the institution.

Is the University a high risk environment?

For staff ...

A lecturer at the University of York has expressed concern that academics are more at risk than other professions because of the impact agenda, which pressures them into building a public profile – often by cultivating a strong online identity. After experiencing harassment by colleagues in the HE sector, Dr Perry set up the Gender and Digital Culture project (jointly with the University of Southampton).

A 2013 survey of 398 working professionals found that 40% of those in HE had experienced negative and inappropriate behaviour while online in a professional capacity (of this group 33% reported five or more instances of such behaviour). The figure was equally split between males and females. The issues were defined as: 30% unprofessional/inappropriate behaviour; 26% sexual harassment; 26% attacks on character; 6% abusive/threatening; 12% unidentified. In the majority of cases people ignored the behaviour and kept silent about it. Dr Perry is quoted in a THE article as saying:

“If your institution is requiring you to have an impact online, then they need to have mechanisms in place to keep you safe. We found that they don’t have those mechanisms, or where they do, the onus is always on the individuals to do something themselves, such as confront the person, or delete their [own] online account.”

and students ...

The issue of student safety came to the fore in 2010 with the launch of a site called FitFinder which encouraged users to describe and pinpoint the location of attractive people spotted on campus. Originally started as a joke by a student at UCL and his rugby-playing friends, the site attracted 2,000 users in its first few hours and ultimately spread to 52 universities. Emails by some institutions asking students not to use the site had the opposite effect and a blanket ban by JANET drove users to mobile and wireless devices and was reversed following complaints from some universities. Many press reports portrayed the site as harmless fun but some universities received complaints from concerned students. Although the site was not run via university servers, UCL asked the perpetrator to take it down and he ultimately complied after UCL imposed a fine of £300 for bringing the college into disrepute (the student risked being unable to graduate if he did not pay).

A similar issue arose in 2013 when a series of social media sites with names such as Spotted:<institution> cropped up. In this case users were asked to post descriptions and/or images of people spotted in institutional libraries. This caused some students to state that they no longer felt safe in the library. UCISA issued guidance to members about using existing procedures to require hosts to effect take down of such pages focusing particularly on the visibility of university insignia and the lack of subject consent.

A few simple steps can help your institution discharge its duty of care.

Good practice tips:

  • Define limits – have a clear policy and guidance on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour: this can take the form of a specific social media policy or may be handled by the IT acceptable use policy and other documents such as the student charter and staff conditions of employment.
  • Be consistent – have a clear and consistent approach to dealing with inappropriate posts on university official social media channels e.g. by using the categorisation model and related actions shown in Section 9, Legal issues.
  • Offer guidance – support staff and students in the effective use of social media using the suggestions outlined in this Toolkit.
  • Help keep your users safe – alert staff and students to the dangers of misuse of social media and point them to sources of advice and help such as those referenced in this Toolkit.
  • Act quickly and only when you need to – be wary of overreacting to ill-considered remarks but be prepared to alert the relevant authorities if an individual appears to be facing real risk.

Additional resources

There are many sources of advice and help for those concerned about cyber bullying and harassment: 


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