March 2, 2021

Is cyber bullying a college issue?

As people spend more time online, issues regarding what constitutes cyber bullying are becoming more and more prevalent. While there is limited research on cyber bullying at the college level, the University of Tennessee is taking steps to ensure online safety for students.

The cyber world that constitutes our daily life is bound to engender certain societal concerns.

A 2013 study found that among adults ages 18-29 years old, 83 percent use the Internet while attending college and 90 percent reported being members of social media websites.

As we spend more and more time online, whether it be browsing the latest trends and news or hanging out on social media, there is an important underlying message to keep in mind.

There is going to be hate speech.

It is important to note that when speech extends too far, as in with threats or intent to harass or incite harm, there is a clear violation of free speech rights as stated in the First Amendment.

A specific case regarding what free speech can translate into the online sphere is evident with the current issue of cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying is defined by the U.S. Department of Safety and Health and Human Services website, stopbullying.org, as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology to willfully and repeatedly harass and threaten others.”

Technology includes cell phones, computers and tablets.

An important element from this definition is that for an act to be considered cyber bullying, it must be willful, repeated and harmful.

There is limited research about cyber bullying on the university level. One reason is that bullying is generally a term used for referring to minors. Bullying at an adult level is usually referred to  as harassment, hazing, intimidation, stalking or other types of harmful behavior.

However, the issue is still relevant and pertinent within higher-level education systems. A 2010 study showed that 22 percent of students had been cyber bullied while in college.

A clause in the Student Hilltopics Handbook for the 2014-2015 academic year states, “making an oral or written statement (including electronically),” is subject to punishment under certain codes of conduct.

The statement has to be “objectively reasonable” in that it appears as an “expression of an intent” of violence towards a particular individual or group of individuals. It is often difficult to discern whether intent to harm is present in cases of online speech.

James Jackson Jr.,  Student Conduct and Community Standards interim director at UT, cites codes five, six, eight and 27 from the Student Hilltopics Handbook.

“While UT doesn’t have a specific policy for cyber bullying, there are standards of conduct that can address it,” Jackson said. “Codes in Hilltopics provide the opportunity to hold individuals or groups of individuals accountable if they commit an act of cyber bullying.”

Jackson noted that since most students typically would not read the handbook, the best way to ensure the issue is addressed is to come directly the Office of Student Conduct in the Student Services building on campus.

There is also the option for students to submit an incident report on the Student Conduct website.

The punishment would not specifically follow Tennessee code. The victim would have the option to assess what punishment would best suit the situation.

Additionally, student conduct officials would assess the evidence. The preliminary action would be issuing a “no contact” directive, to ensure the harasser does not contact the victim through any medium.

Jackson said there have not been many acts of cyber bullying on campus, and there are mostly issues of harassment.

According to the National Conference of State Legislature website, Tennessee code describes harassment as “electronic communication, electronic mail, and internet services.”

It states physical and electronic communication with “malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress” is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Jackson notes that UT would most likely not follow Tennessee code in situations on campus. The punishment is the maximum and even those convicted by the code would most likely not receive up to one year in jail.

The Family Action Council of Tennessee said the law will not infringe upon students First Amendment free speech rights. The council also ensures “student expression of religious, philosophical or political views” will be protected.

Part of protecting oneself is becoming aware of legislation and policies that exist in case  an incident of cyber bullying does occur.

Understanding what policy UT and the state of Tennessee have is vital in countering an online bullying attack.

It is important to recognize the issue and prevent it through an understanding of what the issue is and why it is important. Knowledge of what to do in an incident of cyber bullying, through learning about local policies and laws, is one of the best ways to prevent harm.

To learn more about data and statistics about cyber bullying visit the Cyberbullying Research Center.

To view sources for this post click here.

If you would like to view a graphic visualization of this blog post, click here.

Edited by Courtney Anderson

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