‘(It’s) like it doesn’t exist’: Is cyberbullying of university professors taken seriously?

'(It's) like it doesn't exist': Is cyberbullying of university professors taken seriously?

As teaching and learning in higher education increasingly become an online activity, opportunities and instances of cyberbullying are becoming more common. Based on a recent study by Canadian scientists in Quebec, Jeremy Bision And Stephan Villeneuve¸ believe that cyberbullying is endemic to academic life and that those affected often lack the knowledge or institutional structures through which to respond.

While cyberbullying among primary, secondary, and tertiary students is relatively well documented, the phenomenon appears to attract less attention from teachers. However, using technology tools to repetitively criticize, threaten, send inappropriate photos, or share personal information seems to be part of the job for teachers these days.

In previous studies, we found that 13% of primary and secondary school teachers in Quebec, Canada were cyberbullied by students, parents or colleagues. In university settings, the researchers found that the phenomenon affected teachers and administrators with equal frequency (14%), causing myriad from Negative consequences such as sadness, anger, stress, sleep problems, and loss of self-confidence.

With technology tools widely used by professors to fulfill their dual roles of teacher and researcher, we conducted a research project at two francophone universities in Quebec between 2018 and 2021. The questionnaire was answered by 202 professors and interviews were conducted with 9 of them allowed us to update the data on the prevalence of this phenomenon and its consequences, as well as suggest possible solutions to counteract this aspect, which has received little attention from politicians and researchers.

According to our results, 39% of respondents (42% among women and 35% among men) were victims of cyberbullying related to their work during the year preceding the completion of the questionnaire. These figures greatly exceed the prevalence rates obtained in our previous studies at the primary and secondary levels (with a similar methodology), as well as data obtained by other researchers in university settings.

According to our data, 39% of respondents (42% among women and 35% among men) were victims of cyberbullying.

Without denying possible biases, it can be argued that cyberbullying is widespread among university professors and may be on the rise. The ever-increasing volume of online courses, the importance of self-observation, and the various power relationships inherent in the university hierarchical structure are idiosyncratic characteristics of professors’ work that may explain their particular vulnerability to online bullying.

As our results show, teaching is the leading cause of cyberbullying (46%). Students often use email to complain about grades or question a professor’s authority in abusive terms. If these episodes of cyberbullying seem to be more common, attacks can take many forms. For example, as the professor said: “Students who share videos taken from Zoom, I can no longer. (University leaders) don’t talk about it, they don’t really care.”

The professors also mentioned that their values, views or opinions may be questioned or criticized by students and colleagues, and in some cases by the media and the public. If university leaders strongly encourage the productivity and dissemination of scientific knowledge, they seem to disappear when the work of professors is criticized: “You know, I myself am heavily attacked as a professor, (…). Reviewers have said many times that I am a university professor. This is my identity, this is my professorial status, which they systematically questioned, and the university remains silent.”

Cyberbullying can also come from colleagues 31% of the time, according to our survey. These situations can be delicate given that the boss is also a colleague. Thus, the impartiality of the cyberbullying complaint management process can be called into question. As the professor observed, “Let’s just say it’s easier to handle a situation when there is no colleague involved than when one is.”

Synthesis of quantitative data regarding the characteristics of a cyberbullying incident of professors (why, by whom and how questions provide multiple answers).

In short, cyberbullying can come in many forms, from many people, and for many different reasons. Despite this situation, there is a sense that cases of cyberbullying are minimized or not controlled in advance. According to our data, 78% of teachers do not know what measures are being taken at their university to counter cyberbullying or support victims. Upon learning of this, the majority (68%) argue that these measures are insufficient or inappropriate.

Therefore, it is not surprising that professors often do not report incidents (73%). An alarming situation, given the many negative consequences. In addition to personal impacts such as stress, anger, or feelings of powerlessness, professional impacts (self-confidence or loss of productivity) are also mentioned. In some cases, cyberbullying incidents have affected relationships with colleagues and students.

To address this problematic situation, we interviewed professors about possible solutions. Our results show that in the case of cyberbullying, educators often do not know what to do. Indeed, while Canada and Quebec have laws against workplace harassment, university policy seems to be limited to sexual harassment. Therefore, it is not surprising that the measure that is most favorably welcomed and that seems to be a priority for professors is the creation and dissemination of a policy specifically dedicated to cyberbullying.

The policy allows clear guidelines to be implemented, such as a zero tolerance policy requiring university leaders to take action in cases of cyberbullying or requiring employees to adhere to a code of ethics regarding respectful online interactions. To prevent cyberbullying, awareness campaigns and online learning can help spread the word, especially to students.

in many cases, a good starting point would be to simply acknowledge the difficulties professors face when dealing with cyberbullying.

In addition, clear procedures for reporting cyberbullying should be established. As the professor said: “There are procedural documents about everything at the department, but there are none due to persecution. It’s like he didn’t exist.” To promote empowerment, training and meetings should be held to inform educators about these procedures, other resources available, and to inform about cyberbullying (definition, prevalence, types, consequences).

To manage problematic situations that arise, given that supervisors are also colleagues, an independent body could monitor the complaints process by ensuring its anonymity or by tracking victims and employers. In more serious situations, redress may be required for victims and consequences for aggressors. However, in many cases, simply acknowledging the difficulties educators face when dealing with cyberbullying would be a good starting point.

Although our results are focused on Quebec, the results may have wider applications. Indeed, with the ever-increasing online presence of professors, students, and the public, cases of cyberbullying are likely to become more common. So one might ask, are readers aware of their own institution’s policy in this area? However, it is necessary to act proactively, either by developing mechanisms to combat cyberbullying or, as our research shows, by improving the signage and accessibility of existing mechanisms and support systems. Protocols should be distributed to provide educators with the information they need when online abuse occurs by students, peers, the media, or the public. However, this is only the first step towards actually evaluating the effectiveness of such interventions and ultimately improving them.

This post is based on an article co-authored with the authors, Cyberbullying of professors: what measures are being taken in universities and what solutions are proposed by the victims?published in Research in Higher Education.

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