Study explores cyberbullying in a leading university

Forty-six per cent of first-degree students from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC) have done or witnessed cyberbullying, according to Chile’s first study on cyberbullying in universities.

The study explores first-degree PUC students’ experiences related to cyberbullying. It quantifies the number of aggressors, spectators and victims, explores their perceptions and offers solutions.

It defines cyberbullying as a type of bullying or pestering where vulgar, aggressive, threatening, hurtful, slanderous or unpleasant messages are posted on virtual media, such as text messages, chats, emails, websites, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, videos on YouTube and others. Intentionally excluding somebody from a chat group is also cyberbullying.

Bullying somebody online is often done anonymously so the aggressor feels free to act because the online context offers aggressors potential anonymity. It is more difficult to empathise with the victim when the aggression is online and internet messages can stay there, making it more difficult to forget them, and favouring re-victimisation.

External aggressors

The study found that most of the aggressors were external to the university, 45% of them came from friends or groups at PUC and 36.8% from university acquaintances, the study found.

More than half (50.8%) of participants did not know why they were being bullied. Those who did know mentioned physical appearance, problems with their peers and social and economic status. Other reasons given included sexual leaning, political preferences and sentimental relationships.

Only 3.3% stated they had been cyberbullies themselves; of those, 8% confessed they did not know whether what they were doing constituted harassment.

Fifty-seven per cent of victims related that they felt physically and emotionally threatened; 52.2% said they had had mental health problems, 47.9% had had physical symptoms and 18.6% felt like leaving the university though none of them had done so at that point. Cyberbullying also affected students’ interpersonal links and academic performance.

Some 38.1% of the sample had been spectators of cyberbullying and the experience had affected them negatively. “I felt impotent because the attacker acted anonymously and I felt ignorant because I did not know what to do,” said one of them.

Varied motives

The reasons behind the cyberbullying were varied. One of the victims said that when she wrote in a Facebook group that she was against an indefinite strike at the university, a classmate called her “a selfish piece of shit”.

Another related that she had been bullied because she started a love affair soon after having split with her partner of two years. Her ex told details about their relationship on Facebook “which gave way to a wave of WhatsApp messages in a group I belonged to, insulting me or ignoring my comments”.

A third student declared he or she had been bullied after he/she challenged homophobic and transphobic comments made in a Facebook forum for PUC students.

Naturally, victims bore the worst part: “I have anxiety episodes even now and when I see the person who bullied me. I have stopped attending classes and I have spent almost a year in psychological and psychiatric treatment,” said one of them.

Cyberbullying online can be more nerve-wracking than ordinary bullying, which has always existed. In the case of cyberbullying, the victim knows it is ongoing but doesn’t know where and when the next attack will come from. Furthermore, online victims have little protection as bullies often hide their identities.

Canadian-Chilean collaboration

The study by communicator Rayén Condeza and psychologists Gonzalo Gallardo and Pablo Reyes, all PUC academics, is titled “Experiences of Cyberbullying Perceived at a Chilean University: The voice of students”.

It was included in the book Cyberbullying at University in International Contexts (Routledge, Oxford) edited by Wanda Cassidy, Chantal Faucher and Margaret Jackson, academics from Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

A Spanish version of its main conclusions was released for the first time to the Chilean press on 14 March to coincide with ‘Cyberbullying Day’ instituted by Chile’s Education Ministry.

The PUC researchers adapted a questionnaire on cyberbullying designed by Cassidy, Faucher and Jackson. The questionnaire was reviewed by PUC’s ethics committee and placed on the university’s online platform in August 2017 where it was answered by 916 undergraduate students.

Aggression perceived as ‘normal’

The report authors reveal they were struck by the fact that over half of those who took part in the study considered this sort of aggression in a university context as “normal”.

“We have to delve into it more because we think that this perception of normality arises from the fact that they have experienced cyberbullying in primary or secondary school,” Gallardo, one of the authors from PUC’s School of Psychology, told University World News.

“Violence is normalised as a way of sorting out conflict,” Gallardo adds. We have to take measures to de-naturalise the acceptance by students of such situations.”

Cyberbullying is more prevalent among newcomers to university.

“At PUC it affects mainly those from the regions, those who are the first in their families to have a university education and those who attended state schools. Conversely, private school students – who [are found in large numbers] in careers such as economics, architecture and design – count on a network of friends from a similar social background,” Gallardo explains.

Peaceful co-existence

He considers cyberbullying as the tip of the iceberg, a new topic within a larger one which is peaceful co-existence at university.

“At university, we are all responsible for everybody’s welfare,” says Gallardo.

“It is universities that have to take on the challenge to act on raising awareness about cyberbullying, preventing it, launching campaigns about care and humane treatment in virtual networks and assisting those affected by offering them channels for denouncing abuse and support.”

All three authors of PUC’s cyberbullying study are members of a university-wide committee on ‘Co-existence at University’, on which two students, the university ombudsman and academics from several faculties also serve.

They are also working on a proposal on cyberbullying which they will present to PUC’s rector and to the co-existence committee.

They have also asked students to help disseminate existing protocols on university relations that forbid actions that undermine others, which include all types of bullying, and give talks to parents of incoming students.

Gallardo remarks that while in Chile and elsewhere there is a lot of research into cyberbullying in schools, the interest in looking into the phenomenon in higher education is recent but growing.

“PUC’s is a pioneering work and though the topic is not even in the periphery of Chilean university concerns right now, it is quickly attracting attention here in Chile and in a few other Latin American countries, such as Colombia.”