How can higher education institutions address harmful behaviors faced by marginalized students online?

According to research by Nominet, LGBTQ+ youth are more than twice as likely to experience hate speech online as those who identify as heterosexual.

Viewing distressing content and being bullied and harassed online can impact young people in many ways, including their mental health and overall well-being.

Our own research on culture in higher education (FE) institutions found that half (49%) of FE students aged 16 and over experienced bullying while studying at school or college. college and three-quarters (78%) have witnessed some form of inappropriate behavior.

Online safety is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to tackling hate speech and ensuring inclusiveness, especially for marginalized groups. So what could FE institutions do to further support students and take a step towards eradicating these harmful behaviors, such as bullying and harassment?

Set the standard you want to see

FE institutions have a responsibility to set the cultural tone and of course policies and procedures are the benchmark, to show what behavior is and is not acceptable.

To make them effective, these must be live documents with which teachers, learners and other staff actively engage. Being clear about what your institution’s expectations are and the consequences of not following those expectations is essential, so that policies reflect the culture you want to see.

When problems arise, the procedures must include the support available to overcome these problems. For example, introducing robust reporting and resolution mechanisms so employees and students know their first point of call when a problem arises.

Everyone is different and how people prefer to report a concern can vary greatly. So having a variety of options in place – from dedicated team members to speak to to an anonymous route – is necessary to ensure that when issues of this nature arise, everyone has a route to report that they feel comfortable and able to seek additional support, if desired.

Anonymous reporting options can be especially beneficial for young LGBTQ+ people who haven’t come out yet. This allows them to be supported and protected without fear of being forced into a situation that makes them uncomfortable.

Beyond policies and procedures, representation is paramount. This includes having strong LGBTQ+ role models and staff from different backgrounds, as well as representation in the program and celebration of awareness days and months, such as Bi Visibility Day and International Day. visibility of transgender people.

Representation is not only necessary to prevent bullying and harassment, it is essential to creating a culture where students can see that they are included and feel safe and connected.

Engage Learners

One of the trickiest things FE institutions face when trying to prevent online bullying and harassment and ensure students feel safe and included is that they often don’t have no means to moderate behavior in such spaces.

Conversations often take place in small groups without a staff member present to intervene in case of problematic behavior. When bullying and harassment takes place in smaller groups, it can have a more detrimental impact because it can feel more personal than when more general statements are made about a group.

This is why it is so crucial to engage learners in the search for answers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+ or, for example, who are ethnically diverse or neurodivergent. Giving students a voice means that they can specify the problems that affect them and that the solutions can be more targeted.

It is also essential to equip learners with the skills to overcome problems when they spot them. For example, encourage peer-to-peer intervention by integrating bystander and bystander training into the curriculum.

Empowering students by teaching them what to do or say in difficult situations can give them the courage to speak up when they see something that goes against the school culture. It also helps to further cement the behaviors you want to see.

In addition to helping learners know what to do or what to say, it is also important to dismantle misinformation.

Beyond the College Gates

Positive culture doesn’t stop at the university gates, especially when conversations venture online or on social media.

Currently, the government is in the process of introducing the Online Security Bill, a piece of legislation which gives OFCOM more power to regulate online content and ultimately protect people from harmful content online. Just like with school and college policies, to make this a real success, it is essential to clarify what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

But while the government, OFCOM and social platforms must come together to keep things safe online, there are collaborations that can happen much closer to home to help keep FE students safe online, for example parents.

Parents can play an important role by working with schools and colleges to promote online safety. For example, they can use parental controls to manage time spent on digital devices at home and block features they don’t want their kids to have access to.

Parental controls can also play a role in opening conversations. For example, if their children have been researching a particular topic, parents can open discussions at home and work with the education provider to create safe spaces where students can learn and work through issues.

The anonymity of online platforms makes it more difficult to fight bullying and harassment, especially for people from marginalized groups. Policies must be rigorous and well communicated. By involving all students, parents, guardians and of course all staff, procedures can become more targeted to actually eradicate negative behavior within FE institutions.

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