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Promoting digital civility: University-wide responses to online risk


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Written by Katie Tyrrell, and Sarah Ali, Student Digital Ambassador.  

Technology is facilitating changes in our interactions with one another, enabling the strengthening of offline connections and building social capital (Steinfield et al., 2008; Subrahmanyam et al., 2008), however the internet also poses increased risk of online harassment, interpersonal surveillance and image based sexual abuse  (Finn, 2004; Tokunaga, 2011). Students arriving into higher education are one of the first cohorts to have grown up with social media platforms and are therefore of increasing interest to social science researchers, policy makers and higher education bodies.

It is important not to assume that students will have the knowledge and awareness of how to respond to online risk effectively as they arrive into higher education, particularly because online safety education provided by schools tends to be ad-hoc in nature (Phippen, Bond & Tyrrell, 2018), most likely as a result of limited time and resource. Therefore, it is crucial that universities also respond to experiences of online abuse, such as online harassment and hate crime (Universities UK, 2016;2018), as student welfare and safety both online and offline, is everybody’s responsibility.

At the University of Suffolk, we are positive about protecting our students from online abuse, over the past year we have been raising awareness via online campaigns, seminars, conferences, training, the Microsoft Digital Civility survey as well as student and staff discussion sessions by working closely with our Students Union and Student Services.

See below for some key myth busters for students from Sarah Ali our student digital ambassador!

Myth Busters- Rethinking common online safety misconceptions

Staying safe online is something that can often be trivialised; “it has nothing to do with me” or “I have nothing of interest”. The thing is, you don’t know that. Today, our whole lives revolve around being online from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Just think, most of your work is uploaded for your lectures to mark, we communicate by instant messaging, and even shop online. We have so much digital data (as we saw in May with new GDPR regulations), so maybe it’s time to think about what the law says about online safety and what changes we might need to make.

Here’s some of the top myths:

I don’t need an anti-virus, I have nothing of interest…

It’s possible that you might not have an anti-virus on your laptop because you only do uni work on it and there’s nothing about you on there. But that’s not right. You usually register your laptop with Apple ID or Windows and this still has personal data about you. Personal data is valuable and needs to be protected. There’s lots of free anti-virus software out there, so download one (it takes less than 5 minutes) and get it to regularly scan your laptop against any virus’s. If you have concerns about the safety of your personal data and would like more information, or have experienced identity fraud, contact Cifas:  

If I receive an intimate or nude photo of someone, I can share it…

This is a huge no no! But it seems that people aren’t getting it, because there’s still a rise in the sharing of intimate or nude photos without the person’s consent. This is often known as image-based sexual abuse. In some cases, these images are shared due to hackers going into people’s accounts (another reason to install an anti-virus). It can cause lasting damage to a person’s mental health, and searchable images can also create difficulties in the person work and social life.

There’s nothing I can do if someone’s blackmailing me online…

It can seem like you’re stuck in a trap; someone has nude photos of you and threaten to share them if you don’t do as they say. This is blackmail. There’s lots of organisations to help you with this. The first thing to do is contact the police who are able to trace who the blackmailer is and bring the issue to an end. You can also find support from the Revenge Porn Helpline:

It doesn’t matter if I have indecent images of under 18’s…

The law is pretty simple on this one; having or looking at indecent images of under 18’s is illegal, no matter how old they look. The University of Suffolk has been supporting the Home Office’s campaign of ‘No if’s, no but’s’. The law is clear. If you do come across any indecent images of children online, you should report it anonymously to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) so that it can be removed:

We want to ensure your time at university as a student is safe online and offline, please help the University of Suffolk improve our understanding of your online experiences by filling in this short survey:

Link to survey:

If you have been affected by anything in this post and want support, contact national organisations such as the Revenge Porn Helpline, or talk to a trusted colleague, friend, adult or of course the student services team here at UOS, we are here to help and support you.

Keep an eye out for online resources and advice around online safety by following the hashtag #DigitalCivilityUni across our social media platforms!

For more information about the Digital Civility project at the University of Suffolk, contact Katie Tyrrell:



Finn, J. (2004). A survey of online harassment at a university campus. Journal of Interpersonal violence, 19(4), 468-483.

Phippen, A. Bond, E & Tyrrell, K (2018) Online Peer on Peer Abuse: A National Survey of Teachers and Safeguarding Leads in England and Scotland. Ipswich: University of Suffolk.

Steinfield, C., Ellison, N. B., & Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 434-445.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N., & Espinoza, G. (2008). Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of applied developmental psychology29(6), 420-433.

Tokunaga, R. S. (2011). Social networking site or social surveillance site? Understanding the use of interpersonal electronic surveillance in romantic relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(2), 705-713.

Universities UK (2016). Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. Accessed  on [14/11/18]

Universities UK, Haig, K (2018). Changing the Culture of Cyberbullying. Accessed on [14/11/18]

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