Online & Social Media Environments

This article discusses the ‘Digital Civility’ project at the University of Suffolk which aims to increase digital civility and improve the online safety of students in relation to online harassment.

by Carly Frances

Professor Emma Bond is Director of Research at the University of Suffolk. She is Professor of Socio-Technical Research and also Director of the Suffolk Institute of Social and Economic Research (SISER).  

Katie Tyrrell joined the University of Suffolk in 2017 after graduating with an MSc in Mental Health Research with distinction from the University of Nottingham. Katie is a member of the Suffolk Institute of Social and Economic Research (SISER).

Towards Digital Civility: Adopting a University Community Approach

web security, online social environment

The Digital Civility project at the University of Suffolk is an innovative, new project that was awarded funds from the HEFCE Catalyst fund. The University aims to increase digital civility and improve the online safety of students in relation to online harassment over the coming year. We are delighted to be working with national experts and online safeguarding partners to improve our students’ wellbeing and safety online. 

We have a number of interrelated strands to our project, which include improving students’ understanding of illegal content, inappropriate content and conduct online and simultaneously raising awareness of digital civility, digital citizenship and respect online especially in regard to gender; ethnicity; sexuality and disability. The scale of the project for a small, newly established university is remarkable but it would not have been possible without the substantial in-kind contributions, advice, guidance and support we have received from our range of external partners for which we are extremely grateful – Microsoft; the Internet Watch Foundation; Revenge Pornography Helpline; Marie Collins Foundation; Professor Andy Phippen, Plymouth University; Robert Bond, Bristows LLP; Paul Maskall, Blue Lights Digital; Simon Dukes, Cifas and UK Safer Internet Centre.  

Our approach though is not only focused on students as the project also aims to up-skill and increase staff confidence in talking to students about online behaviours and responding effectively to disclosures and concerns including unwanted contact and illegal content. Like other HEIs, student welfare is of paramount importance and the University of Suffolk has an established suite of relevant policies in operation. Furthermore, work is actively undertaken and strategically aligned to bring awareness of issues such as safeguarding, hate crime and abuse and specialist staff training has already been delivered in targeted areas of the institution. 

Our Digital Civility project offers new opportunities to build upon our already established safeguarding strategic principles of ‘prevention’ and ‘response’; and, in collaboration with our partners, specifically address issues of hate crime and online harassment of vulnerable groups. It is being delivered over the course of the year using health promotion principles of primary; secondary and tertiary prevention. 

Workshops and seminars on what is legal and illegal; recognising hate crime and staying safe online; how to recognise and report illegal content and the importance of consent in image sharing and distributing are being offered to students and staff. Furthermore, awareness raising materials and educational resources have been employed across the campus, the VLE and via social media. 

Using an evidence based approach, we are simultaneously running more targeted activities for potentially more vulnerable groups. Research, suggests for example, that women and the LGBT+ community are more vulnerable to online harassment and stalking; coercive and controlling behaviour and revenge pornography and that students from ethnic minorities; LGBT+ or with a disability may be more likely to be the victims of hate crime and online harassment. The University of Suffolk’s Student Union have been at the centre of the design, development and delivery of every aspect of the project and we also have an advisory group of students which include our elected Liberation Officers (Black and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, Students with Disabilities, Women’s), working alongside the project team to provide advice and guidance on key and emerging issues; regular feedback about the success for the project and how best to engage students with the project.

The project was subject to ethical approval from the University Ethics Committee and at the beginning of the project our staff had specialist training on responding to disclosures on online sexual abuse from the Marie Collins Foundation, recognising hate crime and how to report online abuse and effectively support students. 

Adapting the award winning 360 Degree Safe review tool designed for schools, we developed an improvement plan for online safeguarding at the start of the project which will be reviewed at regular intervals during the year. Additionally, in order to evaluate and monitor the impact of the project, we are very grateful to Microsoft for allowing us to use their Microsoft Digital Civility questionnaire. 

We are very privileged to work with a range of national expertise in this field and by adopting a whole university and community-led approach to online safeguarding and preventing online abuse and harassment it is envisaged that our student safety in relation to online harassment and abuse will be substantially improved. We will be sharing our approach and outcomes with HEFCE and intend to host a national conference of ‘what works’ in safeguarding students online in the near future.