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Computer-based Harassment on College Campuses

Sarah E. Rogerson
Graduate Assistant
Center for Women Students
The Pennsylvania State University

Computer technology on university and college campuses has taken great steps in helping students gain access to information and communication around the world. College students have taken full advantage of technology services on their respective campuses, from developing their own websites, to engaging in on-line classroom discussions, to communicating with family and friends through electronic mail. With all the advantages of computer technology available to students, little discussion is given to the negative aspects of a technically inclined college campus. While students and administrators applaud the ease with which computer technology has enhanced their lifestyle, the little recognized cases of computer misuse and harassment are just beginning to attract the attention of college communities at large.

Computer-based harassment is one such area that has surfaced on college campuses across the nation. Harassment via electronic mail, Internet postings, and inappropriate use of computers in public computer facilities are examples of ways in which students are misusing technology. Computer-based harassment cases are growing in number as campus computer security officers receive complaints on a daily basis about students sending harassing or threatening email messages to other students or faculty members. Students report being "stalked" over email, receiving death threats, or even having their personal computers "hijacked" with disturbing and gruesome images automatically popping up on their computers screens.

These instances of computer-based harassment create reactions from their victims that can range from annoyance to genuine fear. Pennsylvania State University computer security officer, John Corro, reports receiving between five to twenty-five incidents of computer-based harassment and misuse per day during the 1999 fall semester. These figures may leave one to wonder what about computer-based communication encourages harassing behavior and what institutions of higher education can do to reduce the incidence of computer-based harassment.

What about computer-based communication encourages harassing behavior?

Aside from the accessibility and ease of computer-based communication, anonymity is one unique aspect of computer-based communication. Unlike face-to-face communication, computer-based communication allows a person to change their identity or misrepresent themselves to others. Anonymity may make it difficult to track down an offender who uses other's computer accounts or who uses a web-based email account under a different name. Communication over email lacks several visual and contextual cues that can reveal information about a person (Dalaimo, 1997). While people typically use tone of voice, body language, and speech patterns to assess interactions with others, computer-based communication makes it more difficult to know the true identity of another person. For the harasser, email usage may create an environment where one would be more likely to say things they wouldn't normally say in a face-to-face interaction. Perpetrators of computer-based harassment also have the advantage of reaching a large audience with one email message or a posting to the Internet; both of which may lead to more uninhibited behavior. Victims of computer-based harassment who are left with no social or contextual cues are forced to rely more heavily on subjective experience (Dalaimo, 1997). The lack of observable behavior to assess the harasser on the other side of the computer screen may increase the vulnerability and fear of the victim. What you see may not always be what you get.

What impact does this form of harassment have on its victims?

The impact of computer-based harassment can range from annoyance to fear, which can in turn create a hostile environment for a victim. Students who receive an anonymous email message containing racially inflammatory or sexually harassing remarks may feel their entire environment is threatened. The students may not know who sent the message and if that person is someone who knows them, or if they are random targets of hate mail. In addition, the student most likely will be unsure of how to respond to such a message. Should they reply, delete the message, or tell someone? If similar messages persist, their environment may become so hostile that their ability to work, learn, or participate in day-to-day activities may be in jeopardy. Every student has the right to feel safe on his or her campus. When harassment affects a student's ability to live and learn in his or her college community, that student is being shortchanged. It is imperative that universities and colleges create ways to address this growing problem.

What is being done by the educational administration to address such problems on college campuses?

Problems such as computer-based harassment are handled in a variety of ways depending on the particular college campus and the severity of the case. Many times, campus computer security officers address first incidences of harassment. More serious cases are forwarded to judicial affairs units or campus police services for further investigation. One example of an administrative response to computer-based harassment is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "stopit" program. MIT began discussing this issue in the early 1990s as a result of frequent computer misuse on campus. Rather than addressing the problem in a traditional judicial approach, MIT developed a system that strives to educate rather than adjudicate its students. Recognizing that stopping antisocial and unethical behavior was sometimes more important than punishing offenders, MIT developed the "stopit" mechanisms. The stopit mechanisms were based on a simple proposition: Most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The goals of the program became to discover computer misbehavior rapidly and to communicate effectively with its perpetrators. The overarching goal is just what the name suggests: to stop it.

The stopit program contains several components, which address the issue of computer-based harassment. The first component is an educational poster placed in all the computer centers on campus that explains what constitutes harassment and what to do if harassed. A list of phone numbers, including campus police, counseling staff, and student affairs officers gives students ample opportunities to register a complaint or discuss an incident with a staff member. Additionally, all complaints can be sent to a single email address, which serves as a direct path to senior directors in MIT's Informational Systems. They then respond to complainants and initiate appropriate action. The advantage of the email address is that users need not worry about whom their complaint goes to, they simply write to the stopit email address.

Staff responses to the stopit messages are generally quick. Initially, a standard response is sent to alleged perpetrators of harassment, improper use, or other uncivil behavior. The response begins, "someone using your account did [whatever the offense is]." The note then explains why the behavior is offensive or violates the school harassment policy and reminds the students that they are responsible for the use of their accounts. "If you were unaware that your account was being used in this way," the note continues, "it may have been compromised. User Accounts can help you to change your password and re-secure your account." The note concludes with a short sentence, "If you were aware that your account was being used to [whatever it was], then please make sure that this does not happen again."

According to G.A. Jackson, director of Academic Computing at MIT, two interesting outcomes ensue. First, many recipients of the note say their accounts have been compromised, and change their passwords, even when evidence shows that they were personally the offenders. Second, and most important, the recipients of the note almost never repeat the offending behavior. While recipients may concede no guilt and receive no punishment, they stop the behavior. The letter response has drastically reduced the number of complaints and the number of debates between the computing staff and the perpetrators. In effect, while administrators lose the "satisfaction" of punishing a perpetrator, they reduce misbehavior and gain educational effectiveness. If harassment does persist, further steps are taken to interface with the student to discuss the offense and, if necessary, the Institute's regular disciplinary procedures kick in.

MIT's approach to reducing uncivil computer behavior has solved part of the problem. The incidences of harassment have declined. At the same time, MIT also realizes the importance of educating its student population to respect each other. For all college campuses this education should occur from the onset, not only in cases where students misbehave. Currently, many institutions provide materials or introductory courses to students opening accounts, but this may not be enough to have a lasting effect. Working more intensively with smaller groups of students, using real case studies is one way to help students understand their basic social and ethical obligations as members of a community. As technology guides the future of our institutions of higher education, priority should be given to helping students understand the implications of using an institution's computer network. Additionally, implementing support systems for students to disclose cases of computer-based harassment must be a priority if students are to expect a safe living and learning environment during their college years.


Dalaimo, D. M. (1997). Electronic sexual harassment. In B. R. Sandler & R. J. Shoop (Eds.), Sexual Harassment on campus: A guide for administrators, faculty, and students (pp. 85-103). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon


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