Keeping universities safer online

Universities have always thought of themselves as communities, from the ancient idea of the “community of scholars,” right through to the modern university, which is so much more reflective of the broader community around it.

Over the past 25 years, this idea has been transformed once again – by digital technology. Universities today are online communities, as well as physical and intellectual communities. And that raises pressing new safety challenges for all members of university communities, including about 1.4 million students and 260,000 university staff.

Universities offer the chance to meet people from all walks of life, have challenging and open discussions, and make lifelong friends. Unfortunately, at university we can also encounter harmful online behaviours, including image-based abuse, cyber abuse and online hate speech.

This is why we are so excited here at eSafety to launch our new collaboration with Universities Australia: the eSafety Toolkit for Universities. I believe it will go a long way to helping university communities stay just as safe online as they endeavour to be on their physical campuses.

Universities have always been innovative with online learning and the use of virtual communication tools – indeed, they are a powerhouse of research and development in digital technology. Even so, COVID-19 has forced a dramatic shift in how universities deliver their education programs. As a result of social distancing, campuses have become virtual, with all students studying online. Face-to-face conversations now occur via instant messaging and online forums, while lab classes are being livestreamed – something that would have been unimaginable in the past.

Staff and students who are not savvy about video conferencing or online learning platforms may feel confused and anxious as they try to adapt to this “new normal”. And while we know there will be an end-date to the pandemic, the changes made to how we study, work and interact are likely to stick around for some time to come, if not indefinitely.

Universities are not unique in this regard. As videoconferencing has replaced physical meetings, for example, we have seen many organisations mugged by harms such as “Zoombombing”, which can shade from the vaguely amusing to the decidedly sinister. However, universities, which are required to offer hundreds of lectures a day, sometimes to hundreds of students at a time, are especially vulnerable.

The challenges are numerous, in videoconferencing alone. Aside from Zoombombing, the comments streams of videoconferencing applications can become the platform for cyber abuse or other harms – harms that lecturing staff, through no fault of their own, lack the skills and resources to respond to adequately.

The very nature of the core demographic studying at university -- young adults -- carries vulnerabilities with it. Over 35 per cent of reports of image-based-abuse made to eSafety relate to young adults in the 18-24 age-group – an age-group that comprises about 60 per cent of all enrolments at Australian universities. (Compared to the monthly average last calendar year, we have seen an increase in image-based abuse complaints of more than 200 per cent over the COVID period of March and April 2020.)

Our research shows that almost one in four young women in this very age-bracket have had their nude or sexual images shared online without their consent.

We’ve all seen reports of Facebook pages in which university students are invited to rate the “hotness” of their peers – again, something that can start out light-heartedly but quickly turn nasty. (And of course there is a certain history here: Facebook itself began on the campus of Harvard University as a web-page where students were invited to rate each other’s attractiveness.)

International students at our universities are also vulnerable and have been regular targets of sextortion and sexploitation scams, where, for example, they find themselves blackmailed on the basis of intimate images they have naively provided of themselves to a stranger.

What is the Toolkit?

The Toolkit for Universities is our first collaboration with Universities Australia and demonstrates our shared commitment to empowering university communities to be safer online. This initiative offers a strong foundation for creating safer online environments for staff and students — and builds on the sector’s existing efforts to provide a safe student experience. 

eSafety and Universities Australia have worked together to identify the key online safety issues facing students and staff. The first edition of the Toolkit contains a dozen resources that provide targeted advice for students, academics and institutions. They cover a range of topics including: how to prepare for (and respond to) online safety incidents; how to support the online wellbeing of staff who may face cyber abuse; how to assess your current online safety preparedness; and how to use social media and digital platforms safely and set expectations for online engagement. We plan to expand these resources over time.

Universities are working hard to protect the physical safety of their communities on campus through initiatives such as Respect. Now. Always. However, unlike physical abuse, online incidents are often either left to individuals to deal with themselves, or are resolved as isolated incidents. It seems too little is understood about the damage online abuse can wreak on the productivity, mental health and wellbeing of staff and students. 

As Australia’s online safety regulator, eSafety is keen to build the capability of university communities to deal with online safety challenges. Through our partnership with Universities Australia, we aim to raise online safety awareness, reduce the frequency and severity of incidents and help all members of university communities achieve a good digital reputation.

We think the Toolkit for Universities is a powerful first step. We want to make this partnership a real game-changer for creating safer online environments and promoting the responsible and respectful use of technology on all our virtual campuses. 

You can access the Toolkit resources here.