By Chamonix Adams Porter

We know that students spend a great deal of their time online, so it’s important to ensure that they have the skills to build supportive digital communities and to intervene if they see disrespect or harassment. Students can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. When students build and participate in digital spaces that reflect core community values, disrespect and harassment become less likely. If problems do arise, it’s easier to address them.

Many of the skills that we use to intervene in bystander situations in person also apply in digital spaces. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.

You can help students build supportive online communities by emphasizing the following strategies, perhaps during student leadership trainings or classroom discussions. Additionally, you can put these tools into practice yourself, such as in university social media groups or online courses.

1) Reflect on your goals for the online community

  • What are our core values for this space?
  • What would be the best possible version of this space?
  • What are practical, everyday strategies for realizing these goals?

2) Clearly communicate your expectations

  • Create community guidelines for digital spaces.
  • People are surprisingly attentive to clearly communicated group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.

3) Respond if people fall short of your expectations

  • Don’t wait for serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful speech to respond.
  • Redirect the community back to its intended purpose (e.g., remind students that an online classroom forum is only for discussing coursework).
  • Reiterate the community guidelines.

4) Encourage members to actively participate in the community

  • Empower students to reinforce community guidelines by calling out inappropriate comments, redirecting group conversations, and supporting each other by posting positive comments.
  • This provides students with the opportunity to have an active role in creating and maintaining their positive online community

5) Intervene if the situation escalates

  • If you encounter serious disrespect, consider reporting it to the website. Most social media sites have easy-to-use reporting methods.
  • Report harassment to a university official, such as a dean or Title IX coordinator.

When students take these small actions, they can have a substantial impact. They will not only stop harmful behavior but also set a positive example for their peers. A significant body of research on social norms theory shows that when students believe their peers expect them to behave a certain way, they’re more likely to behave that way. So when they set positive community norms and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.