Navigating privacy tensions when responding to online aggression at postsecondary institutions

Virginia L. Byrne, Juana Hollingsworth, Priya C. Kumar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Postsecondary institutions have a legal responsibility to ensure that students have access to a safe learning environment. While institutions adopt policies and hire administrators to protect students from harm, many are underprepared to support students when these harmful incidents happen online. This is of increased concern now that online aggression is pervasive across universities worldwide. While faculty, administrators and students agree that online aggression is a significant issue and that institutions ought to provide prevention and response services, there is concern that these efforts might violate privacy norms. We used the theory of privacy as contextual integrity (CI) to explore the tensions that postsecondary students and staff perceive regarding student privacy when responding to incidents of online aggression. To do so, we conducted focus groups with undergraduate students and student affairs administrators from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the Mid-Atlantic USA. Our analysis surfaced three considerations that inform students' and staff's decision to report an incident of online aggression: their closeness to the person making the post, their perception of the online post content as a real threat and their knowledge of an authority figure who could help resolve the situation. We used CI theory to explain how these considerations can inform institutional policy, practice and future research. Practitioner notes What is already known about this topic Online aggression is a pervasive issue at postsecondary institutions worldwide that can contribute to psychological, academic and developmental issues. Postsecondary students and staff are unsure of how to respond to incidents of online aggression. There is a gap in policies and procedures for responding to online aggression at postsecondary institutions. What this paper adds A novel use of Nissenbaum's (2010) theory of contextual integrity to understand students' and staff's perceptions of privacy. Students' and staff's decisions to intervene or report an online aggression incident are determined by their relationship to the perpetrator, the severity of the social media post and their knowledge of who to tell on campus. Students and staff are reluctant to inform the police out of fear of violence against the perpetrator. Implications for practice and/or policy Raise awareness about responding to online aggression incidents. Implement online bystander intervention training programs to increase awareness and self-efficacy to intervene in unclear situations. Develop clear policies regarding online aggression, as well as a trustworthy procedure for how to respond.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1636-1652
Number of pages17
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Technology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education

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