Want to help protect against sexual assault? Make respect the norm

Reading Time: 7 minutes Here’s what can you do to foster a more positive and respectful campus culture.

Ask the health educator: “How do you know if you’re in a healthy relationship?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes Sometimes you can tell in your gut if your relationship is going well. But other times, it’s not so easy to figure out.

Your good-roomie guide: How to keep the peace

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Dirty coffee mugs are lodged in the windowsill, clothes litter the floor, and the ice cream you were planning to dig into after class is gone—again. Either someone broke into your space or you have a roommate, am I right?

Whether your life in your shared space is smooth and easy, filled with an occasional bit of trouble, or a near-daily battle of “this is not really happening,” we could all benefit from some tips on how to make (and keep) the peace with the people we live with. If you fall into that last category, you’re not alone. About half of all first-year college students struggle with roommate issues frequently or occasionally, according to 2009 research from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. And that’s significant—a stressful home situation can affect you in real ways.

  • How you do in class: Roommate issues are more likely to prevent you from doing your best academic work than issues with drinking or homesickness, according to the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (Fall 2016).
  • How you feel: Your connection with your roommate helps shape your mental well-being and your ability to adjust at college, according to research published in 2014 in Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. College students who reported frequent roommate issues had higher stress levels than those who peacefully shared their spaces, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of American College Health. There’s also data showing that poor relationship dynamics can trigger an uptick in anxiety and depression, says Dr. Amy Canevello, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a researcher on roommate relationships.

Some of the most common complaints among roommates are things we’ve all had to deal with at some point. OK, they’re also probably things we have all done at some point, including shirking basic responsibilities (like cleaning those crusty coffee mugs), snagging snacks, and showing a lack of respect for the space and the other person in it (like that time your girlfriend moved in for three weeks). Sound familiar?

So, rather than brushing things under the (unswept) rug, how can you set things up so you both feel comfortable bringing up what’s bugging you?

Dirt being swept under a rug

Start it off the right way

Yes, there is a right way. It includes making and sticking with a plan from day one. Here’s how:

1. Get together to discuss the details

“Research in many contexts tells us that people will be more likely to abide by rules that they themselves develop,” says Dr. Linda Stamato, co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. So get together and develop them. Make sure everyone chimes in on what they want for the space and agrees on the details, including what happens when rules turn into loose suggestions. Because they will.

2. Put it on paper...or Google drive

Living on campus? Your school might require that you sign a roommate agreement. Living in an apartment off campus? Yeah, you’re not off the hook either. Don’t shrug off the details here. Be clear about your expectations from the get-go. “You may think it’s obvious to clean a dish after you use it, and someone else may not. They may think it’s normal to leave a pile of dirty clothes in the corner, and someone else may find that disgusting. We are all human, so we probably will fall short on a few things once in a while, but it’s good to know that there is a standard set by each of you [that] can keep you accountable,” says Daniella C., a third-year graduate student at Emory University in Georgia and a former resident advisor.

3. Commit to communicate

Real talk: If you can figure out how to break down the awkward and talk about the stuff that bugs you early on, you’re setting yourself up for a roommate situation that works. Struggle with speaking up? Try jotting it down. “It could be helpful to make a list of your concerns that can be shared with a roommate,” says Dr. Michelle Jefferson, campus dean of students at Douglass Residential College at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Just be sure to have a plan for dealing with the concerns in person once they’ve been brought up.

Three young women chatting in lounge area

What to do when stuff goes down

You nailed down the details, made the agreement, spoke up when things were on your mind—and there’s still a problem. We’ve all been there. So now what?

First, bring it up as quickly as possible. If you don’t talk about it, your frustration will fester, and that’s a loss for everyone. Here are some ways to approach it:

Keep blame out of it

Launching into a gripe session about everything your roommate has ever done wrong means they’ll probably tune you out ASAP. You’ll do better by framing a problem as something to solve together—start off by introducing the issue using “I” statements. When you start talking solutions, use “we” rather than “you.” Feeling that everyone is responsible for improving the relationship can help all of you be more responsive, Dr. Canevello says.

Listen better

It seems so much easier than it actually is. Active listening means concentrating on and processing what someone is saying without simultaneously prepping your comeback. Take time to understand their words rather than blurting out the response that you spent the last five minutes crafting, Dr. Canevello says. And remember that most of us have good intentions. Just because your roommate is falling short on dish duty doesn’t mean they’re trying to intentionally set you off. We’re all doing the best we can, and it helps to keep that in mind when you hear them out.

Aim to understand

We overestimate our own contributions to keeping our living space clean (and peaceful) and simultaneously underestimate what our roommates do, according to behavioral economist Dr. Dan Ariely. And that can lead to some not-so-good feelings about the people you’re living with. Dr. Ariely explains that because we’re intimately familiar with the details of our own tasks (think about the smell of the moldy cheese you pulled out of the refrigerator drawer), we minimize the things that others do. And then we resent them for it. “The particulars of our own chores are clear to us, but we tend to view our partners’ labors only in terms of the outcomes. We discount their contributions because we understand them only superficially,” Dr. Ariely told the Wall Street Journal.

How can you fix it? Either change up your chores every now and then so you get acquainted with the details of their tasks or simply ask your roommates to share the gruesome details of their chores—step-by-step. Once you hear all about it, you may view them in a whole new light.

Come at it with compassion

OK, we’re not all going to love our roommates; it’s just life. But you can make a conscious choice to care about their well-being—and that can make a big difference in how you interact. “It changes how you construe problems and how you approach them,” Dr. Canevello says.

Roommates who had “compassionate goals,” or goals related to others’ well-being and happiness, were less stressed—and they gave and received greater support—than those whose goals focused on themselves, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010).

Three young men hanging out on staircase

What to do when it’s not getting better

Sometimes you just can’t solve this stuff on your own, and that’s where your RAs, counselors, staff, faculty, and others on your team come in. Reach out to them; they’re there for you, and they know how to help. Here’s what that might look like:

A third-party mediation situation

This could be an RA, a fellow student, a staff member, your dog. (Probably not that last one, though.) An unbiased third party can listen to problems and help construct resolutions. “Using mediators allows students to surface issues that they may be uncomfortable talking about directly with the person(s) with whom they are in conflict,” Stamato says.

“Roommate issues were one of the most common issues I dealt with while I was an RA,” says Samantha E., a fourth-year student at the University of North Dakota. “Almost all of my residents who ever came to me about these types of issues were able to resolve them and form a better relationship by talking it out.”

Revisit your roommate contract

Remember that? Surprise—it’s actually helpful. If yours included things such as watch Game of Thrones every night while devouring pizza, you might want to make some changes to address the stuff that keeps coming up. Talk to your RA, other staff members, or another third-party mediator about how to make it work this time around, and agree to reference it if issues come up in the future.

Know when it’s time to bow out

Sometimes, a living situation just can’t be resolved, and you need to find new accommodations. Live on campus? Talk to your RA or resident life office about how to amicably make the switch so that everyone can live happily ever after—just not together. Live elsewhere? Read through the terms of your lease and the consequences of breaking it. You may be able to sublet your room or pay a nominal fee, both of which can be a worthy exchange for peace of mind.

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Article sources

 

Amy Canevello, PhD, assistant professor, department of psychological sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Michelle Jefferson, PhD, campus dean of students, Douglass Residential College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Linda Stamato, PhD, co-director, the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary, Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Ariely, D. (2017, April 12). When chores go unappreciated. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-chores-go-unappreciated-1492017015

Crocker, J., Canevello, A., & Breines, J. G. (2010). Interpersonal goals and change in anxiety and dysphoria in first-semester college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 1009–1024. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44642305_Interpersonal_Goals_and_Change_in_Anxiety_and_Dysphoria_in_First-Semester_College_Students

Dusselier, L., Dunn, B., Wang, Y., Shelley, M. C., et al. (2005). Personal, health, academic, and environmental predictors of stress for residence hall students. Journal of American College Health, 54(1), 15–24.

Erb, S. E., Renshaw, K. D., Short, J. L., & Pollard, J. W. (2014). The importance of college roommate relationships: A review and systematic conceptualization. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 43–55. Retrieved from https://mason.gmu.edu/~jshort/Erb%20Roommate%20Relationships.pdf

Ruiz, S., Sharkness, J., Kelly, K., DeAngelo, L., et al. (2010). Findings from the 2009 administration of the Your First College Year (YFYC): National aggregates. Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/Reports/YFCY2009Final_January.pdf

University of Missouri. (n.d.). How to be a good roommate. Retrieved from https://reslife.missouri.edu/roommate

Washington College. (n.d.). Roommate conflict tools. Retrieved from https://www.washcoll.edu/offices/residential-life/roommate-conflict-tools.php

Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community

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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.

How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.

Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.

Online harassment takes various forms:

  • Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
  • Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
  • Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
  • Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
  • Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
  • Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
  • Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
  • Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.

Quiz: Is it cyberbullying? (Affordable Colleges Online)

Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
  • 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
  • Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
  • Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
  • Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
  • LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
  • Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).

Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:

  • Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
  • Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
  • Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
  • Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
  • Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.

Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:

  • We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
  • We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).

In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.

The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:

  • A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
  • A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
  • Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
  • Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
  • Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.

8 ways to build better online spaces

1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard

The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.

2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics

Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.

3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional

If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.

4. Ask for clarification if you need it

If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”

5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood

Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.

6. Use the reporting tools

Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.

7. Use your moderator powers for good

If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:

  • Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
  • Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
  • Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
  • Being open to feedback from your community and others

8. Support people and platforms doing good work

In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.

Hack Harassment
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.

6 steps to intervening constructively

People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish

“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.

2. Reach out and offer support

You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.

3.Add positive comments to a negative thread

If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…

4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf

If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.

5. Check in with your own feelings

“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”

6. Seek support, off-line and on

“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.

Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:

Take advantage of customization tools

Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).

Pick your friends

There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.

Protect your privacy

Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.

Consider making online magic

Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.

Be aware that not all sites are created equal

Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.

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