Tips for students facing online harassment and threats
This guidance is based on advice contained in PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.
Documenting the harassment or threats is a critical first step. Take a screenshot, save direct link to social media messages, and save any emails, voicemails, or texts to create a record of what’s happened. Track available information about the abusers, and look for patterns or escalations in harmful behavior. Amassing evidence can be helpful in conversations with allies and university officials and instrumental if you decide to engage law enforcement or pursue legal action.
Ask yourself if the harassment has made you feel concerned about your physical safety, or that of your family, or others at the university. If you have received a direct or veiled threat of physical or sexual violence—or if the harassment has made you in any way concerned for your safety, seriously consider alerting law enforcement or campus police. See our guidance on assessing the threat and engaging law enforcement.
NOTIFY AND COMMUNICATE
Consider alerting your dean, program director, department head, or other campus authorities—and provide documentation. Keep them aware of any new developments. They may decide to involve campus security or local law enforcement. Speaking about online harassment can elicit feelings of embarrassment, shame, or fear. Remember: Abuse is often intended to isolate. Communicating with trusted faculty, advisors, and administrators can be a way to gain allies, expand your support community, and exert some level of control over a disempowering situation. See our guidance on talking to employers and professional contacts.
The flow of decision making should start with you and end with the institution, not the other way around. Whatever the risk posed to the university, it should take your preferences into account in planning a response.
BOLSTER CYBER SECURITY
Safeguard your accounts by adopting secure passwords and logins. Learn how to strategically secure your email and social media accounts and protect yourself from doxing. See our guidance on cyber security.
Online harassment can make you feel like your life is spinning out of control and elicit feelings of fear and shame. It can do real damage to psychological and physical health and affect people differently depending on their life experience, race, gender, and background. Resist the urge to ignore how you’re feeling and prioritize self-care. See our guidance on self-care.
Be sure to seek support from friends and family. If the harassment is affecting your ability to work or study, tell your advisor or dean and get the support you need. Ask about counselling. See if administrators can connect you with others at the university who have experienced harassment and expressed a willingness to serve as allies. See our guidance on talking to friends and family.
Some people find it empowering to speak publicly against harassment and take control of the narrative. If your harassers are propagating misinformation about you, it might also be important for campus leaders to stand up for you and publicly debunk these claims to prevent the spread of false information. See our guidance on safely approaching counterspeech.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
If your dean or other campus officials suggest that what you say online might affect your enrollment in school or carry disciplinary consequences, know that their actions could be in violation of your First Amendment rights.