When exploring the murky waters of social media, students are often unsure about how to handle acts of cyber aggression. In response to this problem, the University of Toronto has hired Faye Mishna, dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, as the provostial advisor on aggression in social media.

Working with members of the U of T community, Mishna will develop strategies to educate students about the challenges with expressing aggression on social media. She hopes to take the benefits and risks of social media usage into account and advise the provost on how to foster an environment which would lend itself to positive social media.

Mishna cited the “power to demean” as one of the key factors in online aggression.

“[When you’re online] you don’t see the person you’re speaking to, there are no social or physical cues. [You don’t see their] face, [or their] body flinch,” said Mishna. “Some people, who can’t say things in person, say it online and that is problematic. [They say] things they wouldn’t otherwise in person… but it might be too much.”

According to Mishna, the challenge with social media is “how to respond [in a way that is] helpful and not punitive.” Mishna wants to promote positive use and teach how to respond without being reactive. “[Social media is] not problem based; it is part of the world right now. Whether it’s online or offline it’s about people relating. We need to have codes of conduct, respectable ways of dealing with conflicts, points of differences and have consequences.”

So far 5,000 U of T students have been surveyed about their experiences with cyber aggression, most of whom were undergraduate students. Next month another 1,000 surveys will be distributed to graduate students.

Mishna also wants to conduct focus groups for student feedback at all years of post-secondary education in order to “figure out the best way to provide education.” At this point she is focusing on students but hopes to eventually interview faculty, as “everybody is effected.”

“[U of T] is a huge [school] with three campuses, [with a] range in diversity with students, faculty and staff,” said Mishna. “Social media is a new world and so challenging generally [because it is] easy to get misused.”

When asked about the importance of the issue Mishna said that all universities need to deal with aggression on social media. She added that, instead of implementing policies, students and faculty at universities should be preventative rather than reactive in their actions on social media.

“People are on social media, it’s a new world and we don’t know all the consequences, it affects us good and bad and everyone needs to be aware of this.”

For now, Mishna wants students to keep their guards up when it comes to positing on social media.  “If you’re posting about [yourself], anybody can see it and anybody can post it. [You make yourself] vulnerable. When you post about others, anybody can see it, there is no privacy. When there is no one in front of it, you think it’s just a device a computer, a smartphone, there is a person behind it. It comes down to the relationships.”