Cyberbullying Month: Resources and Research

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Educators in VR is recognizing Cyberbullying Month all October. We have three events lined up for you. Tuesday, October 15, is Daniel Dyboski-Bryant and special guest Lucas Rizzotto, award-winning director and pioneering VR and AR storyteller, developer of “Where Thoughts Go,” the successful virtual storytelling creation app. They will be discussing using empathy in VR to build awareness and sensitivity training for educators and learners, and beyond. On Tuesday, October 29, Educators in VR will be presenting a special program to conclude Cyberbullying Month, and Thursday, October 17, is a special Cyberbullying Panel Discussion hosted by veteran Virtual Communities Consultant, John Williams (JayW) and representatives of the AltspaceVR Staff and Community including special guest Keegan Law, the Program Owner of AltspaceVR. We will be discussing and sharing insights on cyberbullying in virtual reality.

John Williams and Lorelle VanFossen gathered information and resources for you in support of Cyberbullying Month.

Virtual harassment and bullying isn’t new. Julia K. Ferganchick-Neufang published “Virtual Harassment: Women and Online Education” in February 1998, tackling the issue of student aggression toward female instructors online even before Second Life was launched in 2003.

The “virtual” aspect of virtual reality creates a distance that makes it easy for us to ignore the very real human communication and interaction of such spaces. If we are to challenge these abusive attacks from students and the passive-acceptance of this behavior from administrators, we need to work collectively to convince others, including program administrators, to take us seriously. Student aggression, whether it takes place in writing, in person, or online, is a violation that creates a hostile or intimidating work environment; it is harassment and must be treated as such.

…I do not believe that virtual space is either evil or inherently masculine and patriarchal. What bother me is not the medium, but the lack of attention paid to how that medium may perpetuate sexism and violence against women. I agree with Lari Kendall who says, “the online environment is not itself a solution. Understandings of gender and the hierarchical arrangements based on these understandings do not simply disappear in forums where we can’t see each other. We carry these understandings with us and re-create them online. Therefore, the appearance of more women on MUDs, and online generally, is likely to help only if both women and men make specific efforts to counter…stereotypical understandings.”

This article highlights the negative side of virtual reality, but know that it is statistically a low risk. Depending upon the game or the social VR app, community standards, moderators, and the community itself tends to self-police in a way that represents their goals for the community.

AltspaceVR, for example, is one of the oldest immersive social VR platforms, and has a multi-prong approach to community standards and violations. Their terms of service and AltspaceVR’s Community Standards were designed with community in mind. Not that people read them when creating an account, but the community standards are reinforced by the AltspaceVR 101 30-minute tutorial recommended to newcomers, and through the volunteer Community Helper program of experienced community members helping other members through positive example and mentorship and supportive events. They are aided by the Community Support Team members in the campfire “lobby” to ensure a tolerant and inclusive community.

To begin our dive into cyberbullying and virtual reality, let’s begin with the example of the Community Standards by AltspaceVR as it is an example to other social VR platforms and games, and may serve as a good example for VR in your classroom and school.

Defamation and Intolerance

AltspaceVR is an international community of users that come from many different cultural backgrounds. Each community member has their own individual background, cultural practices, accents and mannerisms, belief structure and reasons for being in VR. As a community that is enriched by this multi-cultural environment, there will be no tolerance for bigotry regarding any user’s race, nationality, spiritual beliefs, physical abilities or sexual orientation. Any language that is meant to defame or injure another user will result in an immediate suspension and determination as to whether the account will be closed permanently.


A healthy community is rooted in the shared understanding that everyone is entitled to feel and express whether something is offensive or uncomfortable for them. When a user chooses to ignore this and continue to aim the uncomfortable behavior at that person, it is perceived as Harassment. If another community member expresses that something makes them uncomfortable, it is your responsibility to cease that behavior in the presence of them. Continued harassing behavior will result in a suspension and subsequent determination as to whether the account will be closed permanently.

Cyber-Bullying and Intimidation

While Cyber-Bullying is regarded as being an issue affecting teens and pre-teens, we are including it as part of the Community Standards so that we make it clear that any form of intimidation levied against another user be it on the AltspaceVR platform or on any social media or forum site managed by Microsoft, shall be considered grounds for suspension or account termination.

As with all such documents, it is a living document, shifting and changing as the needs of the virtual community’s needs change.

Here are some other examples of terms of service and community policies for social VR platforms.

Behind Every Avatar is a Real Person

Behind the cartoon avatar, it’s easy to forget that you are standing with real people with real emotions, sensitivities, anxieties, history and experiences.

The avatars are just masks, malleable, easily changed, sporting a robot or human-style presentation customizable to anything including green skin, red hair, purple eyes, and black shirt and pants with green shoes. Gender, sexual preference, personal characteristics disappear behind these avatars, or are enhanced by choice to represent the real person or their creative spirit or life choices. Just as in the real world, bullying over skin color, disfigurements, tattoos, and any physical differences is unacceptable. Even with limitations in avatar construction, people’s appearance choices are to be honored and respected.

Virtual reality allows you to be you without physical insecurities getting in the way. Avatars may become extensions of the users, their mind and heart embodied. Such fragile selves need protection in VR and the real world to be allowed to explore, develop relationships, and blossom.

In 1996, Susan C. Herring published the book, “Computer-mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives,” which included coverage of virtual reality:

Evidence suggests that most MOO [Multi-User [Domain] Object Oriented, aka social VR system] users represent themselves as their true gender or as neuter, with only a small percentage of players actually attempting to conceal or intentionally misrepresent their gender…Female participants, on the other hand, sometimes present themselves as male or neuter to avoid harassment and special treatment, a practice which suggests that societal sexism carries over into the virtual domain.

Yet, later in the book, she makes this powerful point:

The preconceptions and prejudices based on gender, skin color, body weight, and age that are invariably brought to RL [Real Life] personal encounters may be transcended in the virtual environment, where individuals are evaluated on the basis of their minds and not their bodies. “Concepts of physical beauty are holdovers from ‘MEAT’ space. On the net, they don’t apply. We are all just bits and bytes blowing in the phosphor stream.” (Balsamo 1993:692)

While there is hope that the social virtual reality community will transcend the real world prejudice, there is greater success with virtual reality apps and tools dealing with what some call an “epidemic of bullying and harassment,” especially for school-age children. Estimates are that more than 70% of students witness bullying in their schools. An estimated 5,000 suicide attempts every day in the United States are by students grade 7-12, often as a result of bullying.

Research and new tools are now available to teach teachers how to spot bullying behaviors and make decisions on responding to the situations, mostly using VR’s natural ability to promote empathy, to encourage people to walk in the footsteps of others.

In Germany and the Uk, the virtual reality app “Fear Not!” was used in research with 1,129 children between 8 and 9 years old across 27 primary schools. Researchers found “intervention significantly increased the probability of victims escaping victimisation.” Unfortunately, the effects were deemed to be short-term, requiring repeated intervention education over longer periods of time.

Another app, Amanda, uses virtual reality to “expose users to scenes of bullying,” then measures their level of empathy and helps guide the student on how to respond. Named in honor of 15 year old suicide and bullying victim, Amanda Tood, this app created by students in Greece for other students worldwide is having an impact.

Virtual Inclusion, created by The Open University, also puts the student in the role of the bully’s target, providing options on how to respond. The response has been amazing as students literally walk in the footsteps of some of the most common bullying situations.

By reminding each of us that there is a real person behind each avatar, and introducing an empathetic approach to changing behavior and shifting attitudes, researchers and educators are striving to change hearts and minds.

Common Unity

The heart of the definition of “community” is common unity, something that thrives in social VR communities. We all want to belong. We want to feel connected to something outside of ourselves and often bigger than our own real world. Social VR communities offer opportunities to connect and belong, and they tend to be protective of that experience when threatened. As the bonds of community are strengthened over time, intentional bullying, harassment, and disruption isn’t tolerated.

AltspaceVR is becoming increasingly recognized as a collaborative environment rather than a game or simply a social app. They host community-driven projects such as popular world building events for holidays and special events, talk shows, open mics, themed meetups, support groups, and social shared adventures. By bringing together a healthy mix of people with shared common interests, the community thrives.

In a classroom, the same applies. Over time and interaction, the classroom community develops relationships of tolerance and acceptance, extended into the VR social world with clear guidelines and codes of conduct. Lorelle covered a few of those guidelines and policies in her article on VR Permission and Waiver Forms.

There is a difference between teasing and bullying, trying to get a laugh at the expense of someone else, trolling and purposefully disruptive behavior. In VR as often found in online experiences, people new to the environment may feel like they have the anonymous freedom to do away with social norms and customs. With a little education, these people often self-correct.

Rebzusha (Joker), a Community Helper and Rabbi in AltspaceVR, explained, “Those of us with more experience tend to be more tolerant and less tolerant of bad behavior, but I’ve found that many don’t recognize the difference between teasing and bullying. We need to set an example and discuss how to set personal boundaries, and how to take advantage of the tools in places like AltspaceVR for self-protection. If someone crosses your virtual line, block them, but remember that they might know what they do. I’ve built many strong relationships with troublemakers by talking them down from meanness to kindness and letting them know the rules. Ignorance is no excuse, but it is a starting point if they are willing to listen and change their behavior.”

Don’t Feed the Trolls

Bullying is a deliberate attempt to cause harm to someone. Often at the root of the bully (but not always) is shame and insecurity so they project their issues onto someone who they feel is an “easy target,” someone who they feel is inferior and won’t defend themself. They often get away with the behavior because they are not confronted. Confronting them is one of the biggest challenges we face as VR users and educators.

Bullies are not born bullies. They were likely bullied themselves. Without the ability to relate or empathise with the emotional experience they are causing in their targets, they are adept at predicting cause distress in people. Disruptive “trolls” and often bullying personalities, are often seeking attention. If they bully in the real world or bully online, they are likely to continue that behavior in virtual spaces.

The anonymity of online and virtual communities seems to encourage bullying behavior, giving the impression that people are free to harass and attack others. Statistics so far reveal that bullying is greater in the real world than virtual reality due to the fact that currently there are fewer people in VR and the majority are considered intellectual pioneers eager to create a positive experience for themselves and others. Still, bullying happens.

Responding to bullying in VR isn’t different from responding in the real world. Studies tell us to not engage.  This doesn’t mean ignore the bullying behavior. By all means, report it, but hold your temper and don’t respond in any way, physically, verbally, or emotionally. The “trolls” feed off your attention. What is key in VR social communities are the tools available to control your experience (mute, kick, block) and abuse reporting to protect individuals and the community.

Another aspect of dealing with bullies is respect. Some believe that it is a lack of respect, a lack of attention they need that causes them to escalate their behavior from disruptive to active bullying. But everyone needs respect. Our communities thrive when we respect each other, thus creating a fair and respectful set of ground rules often prevents bullying or disruptive behavior, or defines a tolerant and respectful space that drives them away.

Respect as an acronym is often defined as:

  • Relationships are key. Deep down we all seek connection.
  • Empathy. Everyone counts. Diverse opinions are encouraged.
  • Silence. Don’t speak over someone. Practice authentic listening.
  • Polite. Use please and thank you.
  • Encourage the discussion of ideas and issues through engagement.
  • Communicate with care and consideration of others
  • Treat everyone with dignity and courtesy.

There are many versions of this acronym as all communities are different but each letter of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. boils down to the golden rule of: Treat people how you wish to be treated.

A little bit of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. goes a long way. A great engagement exercise to practice authentic listening would be to ask your community to define R.E.S.P.E.C.T. together.

Rules of the Sandbox

Liz Strauss, author and well-known social media consultant, promotes the sandbox theory for online interactivity. Play nice in the sand box. You don’t play nice, you can’t play in our sandbox.

Creating a safe, interactive, inclusive, social, and collaborative community, such as AltspaceVR, is actually quite magical. It may appear easy, but under the hood, the challenges have been great and met with compassion and integrity. Living in today’s world filled with so many voices seeming to encourage hate and isolationism, protecting such an environment is difficult as new visitors bring their attitudes and beliefs into the community. Yet, when the new visitors aren’t willing to play nice in the virtual sandbox, how do you handle those conflicts?

Freedom of speech in the United States is complicated as the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee individuals the right to say anything they want, just prevents the government from restricting such speech with some exceptions with obscenity, commercial speech, advertising, etc. Nowhere in the law does it state that individuals have the right to use freedom of speech as an excuse to verbally harm another. In fact, it is illegal in many parts of the world and often called defamation and libel.

Hate speech are statements intended to “demean, brutalize, and defame another with cruel and derogatory language on the basis of real or alleged membership in a social group.” However, like the urban legend definition of porn, you know it when you see it, identifying bullying language and acts in virtual spaces is challenging without a clear code of conduct or “Community Standards” in place as a guideline as to what’s acceptable and what is not. Even then, the decision often lies not with the individual but the staff.

Jessica Outlaw of The Extended Mind, noted expert and consultant on VR harassment, culture, and socialization, did surveys on experiences and expectations of VR. In an article on Medium she shared her findings: 36% of males, 49% of females, and 55% gender variant reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment, one of the most common forms of bullying and harassment in online and virtual environments. She also found a moderate rate of racist, homophobic, and violent threats and comments.

In “Harrassment in Social VR: Implication for Design (PDF)” by Blackwell, Ellison, Elliott-Deflo, Schwartz, they divided harassment into 3 types: verbal (hear), physical (feel), and spatial (see). Verbal consisted of insults, hate speech, and sexualized language. Physical is unwanted touching, obstructing movement, and throwing objects. Spatial involved displaying sexual or violent content and visible sexual gestures. Their research found that some users were more vulnerable to harassment than others.

We find that users’ definitions of ‘online harassment’ are subjective and highly personal, making it difficult to govern social spaces at the platform or application level. We also find that embodiment and presence make harassment feel more intense. Finally, we find that shared norms for appropriate behavior in social VR are still emergent, and that users distinguish between newcomers who unknowingly violate expectations for appropriateness and those users who aim to cause intentional harm…

Many participants felt that certain types of people—namely, women, children, people of color, and people with strong accents—were much more likely to be harassed in VR than others, due to vocal cues and avatar appearance. Although social VR offers fewer identity cues than other online contexts (such as social media sites), the identity signals that are available—e.g., dialector gender—are powerful. P18 said: “Someone came up to somebody that was a female—or at least had a female voice—in a room of probably 20 people or so, and went right up to her avatar and pretended to [perform a sexual act on] her.”

These results suggest that users could benefit from more granular controls, allowing users to establish and enforce personal boundaries with development of community-driven moderation tools.

AltspaceVR was one of the first to develop the personal space bubble, a special force-field that makes avatars that get too close to the user disappear as part of their self-moderation tools to protect personal space. Event hosts and moderators also have the ability to mute all and remove disruptive users from the event temporarily or permanently.

The Wild VR West

P25 said: “It’s just, like,craziness. It’s kind of like the Wild West. There’s no regulation, there’s no moderation. People are just kinda doing their own thing.” Participants who had been using social VR for longer described initially appreciating the lack of formal rules or guidelines, but eventually choosing to invest in a particular community’s success by helping to establish pro-social norms.

Said P12: “A year ago or more, I felt a certain kind of freedom that came from just going into a virtual space and not feeling any sort of responsibility or a need to adhere to cultural standards or social norms. I think maybe my experiences have made me think more about virtual spaces. I guess maybe, the more time I spend in social VR, the better virtual citizen I’m becoming.”

Harrassment in Social VR: Implication for Design (PDF)

Even though it is still early days in social VR, we’ve found that the longer people spend in social VR, the more attentive they are to the needs of the community, thus are better virtual citizens.

From the abstract of a virtual reality enhanced bullying prevention curriculum pilot trial done with middle school students in the Midwest United States, the researchers explored the efficacy of traditional bullying prevention programs applied to virtual reality using empathy. They found that VR “increased empathy from pre- to post-intervention compared to the control condition…changes in the desirable directions were also observed for traditional bullying, sense of school belonging, and willingness to intervene as an active bystander, but not for cyberbullying or relational aggression,” encouraging more research in this area.

We need to educate bystanders on how to respond, to understand the tools that may be available on each social network, and how to report the bad behavior of others.

The motto “If you see something, say something” applies to those witnessing the bullying experience as a bystander, but who do they report to? In a virtual space, some will stand by and watch often feeling helpless. Others may take action to defend and protect the target, standing up to the bully. Understanding the choices and how to respond is key to a safe and successful virtual experience.

Where will this take us in the future? Thankfully, we see more individualized experiences to create empathy and “walk in the shoes” of others launching on Steam, Oculus, and other VR app stores. We’re also seeing more research into the specifics of cyberbullying, harassment, and abuse specifically in virtual spaces and platforms as we come to understand how these work and how the communities form. If you are doing work in this area, we would love to hear from you and maybe have you speak at one of our workshops on your research and work.

The following are resources to help you learn more about cyberbullying, the laws, tools, resources, support, and virtual reality research and tools.



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