Ever feel like you were being watched? Students working in Swansea University library are becoming well acquainted with that feeling, and they’re not all happy about it. Natalie Holborow looks at the latest student Facebook trend to spot the difference between a harmless bit of fun and cases of not-so-harmless cyber bullying.

Walking through rows of people, I could be forgiven for worrying about what I’m wearing or how my hair looks. It would be normal for me to feel self-conscious if I were wearing my pyjamas in public, or standing in a room full of supermodels. But I’m not. I’m somewhere you’d never normally think about being judged on your appearance. I’m not being filmed for Big Brother, although it feels like every word I currently type is being watched, or every trip to get coffee poses a risk of being targeted. I’m sitting in the University library, where thanks to the popularity of anonymous Facebook groups, the current trend being the page Spotted: Swansea University, there are now an awful lot of people who feel as self-conscious as I do.

During exam time, the average student probably spends more time in the library than in their own bed. So, admittedly, the average student also feels bored and frustrated (yes, thank you Charles Dickens, for the hours I spent wanting to tear up Great Expectations and weep into it like a big wad of Kleenex). Cue “a bit of fun”, a Facebook group which says this:

Don’t have the courage to tell the annoying group in the corner to be quiet? No courage to walk up to the cute girl opposite you? Inbox us your notes and let the library population see your messages.”

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Everyone has been in the situation where they’ve been sat trying to work and there’s a little group of people behind who naturally feel that everybody should know about how they turned up to their lecture still drunk; how they slept with their best friend’s housemate’s cousin’s gym buddy; or that their friend vomited over themselves at a party dressed as a pizza. Similarly, I’m sure everyone’s had a cheeky glance over and noticed someone frowning at their computer screen looking undeniably gorgeous. That’s just how it is.

But now, thanks to Spotted, you can let the rest of the library know your thoughts anonymously. It seemed like a good idea to begin with. By which I mean: nobody got hurt, the loudmouths might have gotten the hint, and ‘Mr. Gorgeous Man with the Green Hat and an Affinity for Mini Oreos’ might have found that someone likes him and caught their eye. However, what has resulted is a tirade of abuse – aimed specifically at individuals who will be able to identify themselves from the physical descriptions – yet not know who has posted. What we have on our hands once again, as with the Swansea Student Confessions page, is essentially a forum for cyber-bullying.

One male student who preferred to remain anonymous is of the view that “the page gives people an outlet for their built up stress levels, offering some light hearted humour in a time where stress is through the roof. However, like everything on the internet today, there is a line and sometimes people go beyond what is acceptable.”

Posts have been increasingly focused on the subject on people’s physical appearance, especially young women. Even sitting here now, I am worrying about whether somebody will refer to my body shape in any way, or the way I dress. Having been subject to bullying over my body shape in school, the thought that this could happen again and that people could mock me publicly online terrifies me. I am not alone: Beatbullying statistics show that 69% of young adults have reported bullying during their time at school, and as many as 90% of young women would like to change something about their appearance.

Second year English Literature student Zoe Alford has noted, “I’d say about 80% of the posts involve some lecherous comment about how girls look. I usually don’t wear makeup to the library or dress up, but I feel I’ve had to start now.”

Surely, you’d think that people at University are of an age when they suspend immature attitudes and petty judgement. Unfortunately it seems that many- when given the chance to hide behind the mask of anonymity- choose to become the smirking school kid with all the power of a computer keyboard, looking to humiliate an identifiable and innocent target.

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Are you being watched? Many Swansea University students no longer feel comfortable working in the library.

Though the page currently has 1,352 “likes” and is increasing daily, there is a growing number of students who feel it has gone too far. English Literature student Catherine Rowland has been “spotted” twice and as a result says that she “won’t be stepping into the library for a while”.

Third year History student Rhiannon Sandy is also troubled by the anonymity of such pages, and has been subject to insult when posting something herself.

“When I submitted something (a joke about ‘it’s really noisy in here and I’m a bit hungover so can you all keep it down please?’) it got posted in an unpleasant way with them commenting ‘NO’ underneath my original text,” she said.

“Just because it’s faceless doesn’t mean there isn’t some unpleasant person there reading what you submit and holding things against you.” She adds, “Also, this person (or people), whoever they are, now knows a lot of things about people they can hold against them. I find that a little bit scary.”

The majority of students asked to give their opinion responded with the view that it is indeed a ‘joke gone too far’.

“It was a bit of fun at first but now it’s just cyber-bullying,” says Kelvin Lawson. “These people wouldn’t dare say the things they are to face of the people they are bullying. I’ve read on twitter that some people are scared or worried about going to the library as a result. No one should ever have that feeling!”

This is absolutely right. As students we are paying thousands of pounds a year to be able to use facilities such as the library. That so many have now been driven out by bullying is unacceptable and needs to be sorted out.

The page had been taken down once, after several people reported it for abuse, but now it is back up and running again and states in its info section: “Please be sensible, posts which are deemed to be offensive or hurtful will not be posted.” Considering the number of derogatory comments and insulting messages, I see no evidence of such control by the page administrators.

Even former students have expressed their disgust and relief that they have not had to deal with the page. Ex-student Jess Elvin said of the matter:“When I saw the page my first thought was, ‘I am SO glad I have finished Uni now.’ I would feel so uncomfortable being there with this going on. For me, libraries have always been a refuge from all that, a place where you can just lose yourself in great ideas and knowledge and forget that none of the cool kids like you or your hair sucks today. This is just bullying, plain and simple.”

I for one did not expect to go to University having to worry about anything more than deadlines, exams, bills and whether that ham in the back of the fridge will cause me to die of E.coli if I eat it in my sandwich 2 days past the sell-by date. It’s about time these spineless anonymous bullies had no such pages in which to behave so offensively. The more people willing to show maturity and report them, the more chance we have of removing them and getting on with our studies in an environment which is supportive and friendly.

Yes, there will always be the noisy group who insist upon shouting every word. Yes, some people’s taste in t-shirts may seem questionable. And yes, sometimes I’d like to share a Costa with that nice man by the vending machine. But if, for example, you think I’m the “minger in the cream jumper”, that’s fine, but you don’t need to let a whole community of students online know. I’m not hurting anybody. I probably find your taste in music rubbish. However, if you would like to share a Costa with me, telling over 1,000 people online that you’d like to do something my mother would be appalled at is not the way to impress a person. Do what I do when I’m feeling brave, smile and ask them out yourself. You’ll probably get a lot more respect and to be honest, I think most people would rather accept a revision break coffee from someone with a face.

By Natalie Holborow

Have you been “spotted” in Swansea University library? Is it bullying or just a harmless bit of fun? Have your say by leaving a comment or emailing us at thesirenswansea@hotmail.co.uk

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