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Can Online Training Help Prevent Sexual Assaults?

A new online bystander intervention training program may make campus life safer,

Sexual violence on college campuses is everybody's problem.

Based on recent surveys, an estimated 19 to 25 percent of women report experiencing some form of sexual violence in college while the figures for men is somewhat lower (6.1 percent). Problems associated with sexual assault can include posttraumatic symptoms, academic difficulties, drug and alcohol abuse, and relationship issues (especially involving loss of trust). The long-term issues stemming from sexual violence are often made worse by interacting with campus police and a justice system that frequently places the blame on the victim for what happened, especially in cases of date rape or if drugs or alcohol were consumed.

While numerous colleges have established prevention programs aimed at educating men and women about sexual violence, their actual track record for success has been spotty at best. These programs tend to focus on warning potential assaulters about the penalties associated with sexual violence or on training potential victims how to reduce the risk of being victimized. In many cases however, people participating in these programs (which are often mandatory on many campuses) may not feel that the lessons learned necessarily apply to them.

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A more promising alternative involves "bystander intervention" programs. Instead of regarding students attending the program as potential victims or victimizers, bystander intervention focuses on training students on how they can reduce sexual violence committed by others. Based on the classic "bystander effect" research pioneered by John Darley and Bibb Latane, bystander intervention training includes teaching people to be more aware of potential risk situations and acting to prevent sexual violence from occurring. That can include walking someone home from a party (especially if that person had been drinking), watching for attempts at slipping "date rate drugs" into the drinks of potential victims, or intervening if someone is about to be assaulted.

Through bystander intervention training, people can learn to overcome attitudes that can increase the likelihood of sexual crimes taking place. Overcoming attitudes such as "it's none of my business", or that "someone else will take care of it" can go a long way towards recognizing the responsibility people have towards others.

Research evaluating the effectiveness of bystander intervention programs has shown positive benefits including greater awareness of personal responsibility and reduction in the sort of beliefs that can contribute to sexual violence. Unfortunately, despite these benefits, bystander intervention programs are limited in terms of the number of students they can reach. Ideal programs can only handle up to twenty students at a time and training peer counselors to run these programs takes considerable time and resources. Even if the programs were made part of student orientation, large campuses can have thousands of students and having all of them do the training can take months.There is also the logistical problem of running the programs in a way that doesn't interfere with course schedules as well as the discomfort some students might feel over discussing issues such as date rape in a mixed-sex group.

But what if bystander intervention programs could be done online so that students could take part in themwhenever they wished? Also, since many students may be reluctant to discuss such sensitive topics in a group, could a program providing individualized education in a non-group format help? A new online program, Take Care, has been developed to address some of the limitations in conventional bystander intervention training. Online treatment programs have already been proven to be effective in treating health problems such as weight control, substance abuse, and controlling smoking. They can also reach many students who might not be available for regular group programming.

Created by a team of psychologists at Southern Methodist University, Take Care has been especially designed to encourage college students to look out for their friends in social situations. By presenting a series of vignettes on risky social situations, Take Care shows the different ways that people could intervene to prevent sexual violence from taking place. By working through the vignettes, students learn that simply acting to change the situation can potentially save a friend from harm. The focus of the Take Care program is learning that taking some action of behalf of a friend can be enough to prevent tragedy.

The name "Take Care" is based on the C.A.R.E. anagram used in the program to present the underlying principles involved:

C – Show compassion for victims or potential victims of sexual assault;
A – Pay attention to the situation and whether it could be risky;
R – Take responsibility for acting to reduce risk or aid a victim;
E – Take effective action

The Take Care program is also much shorter than the in-person group formats (20 minutes as opposed to an hour or more of group training). The focus of the program is also narrower since it deals only with looking out for friends in social situations rather than broader issues of campus safety. Since most sexual assaults take place in the victim's home, focusing on friends of the potential victim or perpetrator may be more effective than a bystander intervention program aimed at a wider audience.

So how effective is the Take Care program? A recent study published in Psychology of Violence looks at the short-term benefits for college students who view Take Care. Conducted by Anne Kleinsasser, Ernest N. Jouriles, Renee McDonald, and David Rosenfield at Southern Methodist University (who also developed the Take Care program), the study assigned 93 students (over 80 percent of whom were female) to either watch the Take Care video or a neutral video for those students in the control group. They were also given pre- and post-tests of alcohol use, school performance, etc. to help mask the real purpose of the study.

A week after viewing the video, all students completed additional questionnaires and took part in several role-playing exercises involving "typical" college scenarios including drinking too much at a party or seeing questionable party behaviour. Since this study was part of a larger study looking at issues such as academic dishonesty and roommate problems, the role plays helped mask the true purpose of the Take Care study. There was also another follow-up testing sessions two months after watching the video.

What the results showed was that Take Care can make viewers more willing to intervene in high-risk situations involving friends. Compared to people watching the control video, people in the Take Care group were significantly more likely to report acting to help friends avoid high-risk situations during the two-month follow-up period. People watching the Take Care video not only became more confident that they could help in potential sexual assaults, but they also became more sensitized to the kind of dangers students face in social situations on campus.For people in the control condition however, there was an actual decline in the likelihood of intervening in high-risk situations across the two-month followup period.

While watching the Take Care video can make people more likely to help friends in high-risk situations, it does not take the place of broader bystander intervention programs that can make people more aware of the many issues surrounding sexual assault on campus.This includes defusing rape myths, sexist jokes, or other gender issues that can make sexual assault more common. Though Take Care is not a standalone solution, an online bystander intervention program that students can view on their own without having to fit it into their schedule is certainly appealing.

Though this is the first formal study to evaluate the effectiveness of an online bystander intervention program, Take Care shows real promise as a training tool to help prevent sexual assaults on campus. Since social situations involving friends represents the most likely place for sexual violence to occur, programs such as Take Care can play a strong role in helping to make students safer. It is still important to note that Take Care does not take the place of existing group programs with a proven track record of success. Educating students about the different ways that sexual assault can occur will require a variety of different approaches to deal with sexual violence on campus.College administrators will need to be careful in choosing which programs will work best with their campus community.

Still, for many students living on campus for the first time in their lives, learning how to make themselves and their friends a little safer may be no more than a click away.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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