The prospects of finally taking a leap from a jammed, childhood bedroom into independent adulthood can be thrilling to those teenagers currently readying themselves to take up hard-earned university places. They might also think that much of the nervousness and uncertainty accompanying the change (will I fit in? Can I keep up? Should I be preparing now? Will I make friends?) can, nowadays, be ameliorated by the wealth of student support online.
So, allow me to introduce something irrelevant and virtually unknown to anyone outside the 17 and 18-year-old population: The Offer Holder Group Chat. The prospective students of today can create and join message groups created on Facebook or other social media sites, allowing them to virtually meet and befriend other offer holders for their university, subject or accommodation. The chats are a welcome step towards building the long-lasting friendships we want to make and they’re especially valuable for those who aren’t going to a university with any other members of their school, or for those who feel the experiences of their family and friends can’t adequately prepare them for the move.
However, across the chats my friends and I joined, we found a more sinister tone. They were filled with Nazi jokes. Harmless discussions about favourite books had been hijacked with answers of “Mein Kampf” and accompanying photos of Nazi uniforms. Before I left my own group chat, I witnessed swastikas posted as “the flag of the Jewish homeland” and memes about a supposed hierarchy of Nazis.
Online, an over-familiar atmosphere can quickly be created, where members are nicknamed and in-jokes are bandied around by the more vocal members of the group. But, without any real grounding for this familiarity with each other (most of us have never met, some of us never will) so many of these intimate-feeling in-jokes become deeply racist, bigoted and hyper-sexual. The chats which were meant to unite us, help us, and welcome us into the new stage of our lives, our new homes, are now defunct; they’re filled with jokes about school shootings and killing communists, phrases such as “lead us to Jihad”, “jump off a cliff – everyone else is doing it” and “Plebs unite”, and continuous homophobic slurs, with one person even nicknaming themselves “cease the faggotry” as their on-screen username.
Of course, any well-trained adult would simply remind us to remove ourselves from the group chats and block anyone offensive. Social justice campaigners might encourage us to stand up for the principles of equality by challenging such behaviour. However, many are paralysed by the thing some chat members seem to have forgotten – this is the first impression they’ll give to their peers and everything posted on the chat can be seen and saved by everyone. The thought of challenging the few active chat members, who chat to each other like old friends, at lightning speed, is terrifying and even more difficult for those who are under-confident about meeting friends and surviving university alone. Challenges are overruled, challengers are told to “f*ck off”. “Grammar Nazis are worse than real Nazis” one girl was told when she didn’t join in; the messages are branded as jokes and anyone who won’t play along is seen as a ‘party pooper’. Unlike choosing to boycott the offensive party theme or avoiding people you find rude, objecting here feels like hanging yourself out on the university notice board for everyone to see – even leaving feels like a clear act of protest. The message feels clear – play along or get out (and good luck for when you turn up in September).
The questions are raised- why do these teenagers feel so comfortable publishing such ‘jokes’ online? How have we failed to equip young people to deal with under confidence or move in a big group with respect and kindness? And how should we go about dealing with the abuses currently occurring in group chats? If universities like Warwick can’t, or won’t, quell offensive group chats created and run by students, how can we persuade them to take actions on unofficial group chats run by university hopefuls?
There has been some action; in 2017, Harvard rescinded offers for 10 offer-holders over a private group chat (admission to be ‘earned’ via an offensive post) which shared holocaust and child rape jokes. According to my US based friends, this has done something to kill the offensive group chat, though it has not disappeared entirely. A media narrative which rewards university action by accepting that there is offensive behaviour everywhere which simply comes to light when universities decide to act, rather than attaching bad press to the members of these universities alone will only encourage more positive action.
I’ve also seen a few offensive members temporarily suspended by group chat admins and, for individuals, there is always the option to leave, however scary that may seem. You’d be amazed what an excuse about needing to revise without distractions can do for you and the most offensive chats tend to be the least specific ones (general subjects rather than accommodation specific) meaning it’s easier to avoid them without missing out.
Currently, over 10% of first year undergraduates never finish their degree. This figure has been highlighted as “deeply concerning” by universities and the education department alike and makes it clear that now, perhaps more than ever, we must take action to make universities as welcoming and safe to students as possible, in every way we can.