With campuses shuttered across the country, students are stuck completing their spring semesters through online distance learning with Zoom or other video conferencing technology. Even with the best professors, this online-only set up can be mind-numbing, particularly for young students who were enjoying full and on-campus lives only a few weeks ago. This vacuum means that students are dealing with boredom, anxiety and endless amounts of unstructured time. As the old saying goes, idle hands are the Devil’s playground.
This idleness has led to the latest craze in bad ideas: Zoombombing. Zoombombing is a form of online trolling where a Zoom meeting participant uses the platform’s chat, audio and screen sharing features to publicly make inappropriate comments and display graphic images. Zoombombing can be done by enrolled students in a class, invited members in a friendly group chat or anyone with access (invited or otherwise) to an online meeting. Reported Zoombombing examples include participants using vulgar fake screen names, dominating chats with sexually harassing messages, displaying pornographic videos and even sharing another participant’s personal contact information.
Although this conduct may seem like a harmless prank or a way to blow off steam, it violates Title IX and can even have criminal consequences, with at least one FBI field office encouraging “victims of teleconference hijacking” to file reports. Also, as we’ve previously discussed, students are still subject to Title IX proceedings, even when they are off campus and taking classes only online.
Colleges universally prohibit sexually harassing acts and language, including the sharing of pornographic images without the viewer’s consent. And multiple universities have expressly requested that students, faculty and staff report these incidents to the Title IX office. Academic consequences can be severe, including suspension and expulsion, even if it was all meant as a joke.
To minimize the chances of being Zoombombed, colleges and universities have adopted a variety of technological fixes. For example, professors may disable Zoom’s screen sharing and audio features, as well as its annotation, file sharing and private chat functions, so that only the instructor’s thoughts are shared. Although this response may not be ideal—particularly for courses that require class participation—it guarantees that no inappropriate messages or images will be displayed. Other options can include allowing classroom access only to invited and authenticated participants, forcing all attendees to be screened in an online “Waiting Room” or immediately removing offending participants.
Students should be aware, however, that not all Zoombombing occurs in a classroom setting. With state-mandated social distancing, students are turning to Zoom, Facetime and other technologies to “hang out” with friends and acquaintances, including virtual strangers. Although a student may intend to just joke around with their friends, a line can easily be crossed with the sharing of private information or graphic images. Students should always have consent when sharing sexually explicit photos and videos. No one wants to see a private photo splashed across a group video conference, or to unexpectedly be confronted with pornography. Such conduct could easily wind up in a Title IX complaint.
We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is a difficult time for all students. No one has dealt with this situation before, and students are now being asked to juggle a global health crisis, college, and limitless unstructured time all in the span of a few weeks. With little to do except surf the internet and attend online class, the keyboard has become the new Devil’s playground. If you would like more information about Zoombombing or the Title IX process, please contact Student & Athlete Defense / Title IX attorneys Susan Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (email@example.com or 216.736.7217).