Abstract: Eye Movement Patterns in Response to Sexual Misconduct Awareness Campaign Messages

◆ Weijia Shi, University of Minnesota
◆ Marco Yzer, University of Minnesota

In the U.S., 1 in 5 female undergraduate students may have been sexually assaulted while in college. The actual prevalence of sexual misconduct on campuses may be even higher, as sexual misconduct is underreported. Given the prevalence of sexual misconduct and its psychological and physical effects on victims, the CDC has called for campus-based campaigns to raise awareness, change attitudes and norms, and ultimately reduce misconduct. Potentially promising among those are bystander intervention campaigns, which aim to strengthen recognition of situations, in which someone else may be at risk of being sexually mistreated, and appropriate actions to intervene in such situations.
The present study tests responses to materials from one such bystander intervention campaign. This campaign was launched in 2018 on the campus of a large university in the U.S. The campaign aimed to make undergraduates aware of sexual misconduct on campus and to educate how one can respond when witnessing sexual misconduct.
Specifically, we tested visual attention to campaign posters to determine whether students in fact attended to all visual and textual components of the posters that collectively were thought to produce intended effects. This question of attention to message components is assumed in strategic health communication, but seldom tested. We used eye-tracking technology to test attention to 12 a priori determined poster components, or in eye-tracking terminology, areas of interest (AOI), in a sample of undergraduates (N = 90). Because self-relevance can affect message attention patterns, we compared participants who reported having personal experience with sexual misconduct (n = 36) to those who did not (n = 54).
Each participant saw the same three posters, which were presented in random order. Each poster featured three young people (“bystanders”) who looked at the message viewer. Each poster also included an action cue about how to intervene, a slogan (“It ends here”), an information link, and a heading (“sexual harassment stops when you step up”). We examined time to first fixation and fixation duration for each AOI, which resulted in 72 eye movement variables (two eye movement indicators x twelve AOIs x three posters). Multivariate GLM analyses revealed that visual attention patterns were the same across the three posters. Interestingly, after collapsing data across the three posters, we found no clear differences in visual attention between those who had and had not experienced sexual misconduct. In general, participants first looked at the heading or center bystander’s torso, followed by bystanders’ faces and the action cue. Regarding fixation durations, whereas all important message components were attended, action cues received the most attention.
Were these findings generalizable, then the finding that all key message components were viewed by participants bodes well for the campaign’s minimal prerequisite for potential effects on awareness of action responses to sexual misconduct. Equally important, our finding that experience with sexual misconduct did not affect visual attention may suggest that at the very least campaign materials did not alienate those who had been affected by sexual misconduct in terms of tuning out.