How Bystanders can Help Stop Cyberbullying

Getting people to intervene against cyberbullying is difficult. Still, there’s no shortage of strategies to overcome inaction and apathy.

Humans of New York — Posted on Facebook on February 17, 2015

“Someone made an Instagram account that said: “You’re a slut and you should kill yourself.” And I was the only person they followed.”

In 2016, social media and mobile apps have made it simple, cost-effective, and fun to connect with anyone, anywhere. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account. Although the popularity of online communication has brought us new ways to interact with others, it’s also showed us the dark side of human behavior. Online bullying is just one example of how conversations on social media can go wrong. While people of all ages and backgrounds have been victims of online aggression, much of the academic research — not to mention publicity — on these issues focuses on incidents among kids and teens.

You’re probably familiar with the term “cyberbullying”, and you probably have a good sense of how serious it can be for victims. Essentially, cyberbullying is a repeated (but not always), intentional act of aggression mediated through some form of electronic contact. Researchers estimate that between 10 and 40% of adolescents are victims of cyberbullying. Many of these young people suffer from reduced self-esteem and depression as a result. Beyond direct victimization, 70% of adult internet users have witnessed some form of online harassment. That’s a lot of onlookers — and a lot of people who could potentially step in to stop harassment. However, research consistently finds that these witnesses remain idle.

Bystanders in the Age of Cyberbullying

We probably all believe that it’s important to stop bullying. However, research consistently shows people rarely intervene in bullying incidents — particularly online. This is because of the bystander effect, a social behavior phenomenon first identified by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in the late 60s and early 70s. They found that most people who witness an emergency do not assist when there are other witnesses, or bystanders, to the event. Darley and Latané argue that people refrain from helping because they believe another bystander will eventually step in and do something. Alternatively, if no one steps in to aid the victim, bystanders assume that the norm is to not help.

A video on the bystander effect from

While the Internet makes communication easier, it doesn’t necessarily make bystander intervention more likely. While hundreds or even thousands of bystanders can read an aggressive post or a request for help, few people actually respond. The bystander effect tells us that this is because we each assume that someone else will step in. Because we don’t know who else is watching, we also don’t know whether others have already responded.

We’re also less likely to intervene online because we’re psychologically separated from the acts we witness. We’re separated from what we view online by geographical distance — the person posting could be anywhere in the world. We’re also separated by time — it’s often difficult to tell how old a post is, or if a response is still needed. This spatial and temporal distance means that we often feel that there’s nothing we can do to help stop online aggression.

There are other ways that online communication makes aggression harder to stop. Online bullying is often anonymous, meaning perpetrators can’t be identified. It’s easy for aggressors to set up new social media accounts, so blocking and reporting is often ineffective.

While the Internet makes it hard for adults to stop aggression, it’s even more difficult for teenagers. Young people are often unwilling to tell adults about incidents of cyberbullying. They fear retaliation from bullies, or accusations of “tattling” from other bystanders. Some teens also fear that reporting online misbehavior will result in consequences, such as loss of internet browsing privileges, from adults.

How do we encourage bystander intervention against cyberbullying?

Getting bystanders, especially teenagers, to intervene against cyberbullying is difficult. Still, there’s no shortage of strategies to overcome inaction and apathy. How can we decide which strategies to apply? To answer this, we turn back to Darley and Latané and their research on bystanders. They identified a cognitive and behavioral process that explains how bystanders respond to emergency situations. The Bystander Intervention Model, below, shows the five steps in this process.

The Bystander Intervention Model gives us a framework for helping bystanders stop cyberbullying.

This model describes the process that we consciously or unconsciously use to interpret events. The steps help us decide whether to intervene during an emergency.

Each step in the Bystander Intervention Model requires a realization or action to occur before it proceeds to the next step. For example, if a bystander doesn’t take responsibility for providing help (step 3), then they’ll never actually decide how to provide help (step 4), let alone actually take action.

So how can a psychological theory that was invented before most of us had even heard of the Internet help us solve one of the Internet’s worst problems? We can break down the Bystander Intervention Model into its individual steps, and apply them to what we know about cyberbullying, behavior, and teens. Then, we can start to come up with ways to help bystanders step in to stop bullying.

The first two steps of the Bystander Intervention Model seem like common sense. In Step 1, bystanders notice that something is happening. Whether it’s on the street or online, being able to see and understand what’s happening around is fundamental. We can’t help others if we’re not aware of possible situations that might need intervention. We can help others spot inappropriate behavior by promoting basic digital literacy and citizenship skills. Understanding the rules and norms about how to behave online can help us determine when something might be going wrong.

In Step 2, bystanders recognize that a situation is an emergency that requires intervention. This goes beyond seeing cyberbullying happen — in this step, we recognize cyberbullying for what it is. For teens, identifying cyberbullying can be difficult. The difference between intentional aggression and harmless teasing can be hazy for young people. Educational programs that teach kids to interpret negative online interactions can help them move past step 2 and on to step 3. Recognizing bullying does make a difference in bystander intervention. One study found that people are over 4 times more likely to directly intervene when they interpret an event as an emergency.

Step 3 of the Bystander Intervention Model requires that bystanders take responsibility in an emergency. When we witness online aggression, it’s important to recognize the role we can take in stopping it.

Cyberbullying researchers have found several factors that determine whether people take responsibility for intervening against bullying. Moral sensitivity, empathy, and social anxiety may determine whether people are willing to intervene. Activities that help teens build interpersonal sensitivity can help strengthen their ability to stand up on behalf of a victim. Discussing the causes and outcomes of the bystander effect can also encourage empathy and decrease anxiety. Practicing these skills at home and in school can ensure that young people feel empowered to act in times of need.

Peer pressure plays a big role in all aspects of young peoples’ lives. In particular, peers have enormous influence over whether and how intervention happens. Social norms that discourage helping others often mean that young people face pressure to not respond to bullying. On the positive side, help from peers in standing up to a bully can help kids feel less intimidated and reduce fears of retaliation.

Last, Steps 4 and 5 of the Bystander Intervention Model tell us how to intervene in an emergency. If teens don’t believe that their efforts to intervene will make a difference, then they’re less likely to help a victim of cyberbullying. Teens are also less likely to intervene if they think there is some potential for retaliation on behalf of the aggressor.

Parents and educators can help by suggesting direct or indirect ways to intervene. For example, a teens who are uncomfortable showing disapproval of bullying behavior in public can quietly flag or report the post so that others can act on it. Witnesses to online aggression can also reach out to the victim, whether in public or in private, on or offline. Teens can also record or screenshot evidence of cyberbullying for later action.

Parents and educators can also help stop retaliation against teens who report bullies. Teens often fear that reporting bullying can lead to punishment from peers, but punishment from adults is a concern as well. Kids can be worried that reporting bad behavior will make make adults block or limit social media use. Taking the time to understand aggressive events from a witness’s point of view can encourage kids to intervene.

In summary

Cyberbullying and aggression are ugly downsides of our online lives. Applying the Bystander Intervention Model can help us understand how we can step in when we see these online emergencies. We hope it can help teenage bystanders intervene to stop the online aggression they witness.

This post was originally published on the Sharing and Support in Social Media (ShareSoMe) Research Group Blog. Fran and Olivia wrote an earlier draft and Jordan and Shruti helped with improvements.

Did you like this article? Please share it with others and leave feedback for us!