The Role of Bystanders in Online Bullying

The numbers regarding the amount of young people who have been bystanders to online bullying are alarming- 88% of US social-media using teens have witnessed harassment on social media. Although a sad fact, recognizing this as a trend in online bullying can actually help to solve the problem. Bystanders have the unique position to intervene and discourage online bullying in order to end it once and for all. The key here is in understanding the factors that affect a bystander taking action or not. To understand why someone would or wouldn’t intervene in a bullying situation can help society to create conditions at large that are conducive to bystanders taking action in these situations. Research into this topic yields some surprising results that reflect a lot on human social behavior, and perhaps bringing attention to this will enlighten those children who are bystanders to be skeptical about the way they respond to observing online bullying.

Bystanders play an important role in online bullying dynamics; there are three different ways bystanders can respond to incidents of bullying: remaining an outsider, assisting or reinforcing the bullying, or supporting or defending the victim. In addition, bystanders often times yield most of the social power in these situations because it is the bystander who the bully is trying to exert their dominance in show for. Bullies are often trying to demonstrate their social status when bullying and acknowledgement or support from bystanders is a frequent end goal.

One study found that the perceived severity of the bullying was often an indicator as to whether or not a child would decide to intervene. So, perception plays a key role in bully intervention, and this same study also found that students tend to weigh social risk and reward when deciding to intervene. In cases where the severity of the bullying was low, children were more likely to intervene if the other bystanders were only acquaintances. While high severity cases showed that they were more likely if the other bystanders were friends. Another reason mentioned for not intervening was that many times it is unclear online whether or not this is a friend making harmless jokes at another friend or if the interaction is one of real bullying substance. Without definitive knowledge many young people won’t intervene out of fear that they are out of place in their intervention.

So what should we be telling children about intervening in online bullying? First, it is important to note that even if you do tell them one way or another, children will proceed how they feel comfortable as demonstrated by these studies, so considering the concerns of bystanders as defined above is important in delivering actual results. You can first suggest that your child ask the potential victim questions about the nature of the conversation in question. Doing so can provide insight into the relationship of the people involved, which helps to contextualize the interaction. And since it is common for online bullying to exist in person as well, your child can ask the victim during school the next day or through direct message to feel the situation for bullying. Most schools have resources to help bully victims and a place for bystanders to report what they saw, so make sure your child is familiar with these resources in the event that they become a bystander.