In cyberspace no one can hear you scream
Déjà vu: online postings can be used many times against a victim. Jordan Byrne, Aaron Fallon and Fionn Dooly. Photograph: David Sleator
Witnesses to web bullying are very unlikely to help the victim, which can make a bad situation much worse, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
The perpetrator and the victim are familiar roles in any bullying scenario but a lot less attention is paid to the bystander.
Yet, statistically, your teenage son or daughter is much more likely to have the “walk on” part of bystander, particularly when the bullying is carried out in cyberspace. They may think they are doing nothing when they glance at hurtful comments aimed at somebody else tumbling in on a news feed on a social media page, but they are involved.
There are grades of bystanders, says clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty, which range from being actively involved and encouraging the bullying – “you may not be the person who instigated it but as soon as it starts up you jump in and start adding at the same volume” – right down the scale to somebody who is just watching and doing nothing.
“You are never neutral if you are a witness to bullying,” she explains. “You have a choice to either do something or not do something – either way you are making a decision about it.”
Raising awareness about the part bystanders play is the focus of a new campaign launched to mark Safer Internet Day today. The aim is to change the attitude of bystanders and to encourage them to intervene positively.
You might think the more people who see a bullying incident, the better the chances of a victim being helped. But that’s not necessarily so.
The “bystander effect” is a well-known social psychological phenomenon identified in the 1960s. When a number of onlookers see somebody in trouble, the tendency is for everybody to assume someone else will intervene. The sense of personal responsibility is diluted within a crowd.
“The bully often interprets the bystanders’ inaction as approval of their actions, while the victim can see it as rejection,” says Simon Grehan, internet safety officer at Webwise.
“However, when a bystander intervenes to support the victims or let the bully know that their behaviour is unacceptable, this action can inspire positive action by other bystanders and can reduce the negative effects of bullying on the victim.”
He refers to a study conducted by Robert Thornberg in 2007, which came up with six reasons why children do not help when another classmate is in distress. These include:
Regarding it as insignificant, not serious, or routine.
Feeling it has nothing to do with them.
Not wanting to add to the embarrassment of the victim or be embarrassed themselves.
Being under pressure to do other things.
Everyone else appearing to be doing nothing.
Believing it is someone else’s responsibility.
An awareness educational campaign, such as the one launched this week, is key in reversing the bystander effect, says Mary Aiken, a research fellow and cyberpsychologist at the Institute of Leadership in the Royal College of Surgeons.
She refers to a recent Polish study of “negative bystander behaviour” – defined as active participation in victimisation – which found that such behaviour happens more often in cyberspace than offline.
“This research should be considered carefully, particularly in the context of negative posts or conversation strings on social networking sites,” says Aiken, one of a three-person team devising evidence-based strategies to counteract cyberbullying.
School principals and teachers also need to be aware that witnessing bullying can have a negative impact on the mental health of students, as identified in a recent UK study, she says.
Doherty is concerned about the long-term effect of seeing cyberbullying. “If you don’t intervene as a bystander, I think it can come back and slap you in the face – that you didn’t do anything and you might have been able to help.
“There might be serious implications too if you added in a small comment,” she points out.
Or even click “like”, as in the case of 40 students at Oatlands College in Co Dublin who did just that, after reportedly “vile” allegations were posted against two teachers last year. While the four ring-leaders were expelled, the “bystanders” were identified too and given detention.