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

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.”

Positive intervention

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.

Witness impact

“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.

The Garda Síochána is also getting involved in highlighting the positive contribution bystanders can make. Its schools programme, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, yesterday launched a cyberbullying module entitled Connect with Respect. Specially trained gardaí will be going into their local secondary schools to talk to pupils in the junior cycle.

“It is about getting a wider awareness out there, and conversation about this topic,” says Supt Colette Quinn, director of the Diversion Programme at the Garda Office for Children and Youth Affairs.

In her experience, young people are very responsive to altering their behaviour when they understand and appreciate the consequences and potential harm of it. She is confident that “once they realise that perhaps them doing nothing could be harmful, and doing something could be helpful” there will be a change for the better.

Bullying is experienced by nearly a quarter of Irish children (23 per cent), slightly above the European average of 19 per cent, according to the 2011 EU Kids Online survey. Most of this is face to face and just a small proportion, 4 per cent, is online bullying.

But, as Aiken points out, another recent Irish study reported a higher incidence of bullying: 17 per cent of 12-18 year olds said they had been the victim of cyberbullying at least once (Cotter McGilloway, 2011).

“The difference in results may be attributed to different research methodologies. However, it does highlight the need for a fresh research approach to accurately assess the depth and nature of the problem in Ireland,” she says.

Parents may know how to handle face-to-face bullying but don’t know what their children are doing in cyberspace, says O’Doherty, an agony aunt with Kiss magazine.

“It is like this little cave up in the distance that we have no access to. We don’t know what is going on and all the normal rules are suspended. Adults need to be there, because adults are the ones who can deal with bullying,” she stresses.

However, she acknowledges that while children and teenagers are advised that telling a trusted adult is vital, all the evidence shows that they don’t want adults involved.

“They think if they do get an adult involved, they will have sanctions themselves – have their phone taken away or time on their laptop curtailed.”

For more information see

Cruel intentions: teenagers tackle bullying issue

The “ratting aspect” stops some teenage bystanders reporting cyberbullying, even though they know they should stand up and say something, according to one member of the teenage advisory panel for Safer Internet Day.

There is also a tendency to make light of comments, says Matthew O’Driscoll (17) from Kilmacud in Dublin.

Boys, he suggests, are more likely to regard everything that is said as a joke, whereas the female members of the panel say any comments relating to appearance would be more serious to them.

The advice to young victims of bullying is always to tell a trusted adult, but is that realistic?

“No, unfortunately,” says Matthew, who is in fifth year at Blackrock College in Co Dublin. Again the idea of “ratting” comes into play. “The people who are bullying you could be your actual friends. You don’t want to make a situation worse.” There is also awkwardness in telling your parents that you are being bullied.

Peer support

Teenage campaigners against cyberbullying like Matthew want to reduce the focus on telling a parent and concentrate instead on building peer support.

“But there is also the reality that victims don’t want to talk to anyone about it,” he explains.

“You are offered a counsellor, a priest, a parent, a friend – you’re offered so many people and you just won’t turn to anyone. You are kind of absorbed: it’s like you are trapped in a cage and don’t know how to get out of it.”

You should be able to go to absolutely anyone, stresses Matthew, who started looking at the issue of cyberbullying when the ask.fmfad was at its peak.

“When it was at its best, or should I say at its worst, it was like so many hurtful comments and one nice comment.”

But now he’s happy to see that situation is often reversed as people are “copping on” to the harmful effect it can have.

“You will get one negative comment and then you will get about 10 comments saying ‘why would you post that?’ and ‘you’re so cruel, look at yourself before you comment on people’ . . . then there’s another bad comment and 10 comments of the same sort of support.”

An avid user of both Facebook and, more recently, Twitter, he reckons he spends about two hours a day going between them.

It is not the internet that is the problem in cyberbullying, he says, quoting the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald’s comments at last November’s digital conference: “It’s the cruelty not the conduit.”

We need to remember that, he adds. “The amount of time you can spend learning and having leisure at the same time is invaluable.”

Grace Kelly (16), a fellow member of the teenage advisory panel, is involved in peer mentoring at Moate Community School in Co Westmeath.

She is one of a group of fifth-year students who give talks on cyberbullying to younger pupils and encourage them to come to them if they need help.

“We are hoping other schools will follow this initiative of getting a peer group together,” she says.

Indirect taunts

She dislikes the trend in “indirect statuses”, where people post about people they “hate” or “had a fight with” without naming them. But, naturally, everybody who knows the person posting tries to guess who they are talking about.

“It is hurting way more people than it needs to,” says Grace, who always blocks the news feed from people doing that. “If I have an idea who it might be about, I will go to that person and talk to them, to make sure it isn’t escalating into anything more and that they understand it’s not to be taken seriously.”

If she just ignored it because it didn’t affect her, she would be a negative bystander, points out Grace, who has used Facebook for a number of years but only discovered the joys of Twitter a few months ago.

“By going to talk to the person afterwards, you are becoming an active bystander and you are helping the problem without creating another one.”

Teen horror: when pranks go wrong

It’s a “horrible time” to be a teenager, says clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty, when your foolish behaviour can be captured in a photograph or video and put up online for all to see and use against you.

“Sixteen year olds are meant to be able to behave like idiots and move on and learn from their mistakes.”

Cases she knows of include a girl who went on a group sleepover where they were all play acting, taking photos but some were put online instantly.

One of the girls tried to get them taken down because they were embarrassing, but the two ring-leaders threatened her, saying if she didn’t do this or that for them, they were going to show more photos. The victim was terrified, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate on her work; it was pervading every aspect of her life.

In another instance, a teenage boy got very drunk.The gang he was with left him in a fast-food outlet, but not before they had put up photos of him online. The two guys at the centre of it – and they were his friends – thought it was just a joke. But it went out of their hands, turned into a huge thing and was great ammunition for guys who didn’t like the boy.

The lesson for teenagers is that they have to be so responsible not only with their own information, ODoherty adds, but with their friends’ information too.

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