Cyberbystanders: Understanding the Role of Bystanders in Cyberbullying

HONY cyberbullying

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.”

We live in an age where connecting with anyone, anywhere is simple, cost-effective, and fun.  Nowadays, it’s hard to find someone without a social media account such as Facebook,  Twitter, or Instagram.  Although the advent of the Internet and text-based communication has brought about new possibilities for human communication and connection, these possibilities also reveal the dark side of human interaction.  Online bullying, such as the incident depicted above, are particularly common among adolescents.

By now, most readers are likely to be familiar with the term “cyberbullying” and to have a good sense of what it encompasses.  Essentially, cyberbullying is a repeated (but not always), intentional act of aggression mediated through some form of electronic contact. It is estimated that about 10-40% of adolescents are victims of cyberbullying [1].   Furthermore, we find that approximately 70% of adult internet users have witnessed some form of online harassment [2]. Even though this large number of onlookers seems to suggest a higher potential for intervention – that is a higher probability that someone might do something to stop the online aggressor – research consistently finds that these witnesses remain idle.

Bystanders in the Age of Cyberbullying

As much as we collectively believe that stopping bullying activities is important, research consistently shows that intervention is more rare than not – particularly in online forums.  This is because of the “bystander effect”, a group behavior pattern first articulated in the literature by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in the late 60s and early 70s [3]. 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, they posited, if no one steps in to aid the victim, bystanders assume that the norm is to not help.

This effect may be exaggerated by virtual forums because the capacity to psychologically retreat from aggressive acts is so much easier when they are not physically occurring near by and in real time. When we think of online social media sites where peoples’ posts can be viewed by hundreds or even thousands of bystanders, each one of whom is likely physically alone somewhere and not observing the act in real time, it is easy to see how a sense of responsibility for aiding the victim would be diffuse enough to result in low or no action.   “Someone must have reported this post already!”  is a likely reaction to the impulse to intervene.  Further, the context of the aggressive or bullying act can complicate bystanders’ interpretations and compromise their willingness to act.  For example, if a bystander is a friend of the bully, he or she may be more inclined to remain passive or even join in.   Additionally, if an aggressive act is anonymous, it may be hard for a bystander (as well as the victim) to intervene to stop an unidentifiable perpetrator, particularly since it is easier to assume that there may be some invisible context or reason for the bullying behavior.

These inhibitions to intervention are futher exacerbated among teenagers, who are less inclined to inform their parents or other adults about incidents of cyberbullying for fear of retaliation.  While this retaliation could come from the bullies themselves, some teens report that they also fear consequences from adults, such as revocation of Internet browsing privileges.

How do we increase the likelihood of intervention among cyberbullying bystanders?

Slide2Although the challenges inherent in increasing  bystander intervention in cyberbullying  events are significant, researchers have made progress in designing strategies for overcoming lack of action and apathy.  One of these is to focus on development of language and norms for supporting “upstanding” behavior in teens.  One promising model that could help to turn bystanders into “upstanders” is to develop approaches in alignment with Darley and Latané’s Bystander Intervention Model, at left.

This model describes the process that most people consciously or unconsciously use to decide whether or not to intervene during an emergency. If we apply this model to what we know about cyberbullying, teens, and bystander behavior in general, then we can devise concrete ways of instilling upstanding behaviors in teens.

Slide3For example, Steps 1 and 2 of the Bystander Intervention Model show us that a major component of assisting in an emergency situation is to consciously recognize it as an emergency.  One study on bystander intervention found that people are over 4 times more likely to directly intervene when they recognize cyberbullying [4]. This means that teens need to be able to identify when negative online interactions constitute cyberbullying. This can be a challenge, especially with preteen and teens who may not quite understand the differences between harmless teasing and intentional aggression. Parents and educators can help by explaining those differences to their teens, emphasizing that the difficult-to-delete nature of online posts means lasting consequences.

Slide4Step 3 of the Bystander Intervention Model tells us that intervention depends on bystanders acknowledging their role and responsibility in an emergency.  In cyberbullying situations, teens must learn to take responsibility, even if they are observers and not victims.  Research has shown that empathy and social anxiety are factors that determine intervention.  In order to encourage empathy and decrease social anxiety, parents and educators can discuss the bystander effect and organize practice activities so teens are empowered to act during a time of need.  In particular, emphasis can be placed on the power of peers to influence intervention. While peer pressure to do nothing can have detrimental (and sometimes deadly) effects on victims of cyberbullying, assistance from peers in standing up to a bully can help kids feel less intimidated and reduce fears of retaliation.

Slide5Last, Steps 4 and 5 of the Bystander Intervention Model tell us how to intervene in an emergency.  If teens do not believe that their efforts to intervene will change anything, then they are 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 ways to intervene, either directly or indirectly, in situations where retaliation is possible.  For example,  if teens are not comfortable publicly posting their disapproval with bullying behavior, they can choose to use the website’s reporting system to flag the post so that others can act on it. In addition, witnesses to online aggression can reach out to the victim, whether publicly or privately, on or offline.  Teens can also attempt to record or screenshot evidence of cyberbullying for later action. It is also important for parents and educators to refrain from punishing witnesses to aggressive events, especially if they had nothing to do with act of aggression.

In summary

As we’ve seen, applying the Bystander Intervention Model to the context of cyberbullying may be fruitful in terms of combating such an ugly aspect of online interactions.  Empowering bystanders could help to reduce the cases of online aggression we often see between teens and even adults.


[1] Whittaker, E., & Kowalski, R. M. (2015). Cyberbullying via social media. Journal of School Violence, 14(1), 11-29.

[2] Duggan, M. (2014). Online harrassment. Pew Research Center Report.

[3] Latané, B., & Darley, J. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

[4] Dillion, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context.  Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 144-150.

Other Useful Resources: 

Bastiaensens, S., Vandebosch, H., Poels, K., Van Cleemput, K., DeSmet, A., & De Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2015). ‘Can I afford to help?’ How affordances of communication modalities guide bystanders’ helping intentions towards harassment on social network sites. Behaviour & Information Technology, 34(4), 425-435.

Corcoran, L., Guckin, C. M., & Prentice, G. (2015). Cyberbullying or Cyber Aggression?: A Review of Existing Definitions of Cyber-Based Peer-to-Peer Aggression. Societies, 5(2), 245-255.

Obermaier, M., Fawzi, N., & Koch, T. (2014). Bystanding or standing by? How the number of bystanders affects the intention to intervene in cyberbullying. New Media & Society, 1-17.

van Cleemput, K., Vandebosch, H., & Pabian, S. (2014). Personal characteristics and contextual factors that determine “helping,”“joining in,” and “doing nothing” when witnessing cyberbullying. Aggressive Behavior, 40(5), 383-396.

Whittaker, E., & Kowalski, R. M. (2015). Cyberbullying via social media. Journal of School Violence, 14(1), 11-29.

Short video on the bystander effect: