Cyberbullying often occurs in an online public sphere where individuals fall under one of 3 categories: the bully or perpetrator, the victim, and “cyberstanders” who witness the incident. The role of cyberstanders is key in cyberbullying situations, for the perpetrators often being under the cover of anonymity, cyberstanders’ reactions can highly influence the issue of the conflict. While intervention can contribute to the termination of the bullying episode, the absence of action or an escalating behavior can increase the severity of the incident.
While intervening in a bullying situation in real life comports physical risks, intervening online also comports risks for the cyberstander (like becoming the next victim for instance). Thus, it appears individuals evaluate the degree of urgency of a cyberbullying situation in order to determine the necessity of intervention, and the degree of privacy required. This study analyzes the influence of the severity of the incident over cyberstanders’ responses, whether they decide to act in private or on the public scene, and whether the level of similarity between a cyberstander and the victim influences the bystander’s level of empathy.
The study gathered 152 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk who were randomly assigned conditions: severity of the bullying high or low, and similarity with the victim high or low. A situation was created on Facebook where a victim posted a status update, and a bully attacked them in the comments. The status updates and comments varied, and participants were asked to rate the severity of the bullying. Then, participants were told whether they were “similar” to the victim or not (90% similarity over questions such as “tea or coffee” for a high similarity versus 10% for a low similarity). Participants were then asked a series of questions regarding how they would react to the bullying episode.
Results showed that cyberstanders were more likely to react publicly and privately when they had a higher level of similarity with the victim, also corresponding to higher levels of empathy. The severity of the bullying also had an impact on cyberstanders, who would empathize more with the victim in highly severe situations and thus were more likely to intervene. The study overall demonstrated that in cyberbullying intervention programs it is essential to highlight the importance of empathy training, for it is the main trigger towards intervention.
Wang S. Standing up or standing by: Bystander intervention in cyberbullying on social media. New Media & Society. 2021;23(6):1379-1397. doi:10.1177/1461444820902541