Helping Kids Make an Impact When They Witness Cyberbullying

Matthew Johnson

In 2015, MediaSmarts and PREVNet conducted a study of Canadian students – funded by TELUS – to find out how to give youth better advice and support when they witness cyberbullying. That research, Young Canadians' Experiences with Online Bullying, aimed to discover three things: what are the barriers to witness intervention in cyberbullying? What incentives can increase the likelihood of witness intervention? And which interventions are more or less likely to have a positive outcome?

TELUS and MediaSmarts have partnered to put those insights into practice by creating Impact! How to Make a Difference When You Witness Bullying Online, a suite of resources for students in grades 7 to 9 that provide youth with practical tools to make a difference when they witness cyberbullying.

The Impact! program includes:

  • A step-by-step, online interactive decision-making tool that helps students choose effective strategies for intervening in different cyberbullying situations;
  • A classroom lesson that supports the decision-making tool, with additional role-playing activities for students;
  • A parents' guide, Helping Our Kids Navigate Cyberbullying, to help parents better support their kids if they're targets of or witnesses to cyberbullying; and
  • A series of printable posters for the classroom that promote low-risk ways of intervening when students witness cyberbullying.

Impact! draws on three key findings from the online bullying study: first, that youth do intervene when they witness cyberbullying but need more support to do so effectively; second, that efforts to get youth to intervene have to take specific motivations and barriers into account; and finally, that youth are strongly influenced both by their personal morals and by social norms in deciding whether and how to intervene.

We chose the title “Impact” for two reasons: first, to make the point that online meanness and cruelty – even if it’s “just a joke” or “just drama” – can have serious consequences; and second, to help students understand that they can have an impact when they witness cyberbullying.  

One of the study’s key findings was that a significant number of youth want to intervene when they witness cyberbullying, but the number of those who actually do this is significantly lower. When we asked students why they were sometimes reluctant to intervene, a frequently response was that "it is not about me."

Relationships can also make a situation more complicated: half of students also said that they sometimes chose not to intervene if they weren’t sure what they were witnessing was bullying or drama. “Drama” is often used by older youth to distinguish between bullying – which many teens think is something that only younger kids do – and the kind of conflict that they engage in, especially online. If teens see a situation as being drama rather than bullying, they may not want to interfere because it’s not considered really serious, for instance, or because it’s not seen as being the business of those who aren’t involved.  Classifying bullying as drama isn’t only a barrier to intervention: it can also lead to a very painful situation where youth have ties to both parties involved and are reluctant to take sides or risk making things worse by disturbing the “balance of power.”

These two reasons for not intervening, that "it's not about me" and "it's just drama," are closely connected to moral disengagement and a lack of empathy online. Some aspects of digital communication can lead to "empathy traps," which prevent youth from feeling empathy in situations where they normally would. Although what happens online can have real consequences, there can still be a sense that it’s not “really real,” and the lack of sensory feedback can make us less likely to recognize how other people are feeling when we’re online. Because these situations typically occur when we’re sitting still and concentrating on a screen, we may even have trouble identifying our own emotions.

Based on what we’ve learned from youth, we’ve designed Impact! to directly confront attitudes like these through posters and tip sheets that make clear the idea that cyberbullying does do harm – even when that harm may not immediately visible – and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to do something about it.

The centrepiece of the Impact! program is an interactive resource that guides youth through their decision-making process by asking questions such as “Is it clear who’s the bully and who’s the target?” and “Do you think the target being threatened or in danger right now?” We designed this tool specifically to be mobile-friendly, so that youth can actually turn to it for help when they witness cyberbullying, but it is also the base for a classroom lesson that allows students to rehearse and role-play different scenarios as well. Because anti-bullying efforts are most effective when they take a whole-community approach, we have also produced parent materials to make sure that students are getting the same message, and the same support, at home.

One of the worst things about bullying is that it can make those who experience it, both as targets and as witnesses, feel helpless. But the good news is that doesn't have to be this way, and our new resource is here to help youth see that they can – and should – make an impact on cyberbullying.