Cyberbullying: The Role of Witnesses

One of the biggest changes in our understanding of bullying has been an increased awareness of the important role that witnesses play in any bullying situation. This has been partially because of cyberbullying, where witnesses can choose to be invisible, to join in anonymously, to revictimize a target by forwarding bullying material – or they can choose to intervene, to offer support to the target and to bear witness to what they have seen. Just as we’re coming to realize how important witnesses to bullying are, though, we need to be careful to recognize the complexity of their role.

It’s only recently that research has paid attention to the role of witnesses in bullying scenarios, and few studies focus specifically on witnesses.[1] What research has been done has shown that witnesses can be just as important as targets or perpetrators in determining how a bullying scenario plays out[2] and that witnesses may suffer negative effects that are as bad as or worse than those suffered by the target.[3]

In Canada, MediaSmarts’ 2014 Young Canadians in a Wired World (YCWW) research on cyberbullying has revealed both good and bad news on this front. The good news is that many youth who witness bullying do something about it: 65 percent of the 5,436 Canadian students in grades 4 to 11 that were surveyed said that they had done something to help someone who was experiencing online meanness.[4] To dig deeper on this topic, in 2015 we conducted a follow-up study of Canadian students in collaboration with PREVNet. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying is one of the first studies to look at the role of witnesses to cyberbullying by asking students the reasons why they choose to intervene, the reasons why they sometimes choose not to intervene, and which ways of intervening they think will be most and least helpful.[5] This research is an important addition to the public conversation about cyberbullying because while our messages to youth about what to do when they’re targets of bullying have become much more nuanced, the instructions they get on what to do if they witness bullying remain black-and-white: stand up to defend the target and report the incident to an adult authority. These rules are often accompanied by a heavy dose of shaming, with the implication being that to remain silent is to take the bully’s side; some laws and policies have even made it mandatory for students to report bullying if they see it.

There’s no question that it’s possible for witnesses to do a great deal of harm, whether by directly joining in the bullying, encouraging the perpetrator, or revictimizing the target by sharing a bullying post or video. It’s also well-established that when witnesses to bullying stand up and defend the target it can make a tremendous and positive difference. The students we surveyed in our cyberbullying study, however, are not very enthusiastic about interventions that happen in public: only half (51%) feel that it would be helpful to try to mediate between a bully and their target, while only a third (37%) feel that the frequent advice to "stand up" and confront the sender publicly would be helpful. It's not hard to understand why: there may be just as many cases where intervening does greater harm to the target, the witness, or both, and witnesses may have a number of valid reasons for not wanting to report bullying when they see it.[6]

These students were more positively disposed to the idea of intervening by reporting cyberbullying: two-thirds think that reporting it to the service provider (65%) or the police (67%) would be useful, and three-quarters (74%) think it would be helpful to tell a trusted adult about it.[7] Unfortunately, our YCWW research shows that teachers do not generally fall into the category of “trusted adult”. This is not because students don't have faith in their good intentions, but because teachers’ efforts to help are seen as being ineffective (for example, school rules on cyberbullying have no correlation with whether or not a student will engage in or be a target of online meanness or cruelty[8] and many students believe that zero-tolerance policies will escalate a situation and bring both the target and the witness or witnesses into direct conflict with the bully – something that most of them would like to avoid). The most positively-rated strategy, in fact, ignores the bully entirely in favour of privately comforting the target (77% of students say this would be helpful).[9] This is very similar to findings by the Youth Voice Project in the US on the interventions that youth believe are most effective for offline bullying[10] and reminds us that as much as it's important to take action to stop bullying, it can be just as important – or more so – to make sure that targets have emotional support and to identify and intervene with those students who may be isolated from this support. Studies of offline bulling have shown that private expressions of support can be as, or even more, effective than active interventions in mitigating negative effects of bullying.[11]

Instead of telling youth to report and intervene each time they witness bullying, we can teach them to think of themselves as active participants in the situation, and to consider different approaches for different situations, such as:

  • Document the bullying and, if it seems that it will do more good than harm, report it
  • Comfort the target and offer help privately
  • Mediate between the target and perpetrator
  • Confront the perpetrator

In considering what advice to give to youth who witness cyberbullying, we might begin by asking why they might choose to report it: there are a number of psychological mechanisms that can deter people from intervening in a situation that they’re witnessing, such as the bystander effect, where we are less likely to act if we’re part of a crowd. In our cyberbullying study, about a third of the students told us they don’t intervene because they feel "nothing can be done about it" (including 39% of those students who have been recently targeted). About half of the students (53%) say they don't intervene simply because "it is not about me". Relationships with targets makes a clear difference: 90 percent of students say they would intervene if someone was cyberbullying a family member compared to 37 percent who say they would defend someone they didn't know personally. However, targets do not have to be much closer than strangers to earn that kind of loyalty: almost twice as many students (61%) say they would be "likely" or "very likely" to defend any of their schoolmates.

Another mechanism that's been identified as making people less likely to intervene is moral disengagement, where we convince ourselves not to intervene on the grounds that what’s happening is “just a joke” or “isn’t that serious” or that the target “deserved it”: just one in ten of the students in our cyberbullying survey say they don't intervene because "I thought they deserved it."[12] This is supported in our YCWW findings, where the two most popular reasons for cyberbullying someone were "s/he did something mean to me" and "s/he did something mean to my friend".[13] This may also explain why students who had been targeted in the four months preceding the cyberbullying study are more than twice as likely as students who haven’t been targeted to do nothing because they think the person deserves it.[14]

A form of moral disengagement particular to teenagers is to minimize the bullying by calling it "drama."[15] About half of the students in our survey say that they don't intervene because "I cannot tell if it is drama or bullying" (48% of non-targets, 56% of recent targets).[16] However, this may at times be a sensible view: in cases of reciprocal bullying, intervention by witnesses can prolong the conflict, make it more severe and even lead to other bullying relationships as the friends of those involved line up and intervene on their behalf. One of the young interviewees in Alice Marwick and danah boyd’s paper The Drama: Teen Conflict, Gossip and Bullying in Networked Publics gave this example:

There’s a girl from West Beverly that got in an argument with a girl from South Beverly and they were at a party. So then when I looked on Facebook the next day there were all of these comments on [there] like “I love you, I don’t think you’re a— whatever the girl called her.”

Marwick and boyd’s sources also say that the participation of witnesses feeds drama: “Other teens talked about the involvement of other people ‘with no lives’ who jumped into arguments ‘where they didn’t belong.’”[17]

While there is evidence that witnesses to cyberbullying are less emotionally affected than those who witness offline bullying[18], focusing on these psychological mechanisms can obscure the fact that there are a number of quite reasonable fears that might make someone reluctant to report or intervene in a bullying situation:

  • Fear of being a target. Saying that anyone who witnesses bullying should confront the perpetrator is not unlike suggesting that everyone who sees a mugging should try to stop it. Standing up to defend a target – especially if you turn out to be the only person who stands up – can easily lead to becoming a target yourself, without necessarily having a positive effect on the situation: two-thirds (67%) say they do not intervene because it might make them a target (interestingly, this is no higher among students who recently been targets of bullying).[19]
  • Fear of loss of social status. Even if intervening or reporting doesn’t lead to the witness becoming a target, it can still have long-term effects on a young person’s social status, either by being associated with the target (youth who are marginalized for reasons such as poverty,[20] disability,[21] being a member of a visible minority group[22] and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender status[23] are substantially more likely to be targets) or being labeled a “snitch” – both of which may easily be preludes to being a target of bullying. A quarter of the students in our survey who have not recently been targets (26%), and almost half of those who have (45%), say they don't intervene because "adult advice will just increase my isolation."[24]
  • Fear of making things worse. Both targets of and witnesses to bullying often fear that either standing up to a bully or reporting bullying to a parent or teacher is more likely to make things worse. Imagine if a straight or closeted gay youth is being harassed with homophobic comments and a well-meaning witness tries to defend him by saying “There’s nothing wrong with being gay!” Despite their good intentions, the witness will have unwittingly contributed to the bullying. Just over half (53%) of the students in our cyberbullying survey say they don't intervene because "it makes things worse for the target": a number that rises to 59 percent for those who have recently been targets themselves.[25] Another study of offline bullying found that being defended by peers who were unable to successfully protect or comfort the target actually led to more negative effects and a greater future risk of victimization.[26]

What may be as valuable as knowing the reasons why students sometimes don't intervene, is understanding their reasons when they do. And it's important to know – and to make sure that students know – that young people do intervene: almost three-quarters (71%) of the students who had witnessed cyberbullying in the four weeks before our most recent survey say they did something about it.[27] Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center recommends a system that allows students to report bullying incidents anonymously, in order to minimize the risk of being made a target or labeled a “snitch.”[28] Our cyberbullying research supports this idea – four out of five students (81%) say they would be more likely to intervene if they could do it anonymously – but it needs to be handled delicately.[29] To begin with, if it’s accompanied by a “zero tolerance” bullying policy that prevents teachers and administrators from using their best judgement in responding to complaints, students will be unlikely to report incidents. As well, it’s important to remember that it’s difficult to be genuinely anonymous in a small society such as a school. One of the participants in our YCWW focus groups explained how even anonymous reports can have fallout for the target:

I remember back when I was in Grade 7, I was bullied a little and, like after gym class one day, and that same guy got called down to the office, I didn’t tell anything, but everybody thought that I snitched on him, so I actually got bullied more because they thought that I snitched.[30]

In our cyberbullying survey, the largest numbers of students say that they would intervene if "I believed what was happening was unfair or morally wrong" (87%) or "it was extremely hurtful behaviour" (86%).[31] This highlights the importance of encouraging students to develop empathy and ethical thinking. Neither of these can be taught directly: instead, students must be nudged towards them, through activities like role-playing moral dilemmas and practicing perspective-taking (for a more in-depth look at how to foster empathy and ethical thinking, see the Ethics and Empathy strand of our Digital Literacy Curriculum as well as our resource package Stay on the Path.) It's important to use both approaches because bullies who act out of anger are more likely to respond to interventions aimed at promoting empathy, while those who bully others to gain social status are much more likely to respond to moral and social norming approaches[32].

Almost as many students (85%) say that they would intervene if "I knew something would be done about it,"[33] which shows the importance for schools having clear and consistent procedures for reporting cyberbullying that let students know ahead of time that some action will be taken.[34] (Research has shown that bullying rates drop when students know that it is against the rules and how to report it.[36]) Unfortunately, only a third of Canadian students even know whether or not their school has a bullying policy.[35]

Finally, just under three-quarters of students (73%) say that they would intervene if "others respected me for doing it." (This is distinct from actually being "rewarded or praised", which only 32% of students say would be a motivating factor.)[37] What we can take away from this is the tremendous importance of culture – youth culture, school culture, and popular media – in determining how youth respond to bullying. If we can build a culture where respect is the norm, we can empower witnesses to take action – and perhaps make the more direct forms of intervention safer (though there will always be situations where indirect interventions are a better idea.) This is why anti-bullying interventions are most effective if they happen not just in a single classroom or even in a single school, but the whole community as well.[38] If we’re going to tell witnesses to take an active role in bullying scenarios, we need to make sure that they’re getting the same message from school staff, parents and media. We can empower witnesses to act by only changing our culture – in each school and in society at large – so that all people are expected to take responsibility for what they do online.

 


[1] Levy, Nathaniel et al. Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review. The Kinder & Braver World Project Research Series, September 2012.
[2] Hawkins, D., Pepler, D. & Craig, W. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development, 10, 512-527.
[3] Rivers et al. Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (4): 211.
[4] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.
[5] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.
[9] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying. November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[10] Davis, S., & Nixon, C. (2011). How can peers help? Educational Leadership, 69(1), 18-23.
[11] Davis, Stan and Dr. Charisse L. Nixon. Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Research Press, 2013.
[12] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[13] Steeves, Valerie. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.
[14] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[15] Marwick, Dr. Alice and Dr. danah boyd. “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, September 2011, September 12, 2011.
[16] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[17] Marwick, Dr. Alice and Dr. danah boyd. “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, September 2011, September 12, 2011.
[18] Sprigg, C.A., S. Farley, and I. Coyne. “Punched from the screen: Workplace cyberbullying.” Paper presented at the Economic and Social Research Council Festival of Social Science, Sheffield, UK, 3 November 2012.
[19] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[20] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012). Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.
[21] Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., Ólafsson, K., with members of the EU Kids Online Network (2011) ‘EU Kids Online Final Report’.
[22] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[23] Hinduja, S., and Patchin, J. (2011) ‘Cyberbullying Research Summary Factsheet: Bullying, Cyberbullying and Sexual Orientation’.
[24] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[25] Ibid.
[26] Hodges, E.V.E., Boivin, M,, Vitaro, F., and Bukowski, W.M. (1999). "The Power of Friendship: Protecting against and Escalating Cycle of Peer Victimization." Developmental Psychology, 35, 94 -101.
[27] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[28] Hinduja, Sameer. “Anonymous Reporting for Bullying and Cyberbullying Incidents.” Cyberbullying Research Center, November 29, 2012. <http://cyberbullying.us/blog/anonymous-reporting-for-bullying-and-cyberbullying-incidents.html>
[29] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[30] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents. MediaSmarts, 2012.
[31] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[32] Brady, Nicole. “Empathy Work Lost on One in Five Cyber Bullies.” Sydney Morning Herald, August 19 2012.
[33] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[34] Solymon, Catherine. “Zero tolerance policies for bullying don’t work: expert”, The Montreal Gazette, February 7, 2014.
[35] Steeves, Valerie. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Encouraging ethical online behaviour. Ottawa: MediaSmarts. <http://mediasmarts.ca/ycww/cyberbullying-dealing-online-meanness-cruelty-threats >
[36] Tannenbaum, Barbara. “Bullying: How Educators Can Make Schools Safer”, Edutopia, September 19, 2010.
[37] Craig et al. Young Canadians' Experiences With Online Bullying.  November 16, 2015. <http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf>
[38] Craig, Wendy. Testimony before the Senate Committee on Human Rights, December 12, 2011.