Responding Ethically to Cyberbullying

The good news is that many youth who witness bullying do something about it. Sixty-five percent of the students in MediaSmarts’ YCWW survey said that they had done something to help someone who was experiencing online meanness [1].

It’s well established that when witnesses to bullying stand up and defend the target it can make a tremendous and positive difference – but not in every situation. There may be just as many cases where intervening can do 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. There’s also no question that it’s possible for witnesses to do a great deal of harm, whether it’s by directly joining in the bullying, encouraging the perpetrator, or even re-victimizing the target by sharing a bullying post or video.

To empower our children and teens to be active and ethical witnesses, we need to give them better advice than just “stand up.” Each bullying situation is different and complex and we need to teach kids to “first, do no harm”: before you do anything as a witness, think about how it might make things worse. Imagine, for example, 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.

As well as teaching them to think before they act, we can give youth a range of things to do when they witness bullying. Confronting the perpetrator publicly can be effective, but there are also times when doing so will only make them feel defensive (especially if they feel themselves to be the target): a private confrontation may be more effective, especially between friends. In cases where drama is just beginning to tip into harassment, efforts to mediate can be very valuable. Documenting bullying and reporting it can also be appropriate responses, especially in cases where there’s a clear process for reporting bullying. Make sure that children know how to report bullying in any online environment that they use, such as social networks and online games, and if their school has a procedure make sure they know it too. Finally, comforting the target can have a tremendous effect: research has shown that targets of bullying often come to believe that they deserve what is happening to them because nobody shows them any support [2].

Besides empowering our children to be active and ethical witnesses, we can also help them to avoid being bullies themselves. How we do that depends partly on their age. With younger children, helping to develop empathy and emotional health are key. It’s also important to clearly communicate our expectations for their behaviour and to help them develop moral thinking that is focused more on rules and social codes than fear of punishment.

Once they reach the tween and teen years, we need to start teaching them about healthy relationships – and how to recognize unhealthy ones. This is the age where kids are most sensitive to social norms, so making them aware of how uncommon cyberbullying really is – as well as working to make it socially unacceptable – is the most effective approach. At the same time, we have to push teens to develop a personal morality that’s less legalistic and independent of social rules. (In one study, middle school students who expressed a personal moral conviction that bullying was wrong were the only ones who stood up to it consistently.)[3]

Focusing on empathy and emotional health is most useful in keeping drama from turning into harassment and preventing the mutual-conflict form of relationship violence. Teaching kids to recognize when teasing has crossed the line into something hurtful also makes them more likely to intervene when they witness bullying [4].

As an intervention, a focus on empathy is mostly valuable when dealing with bully-victims: “pure” bullies are too good at rationalizing reasons not to feel empathy for this approach to be effective and can even turn it to their advantage in further victimizing their targets [5].

As well as helping kids to develop empathy, we can teach them healthy emotional habits that will keep them from reacting in ways that will make a situation worse. Encourage them never to post or reply to something in anger, but “walk away” from the situation and wait until they’ve cooled down. Tell them to remember that a lot of the cues we use to tell when someone is kidding – as well as the ones we use to see if we’ve hurt someone’s feelings – aren’t there when we’re communicating online, so we should always start by assuming the best of the other person and then talk conflicts out in person rather than online. Finally, reassure your children that they don’t have to go through anything alone. Talk to them about online issues early, before anything goes wrong, and keep talking as they get older so that they know they can come to you when they have a problem.

All of this is equally true when it comes to romantic relationships: tweens and teens need to be taught to recognize the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship such as when one partner tries to control, isolate or humiliate the other. 

It’s important to make youth aware of school and household rules about bullying: rather than focussing on the penalties, make sure they are clear on what behaviour is expected of them. Rules need to be flexible and focused on resolving the situation, as opposed to punishing the perpetrator. Zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments make youth less likely to report bullying when it happens, and criminalizing normal behaviour like mutual teasing only makes them feel less respect for the law. What may be more valuable than firm laws are clear, well-established procedures that let kids know what to do when they witness or are targeted by bullying.

Schools need to make it easier for witnesses to report bullying without fear of consequences. 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.” This program seems to have had good results at those schools that have implemented it, but it needs to be handled delicately [7]. To begin with, if it’s accompanied by a zero tolerance bullying policy that prevents teachers and administrators from using their best judgment in responding to complaints, students will be unlikely to report bullying. As well, it’s important to remember that it’s difficult to be genuinely anonymous in a small society such as a school.

Making youth aware of rules and laws about bullying is mostly effective as a way of communicating the social norms of their family, school and society. That only works, however, if the written rules are the same as the implicit ones. If we tell kids to come to us when they have a problem but punish them when they do – for instance, by cutting off their Internet access or taking away their cell phone – they’ll quickly learn what the real rules are.

These implicit rules and social norms don’t always reflect reality. Youth often overestimate how common – and therefore how socially acceptable – bullying really is, and this has an effect on how likely they are to engage in it. The good news is that when they’re made aware of how uncommon it actually is, they’re less likely to engage in it [8]. It’s also possible to change social norms – and bullying rates – by having well-respected kids [9] and people who are role models to youth [6] speak out against bullying.

Young people look to social norms – including their families, their peers and the media – to see what is normal in romantic relationships as well. As kids start to get interested in relationships make sure you’re aware of what they’re watching, playing and listening to and be ready to talk about ways that they depict  relationships: TV shows, music, video games and advertising can all reflect unhealthy attitudes like possessiveness, conflict and even violence as being normal [10].

Moral Dilemmas about Cyberbullying

We can help young people develop a personal morality that will guide them to make good decisions by discussing moral dilemmas that relate to the different aspects of this issue. Remember, it’s important that a moral dilemma not have a clear right answer so that it gives youth practice in moral reasoning.

To help prepare kids for what they might do when they witness cyberbullying, we might use a moral dilemma like this one: While playing an online game, Jeff sees his friend Mike being harassed by another player, Allen, who is “killing” Mike’s character and then ambushing him each time he’s returned to the game (this is called “spawn camping,” a major breach of etiquette in gaming culture). Jeff knows, however, that Mike has verbally abused Allen in the past, often calling him names and refusing to allow him to join teams. Although Jeff and Mike often play together, Jeff has never done anything when Mike has bullied Allen. What should he do now?

Some questions you can lead children to consider are whether Mike has “earned” the treatment because of what he’s done to Allen; whether the difference between how severe the two behaviours are (verbal abuse and exclusion versus making it impossible to play the game) makes a difference; whether it matters that what Mike did is common and accepted in the game’s culture, while Allen’s behaviour isn’t; and whether Jeff should take into consideration the possible consequences of reporting either Mike or Allen to the game’s moderators. Keeping in mind that kids usually give more weight to a moral argument one level above their own, you might suggest to a child who’s in Stage I or II (motivated by hope of reward or fear of punishment) how they think Mike and Allen’s actions, and any action Jeff might take, will affect the community within the game and everybody’s ability to enjoy it; someone who’s in Stage III or IV (concerned mostly with social codes and laws) can be encouraged to consider which action would be most likely to match the spirit of the game’s rules (which all aim to make sure that everyone can play the game and have fun) or meet the principle that everyone is entitled to respect.

As well as witnessing cyberbullying, youth may be put into a position where they’re tempted to perpetrate it themselves. Imagine that Mary, while editing video of a school dance for the yearbook, finds footage of a girl named Emily who is apparently unaware that she has a large pizza sauce stain on her shirt. Emily was once part of Mary’s circle of friends but has in the last few months been excluded and become the target of a lot of teasing: Emily knows that if she posts the video all of her friends will share and “like” it and, because of the food stain, Emily will receive lots of teasing about her weight. What should Mary do? Questions we might consider are whether it makes a difference that the video was shot at a public event so people might have already seen the stain; whether it is worse because Emily used to be Mary’s friend; and whether it’s worse because Mary found the video while doing work for the school rather than filming it herself.

Children who are in Stages I or II can be encouraged to think about whether it’s good for a group to turn on its members, and to wonder whether the same thing might happen to Mary if she encourages that kind of behaviour. Kids in Stages III and IV can be asked if Mary has a higher level of responsibility because she’s using school equipment and has been put in a position of trust (she wouldn’t have access to the footage if she weren’t working on the yearbook) and whether all people have a right to dignity, even if they do spill pizza sauce on their shirt. What would Mary want Emily to do if their positions were reversed?

That question shows that it’s not just witnesses and perpetrators of bullying that may face moral dilemmas, but targets of bullying as well. Imagine that Heather, a student whose dance videos have received many nasty comments from an older student named Derek and his friends, goes to check her Facebook page in the school computer lab and finds that Derek was just using it to check his Facebook – and left it logged in. Now she has the opportunity to get at all his private photos, send nasty messages while pretending to be him or change his password and lock him out of the account. What should she do?

Kids in Stages I and II of moral development can be encouraged to think about what effect this might have on other people and the school in general (people’s feelings might really be hurt by the fake messages and it might lead to Facebook being blocked at the school) and about the fact that Facebook has strict rules against impersonating another user. Those who are in Stages III and IV can be asked to consider whether the fact that Derek’s right to control his property makes impersonating worse than his nasty comments on YouTube (which is essentially a public space) and whether the principle that “two wrongs don’t make a right” applies in this situation.


[1] Steeves, V. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing With Online Meanness, Crulety and Threats. MediaSmarts: Ottawa. <>
[2] Jacquine Miller. “Stop bullying? Make it socially unacceptable, says psychologist.” Ottawa Citizen, October 21, 2012.
[3] Silvia Diazgranados Ferrans, Robert L. Selman and Luba Falk Feigenberg. Rules of the Culture and Personal Needs: Witnesses’ Decision-Making Processes to Deal with Situations of Bullying in Middle School. Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2012. <>
[4] Mihiri Udabage. “What Makes Teenagers Stand Up for Bullying Victims?”, February 20, 2013. <>
[5] Nicole Brady. “Empathy Work Lost on One in Five Cyber Bullies.” Sydney Morning Herald, August 19, 2012. <>
[6] Craig, David W. and H. Wesley Perkins, Assessing Bullying in New Jersey Secondary Schools: Applying the Social Norms Model to Adolescent Violence, Presented at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach, July 22, 2008. <>
[7] Jacquine Miller. “Stop bullying? Make it socially unacceptable, says psychologist.” Ottawa Citizen, October 21, 2012
[8] Mihiri Udabage. “What Makes Teenagers Stand Up for Bullying Victims?”, February 20, 2013. <>
[9] Hinduja, Sameer. “Anonymous Reporting for Bullying and Cyberbullying Incidents.” Cyberbullying Research Center, November 29, 2012.
[10] Nance Haxton. “Cartoons, TV and pollies ‘create school bullies.” PM, February 18, 2010. <>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

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