Key Questions in the Fight Against Cyberbullying

What is cyberbullying, anyway? Most researchers and advocates define cyberbullying as something along the lines of "a repeated (but not always), intentional act of aggression mediated through some form of electronic contact." But how do we translate an academic definition into actually understanding the kind of messages people are sending and receiving online? For example, a bully may make derogatory comments on several of someone’s Instagram photos, but other viewers may see only one of those comments and mistakenly think of it as a one-time incident that will go away, instead of a repeated offense. Or, in a different case, two people might be sharing an inside joke that may look like bullying or harassment to outsiders who can see this post on social media. As these examples show, online situations are often ambiguous making it more difficult to identify bullying online than offline.

These kinds of dilemmas complicate recognizing cyberbullying for online bystanders. Online bystanders are people who witness aggression online and could potentially intervene, but often they don’t know either a victim or a perpetrator, are unsure about the relationship between them, and have very little, if any, context for the exchange. Without context, online bystanders have to rely on message content only, can feel uncertain of when and how to respond, and, consequently, are less likely to intervene and call out a bully.

Our recent study has looked at how factors like repetition, number of offenders, and re-sharing of messages impact how people perceive bullying messages on sites like Twitter. We found that online bystanders are more likely to recognize bullying when there are multiple bullies involved, each with his or her own bullying tweet. When the situation is more ambiguous – either because there is only a single bully or several bullies re-tweet the same content – bystanders are less clear about whether they are witnessing cyberbullying or not, and, consequently, less prone to take an action, like flagging a cyberbullying post. This suggests that it’s important for potential bystanders to see more context of a cyberbullying incident, e.g., interaction history, people involved, posts exchanged, if we hope to motivate them to become online upstanders. For example, social media platforms could implement a feature that allows viewers to see more context – “context on demand” – for incidents that look as potential cyberbullying to help them make decisions of whether to flag the post or intervene in some other way.

How can we get bystanders to help stop cyberbullying?

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