What Makes People Vulnerable to Cyberbullying – And What Stops Bystanders From Stepping In

What Makes People Vulnerable to Cyberbulling - And What Stops Bystanders From Stepping In

Cyberbullies are a special breed of ugly. They wound, they torment, they maim and in the worst cases, if their poison is potent enough, they will scar. Though the direct hits are lobbed by the bullies themselves, bystanders also add to the anguish for those who are targeted.

In a perfect world, we shouldn’t have to act as though we were taking to the battlefield every time we take to a screen. The reality is that we don’t live in a perfect world and unless we humans have found a way to step out of our very human flaws, it is unlikely to be perfect any time soon. In the meantime, we are vulnerable to those with jagged edges and barbed tongues, as they set about to meet their needs in cowardly and cruel ways. 

Interesting new research has found something that can increase our vulnerability to an online attack. The vulnerability works in two ways – directly, by making us a more attractive plaything for an online bully, but also indirectly by squashing the potential for bystander support.

Bystanders are often good people – empathic, kind, compassionate – but they are less likely to intervene in situations of online bullying compared to face to face bullying.  What is it about a computer screen that has the power to protect a cyberbully from onlookers? 

The research. What they Did.

The researchers were interested in whether the personal nature of a post would hold people back from showing support to someone who had been targeted by a cyber-bullying. They were also interested in whether it made a difference that the post was positive or negative.

For the purposes of the study, researchers from UCLA created a fake Facebook profile of an 18 year old woman, ‘Kate’. On her profile they published a comment from her equally fictitious Facebook friend, ‘Sarah’, that read, ‘Who cares! This is why nobody likes you.’ They organised for the comment to receive six (fake) likes.

118 participants aged 18-22 were then organised into 4 random groups. Each group saw one of four Facebook posts from Kate, with Sarah’s stingy response printed below the post. The four posts varied in the level of personal disclosure and whether or not it was a positive or a negative post.

Two groups saw personal posts from the fictitious Kate:

  • ‘I hate it when you miss someone like crazy and you think they might not miss you back :(.’ (Negative).
  • ‘I love it when you like someone like crazy and you think they might like you back :).’ (Positive).

The other two groups saw her less personal posts:

  • ‘I hate it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you have to wait a whole week to watch more :(.’ (Negative)          
  • ‘I love it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you can’t wait until next week to watch more :).’ (Positive).

Researchers then explored whether the participants whether they felt blame or empathy towards Kate and how likely they would be to stand in and support against her cyberbullies.

What they found.

Most of the participants believed that Sarah’s comment was cyberbullying, but their level of empathy, support and blame towards Kate varied depending on which post they saw. Those who saw the more personal posts were not as likely to support Kate in the face of the cyberbullying. Regardless of whether her post was positive or negative, participants felt less compassion towards Kate when her post was a highly personal disclosure.

We found that when the Facebook post is a more personal expression of the victim’s feelings, participants showed lower levels of empathy and felt Kate was more to blame for being cyberbullied.’ Hannah Schacter, lead author.

The research revealed that the personal nature of the post was a key factor, influencing whether online bystanders would stand back or show active support for the victim by posting a supportive message or publicly disagreeing with the bully’s comment.

The likelihood that bystanders would step in a support Kate was influenced by whether or not her post was a personal one. Posts that were more personal in nature seem to stoke more victim blaming and less empathy in bystanders. In these circumstances, bystanders were less likely to show support for a victim of cyberbullying, either by posting a supportive message or by publicly disagreeing with the bully’s comment. 

What it means for our time on social media.

The world of social media can be a minefield, with so many of the rules about what is okay and what isn’t being unwritten ones. Sometimes even in the midst of fallout, it isn’t at all clear which ‘rule’ has been broken, or indeed why it is considered a reasonable rule in the first place. Oversharing seems to be one of these hidden rules, making make people more vulnerable to an attack from a cyberbully, but without the support of bystanders to soften the whole ugly experience. 

Our study suggests oversharing of personal information leads bystanders to blame and not feel for the victim. – Hannah Schacter 

It seems that in the current landscape of social media, there is a subtle acceptance that when victims overshare, they are somehow inviting an attack from someone who might seek to hurt others. The researchers suggest that more empathy is needed, but they also note that bystanders are often unable to see the pain caused to people from an online bully, so are less likely to be moved into action.

Other startling findings on bullying.

Previous studies by the senior author of the study Janna Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology have revealed that:

  • Most bullies have ‘ridiculously high’ levels of self-esteem and are considered considered to be the ‘cool’ kids at school

    Students at 11 schools were asked to name the ‘coolest’ kids, the kids who ‘start fights or push other kids around’ and the ones who ‘spread nasty rumours about other kids’. The kids who were named as bullies were also named more often as the cool kids. In her research, the ‘bully-cool kid’ connection wasn’t evident until the first year of middle school. Juvonen suggests that the turbulence stirred by the transition from elementary school into middle school causes unrest, which triggers a primal seeking of more dominant behaviour. 

     
  • Bullying of kids and teens is common – and vastly unreported.

    Nearly 3 out of 4 teens experienced some form of cyberbullying at least once during a 12 months period and only 1 in 10 of them reported the bullying to a parent or other adult. Nearly half of the sixth graders at two schools in the Los Angeles area reported that they were bullied by classmates during a 5-day period.

Raising a child who doesn’t bully.

  • Children are more likely to bully other kids if their parents frequently feel angry with them or often feel as though their child is bothering them. This makes sense. Children will learn what they see, and will respond to others the way the important people in their lives respond to them.
  • Parents who regularly share ideas and chat with their kids and who have met most or all of their child’s friends are less likely to have kids who become bullies. This sort of involvement offers some protection to kids against becoming a bully. 
  • Be careful not to overpraise. Love them, praise them and build them up, but let the praise be meaningful and earned – and not excessive. Let them know that they are special, and that everyone else is too. 

[irp posts=”1247″ name=”Kind Kids are Cool Kids. Making sure your child isn’t the bully.”]

And finally …

Until empathy becomes embedded in our DNA and is as much a part of the human experience as breathing and sleeping, there will always be those who seek to hurt others. For those who are targeted by bullies, the experience can be a deeply painful one that comes with unimaginable shame, humiliation and feelings of loneliness and grief.

We can’t stop the bullies – it is their growth and sadly, none of us can do it for them. What we can do is step in when we can and widen the buffer around their victims, sending a clear message that the bully stands small and alone, while the victim stands strong and with many. 

One Comment

Adelesims

These comments brought up old memories of what was done to me of my school years.maybe that’s why I drew the same type people in my adult years?

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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