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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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