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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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