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Bystanders Can Help Limit the Hurtful Effects of Cyberbullying

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Thousands of young people are targets of bullying and cyberbullying every day, putting many at risk for outcomes such as depression or school absenteeism. Working with kids to create ways to address these issues is an important responsibility for adults. For example, adults can help those who are targets of bullying explore ways to respond assertively, and they can help those who carry out hurtful behaviors get support for addressing what’s underneath their actions. Adults can also assist young people in identifying strategies to use as bystanders who witness these behaviors.

Often when we think about the role of bystanders, we picture face-to-face bullying situations – and working with young people to explore skills for addressing these in-person situations is an important part of bullying prevention efforts. Considering the amount of time young people spend online – as well as the reported rates of cyberbullying – it’s also important for kids and adults to identify actions that can be used by those who witness online forms of bullying. Look for opportunities for young people to explore these issues and the kinds of strategies they can use to address cyberbullying by having conversations that pose the following kinds of questions.

What kinds of positive and negative behaviors have you noticed online?

In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of teens who use social media said they had witnessed someone being mean or cruel to another person on a social network site. Sixty-nine percent also indicated they think their peers are “mostly kind” to each other on these sites. Ask young people about examples of both positive behaviors and cyberbullying behaviors they’ve witnessed within social media sites, chat rooms, online games or text messages. Examples of cyberbullying might include posting private and embarrassing information about someone, spreading a rumor or making hurtful comments about someone and inviting other people to join in.

How do you think cyberbullying affects people?

Witnessing an in-person bullying situation can provide powerful clues about the impact on the person being targeted. It may be harder to recognize the effects of aggression that takes place online. Ask young people their thoughts about what it feels like to be targeted by hurtful online messages. How might someone feel when threats against them or rumors about them are posted online and potentially “liked” by lots of people? These kinds of experiences can result in feelings of anger, loneliness, embarrassment, fear, hopelessness or depression. The experiences may even result in kids deciding to stay away from school and other places so they can avoid those who posted (or saw) the hurtful information.

Why do some people who witness cyberbullying choose to stay silent or ignore the situation?

Whether people witness hurtful behaviors online or in person, there can be many reasons why they choose to stay silent. They might feel speaking up could also put them at risk or that it could make the situation worse for the person being targeted. They might lack confidence about ways to take action or use their voice. Ask young people to share examples of times when they wanted to respond, but didn’t and why that was the case. Help them recognize that many adults also struggle with decisions about how to interrupt hurtful situations. Be willing to be vulnerable and share examples from your own experiences if that’s been the case for you.

What strategies have you used or could you use to interrupt or limit cyberbullying?

There are many actions available to people who witness cyberbullying or other hurtful online behaviors – actions that allow us to model important qualities like connection, compassion, empathy and courage.

Young people might share examples like the following:

  • Intentionally decide not to “like” information that’s been posted about someone or not to forward a hurtful text to others. Stress that choosing to not support or further distribute hurtful messages is helpful because it may limit the potential damage of these messages.
  • Respond publicly in a calm, clear and constructive way. Reacting from a place of anger and aggression can make a bad situation worse. Encourage kids (and adults!) to step away from the phone or computer so they don’t resort to blaming, shaming or retaliation. This provides time to get calm and centered so they can create a response that makes it clear that others’ behaviors are hurtful and unacceptable.
  • Respond privately to the person who created the hurtful message. Depending on their relationship with the person who created or shared the hurtful message, it may be helpful for kids to follow up with them privately, either online, in a phone call or in person. Doing so can make it clear they don’t support the negative actions. It also provides an opportunity to authentically share concerns about the behavior and what might be behind it.
  • Follow up with the person who was targeted. By reaching out, young people can send a powerful message that they care about the person and they don’t support the negative behaviors. If needed, this connection can also provide an opportunity to assist the person in finding help related to the situation.

Keep in mind that having conversations with young people about these issues is not a one-time event – it’s an ongoing dialogue. Begin talking about these issues before kids delve into the world of texting, social media, online gaming and chat rooms. Help them reflect on real and potential cyberbullying situations and provide ongoing opportunities to practice ways to respond. Doing so can support the transition from being passive bystanders to being allies who serve as powerful role models for other young people and adults.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about ways to support the health and wellbeing of young people – including ways to prevent bullying and cyberbullying. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.