Cyberbullying and the “Bystander Effect”: The Dark Side of Social Media

Social media has the ability to bring people together from across the globe. It’s become a source for people to connect, learn about new things, and expand their networks. Social media has created a whole new way of communicating and at this point, many users might not want to imagine a life without it. But social media also has a dark side: cyberbullying.

cyber-bullyingCyberbullying is defined as any bullying that takes place using electronic technology, according to StopBullying.gov. This could range from mean texts sent to a specific target to rumors spread over social media. Since technology has become so much a part of a person’s daily life, cyberbullying is now a tactic for those who want to do harm.

Cyberbullying has often been associated with teen depression and suicide. In 2013, a number of suicides were linked to the social network Ask.fm, where users are able to ask each other questions anonymously. The deaths led to Ask.fm making efforts to create a safer site. There are many studies that have researched the connection between depression and cyberbullying but often, teens that suffer from cyberbullying, suffer in silence due to fear that their parents might take away their Internet access. Because these users don’t want to be left out of social media, it’s important for sites to take proper action when dealing with cyberbullying.

Many people have been a witness to and/or a victim of bullying, both online and off. When it’s happening in the hallways of a school or even in one’s own home, it’s easy for others to see but even then, people don’t always step in. This is described as the “bystander effect”; people are less likely to step in when there is a large group of people present. The “bystander effect” explains why people don’t automatically react to a person yelling at another in a crowded room or why people don’t take action when they see someone being mugged on the streets. But it can also explain why people don’t try to stop cyberbullying.

In a new study by the National Communication Association, researchers examined bystander intervention in cyberbullying. The study used two-pronged approaches on undergraduate students. The first group had to recall and react to actual Facebook cyberbullying incidents, while the second group was given a hypothetical cyberbullying situation where they witnessed embarrassing pictures being sent without the owners consent and were asked how they would intervene, if at all.

The results showed that a psychological phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility,” similar to the “bystander effect,” was present throughout the experiment. Researchers also found that those who perceive “invisibility” during social communication may execute antisocial or dangerous behaviors. This type of “invisibility” viewpoint explains the behavior of those who “troll” or partake in online harassment behind an anonymous profile.

There are 37 states in the U.S. that have made cyberbullying a crime. These laws are making it known that cyberbullying is dangerous. Cyberbullying can effect more than just teenagers as well. Harassment, direct threats, stalking: these are all things that can happen to anyone on social media. Rumors and gossip can spread like wildfire simply by the click of a button. Although cyberbullying is treated differently by each state, laws are becoming more specific about what is considered unconstitutional and providing victims with the tools to take action against those who have done harm. You can learn more about cyberbullying and how your state handles this issue by visiting Stopbullying.gov.

Danielle Bilotta, Graduate Student

Master of Arts in Emerging Media

Loyola University Maryland

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