Bystander apathy applies to online bullying too, scientists find

90 per cent so-called “cyberstanders” failed to act

Scientists have long known that bystanders are reluctant to intervene if they see someone being bullied. Now researchers say that the disappointing behaviour termed “bystander apathy” extends to virtual as well as real life.

In a study by Ohio State University that involved 221 college students participating in an online chatroom, 90 per cent so-called “cyberstanders” failed to act by either supporting the victim or challenging the bully, when one member was bullied online by the host by receiving verbal abuse such as “How did you get into college if you can’t even take a survey?” for failing to save a response.

None of the students knew the bullying was set up as part of the experiment.

The results were not surprising for Kelly Dillon, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at the university. He said: “Many other studies have shown bystanders are reluctant to get involved when they see bullying. The results disappointed me, as a human, but they didn’t surprise me as a scientist.”

Bullying UK said last month that calls related to cyberbullying had risen 77 per cent over the previous year. It found 44 per cent of respondents between 11 and 16 had been bullied on social networks.

One bright spot in the study, however, was that almost 70 per cent of students who noticed the bullying gave the chatroom a bad review. Ms Dillon said that while most “didn’t stand up to the bully... behind the scenes they did judge the bully harshly and try to pass that information on later”.

Of those who hit back, half reprimanded the bully saying, “how are you being helpful at all right now?”, while a quarter insulted the bully. One said: “I can small the odour of loser from you.”

Results of the study, carried out with Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

After the subjects were informed about the real purpose of the study, many said they wished they had intervened. Ms Dillon said: “Many said they wanted to respond to the bullying, but weren’t sure what they should do.”

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