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Bullying: Techniques for Dealing with Taunting, Teasing, & Tormenting
Bullying: Techniques for Dealing with Taunting, Teasing, & Tormenting

Section 8
Bystanders’ Support of Cyberbullied Schoolmates

Question 8 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents |
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

On this track... we will discuss helping the victim overcome the negative emotional impact of bullying.

Institute for Research on Children, Youth, and Family, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic


This study examined factors that increase or decrease the support a bystander offered to a victim of cyberbullying. Possible determinants of supportive behaviour were analyzed using a four-step hierarchical regression analysis on data from 156 Czech children (12–18 years old; M= 15.1; 54% females) who witnessed their schoolmates being victims of cyberbullying. Among individual characteristics, only a general tendency toward prosocial behaviour was a positive predictor of supportive behaviour. Other factors such as age, gender, self-esteem, and problematic relationships with peers had no effect. Among contextual factors, existing relationships with the victim, upset feelings evoked by witnessing victimization, and direct requests for help from the victim triggered supportive behaviour, while strong relationships with the bully inhibited it. Fear of intervening played no role. The practical implications of the findings are discussed with regard to the roles of the emotional response of the bystander and direct requests for help from the victim in cyberbullying interventions. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key words: cyberbullying; school environment; bystanders; supportive behaviour


Currently, young generations are growing up in a world characterized by extensive use of electronic communication technologies in everyday life. This leads to an inextricable linkage between their online and offline worlds; for many children and youth, the ‘offline’ and ‘online’ worlds fall into one social arena (Subrahmanyam & Smahel, 2011). This interconnectedness especially applies in one of the most consequential social environmentsfor young people—school. Children spend a lot of their time at school, among classmates and schoolmates with whom they form (often crucial) relationships (Epstein, 1983; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000). However, nowadays, schoolchildren also ‘meet’ also in cyberspace (Subrahmanyam & Smahel, 2011). They share news, rumors, stories, and photos via Internet-connected devices such as computers and smartphones. Children quite often create special virtual spaces designated specifically for their school or class (e.g. closed groups on social networking sites, e-mail lists, etc.). For example, in the Czech Republic, there is a very popular social networking site Spoluzaci.cz (i.e. Classmates.cz), specialized in connecting members of school classes by enabling their interaction using personal profiles created specifically for the group of classmates on this social networking site.

Children have access to a wide range of online platforms with similar functions, where the established structure of their offline interactions, such as relationships, social roles, shared areas of interest, and a sense of belonging, is mirrored (Ševeiková, Šmahel, &Otavová, 2012). These attributes are often cited when describing online communities, (although specific definitions vary across studies) (see e.g. Bellini & Vargas, 2003; Blanchard, 2007; Bruhn, 2011; Fernback, 1999; Jones, 1997; Porter, 2004; Rheingold, 1993; Smith & Kollock, 1999). We can thus describe the online space in which children from a particular school meet as being the ‘school’s online community,’ i.e. a place with an established social structure, in which members who are acquainted also ‘in real life’ interact regularly. It serves as a shared space where schoolchildren, physically apart but socially connected, may gather. This implies that actions occurring within the online community space can affect their offline lives, including their relationships to classmates. Even though the use of the term ‘online community’ may be debatable, linking the concept of online community to schoolchildren’s online social interactions helps us to understand the role of the Internet in their lives, and consequently, to understand their responses to antisocial behaviours online.

Bullying and cyberbullying

One form of antisocial behaviour that schoolchildren face is school bullying, a long-standing social problem (Olweus, 1978, 1993), which, due to the expansion of information and communication technologies, has took a new form called cyberbullying (Beran & Li, 2005; Campbell, 2005; Dehue, Bolman, & Völlink, 2008; Juvonen & Gross, 2008). The definition of cyberbullying is derived from school bullying and is understood as an intentional and aggressive behaviour, repetitive in nature, carried out by an individual or a group through electronic media (Smith et al., 2008). Cyberbullying is strongly related to school bullying (Dehue, Bolman, Völlink, & Pouwelse, 2012; Juvonen & Gross, 2008; Raskauskas &
Stoltz, 2007). It has been shown that victims of school bullying are also targeted by the same bullies on the Internet, particularly on social networking sites (Šléglová & Cerná, 2011; Ševcíková et al., 2012), an environment that constitutes the school’s online community and where cyberbullying occurs in the presence of bystanders (see Ševeíková et al., 2012)

The role of bystanders

In many studies, school bullying is conceptualized as a group process (see Salmivalli, 2010). This recognition brought into focus the role of bystanders, whose reactions constitute an important factor in a bullying situation. For instance, active support for the victim and standing up to the bully can stop the bullying (Macklem, 2003). In addition, expressing support and sympathy for the victim, as well as antipathy to the bully, can help the victim overcome the negative emotional impact of bullying (Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston, 2008). Yet despite bystanders’ frequent negative attitude towards bullying (Menesini et al., 1997; O’Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999; Rigby & Johnson, 2006; Rigby & Slee, 1992; Salmivalli, 2010), bystanders often do not actively come to the victim’s support: they often just passively witness the bullying, or even join in on the side of the bully (Craig & Pepler, 1997; Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; O’Connell et al., 1999). Unfortunately, even mere (passive) witnessing can be perceived by the bully as a tacit approval of the bullying (Salmivalli, 2010) and may enhance self-blaming tendencies among victims (Garandeau & Cillessen, 2006). Bystanders’ inactivity can therefore have a negative impact on the whole situation.

The important question is, then: Why don’t bystanders support victims, despite their disapproval of what they see? Some studies showed that children with lower self-efficacy (Gini, Albiero, Benelli, & Altoe, 2008) and lack of prosocial behaviour and empathy (Endresen & Olweus, 2001; Salmivalli, 2010; Thornberg, 2007) are less likely to act supportively. Age and gender also influence supportive behaviour, in that older children and boys tend to act less supportively (Menesini et al., 1997; Oh & Hazler, 2009; Rigby & Slee, 1992; Salmivalli, Lagerspetz, Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Kaukiainen, 1996; Trach, Hymel, Waterhouse, & Neale, 2010).

Apart of individual characteristics, it is worth noting that supporting a victim can be interpreted as opposing the bully; bystanders thus bear the risk of becoming targets themselves (Kanetsuna & Smith, 2002). Fearing such negative outcomes, some children choose a passive reaction—this applies especially to children with characteristics often found among victims of bullying (Garandeau & Cillessen, 2006; Juvonen & Galvan, 2008), such as low self-esteem (O’Moore & Kirkham, 2001) and problematic relationships with peers (Bjoerkqvist et al., 2001; Graham & Juvonen, 1998; Adler & Adler, 1995). Furthermore, as members of a particular social group with an established social structure, bystanders are also influenced by their personal relationships with the victim and the bully (Lodge & Frydenberg, 2005; Oh & Hazler, 2009). When the bystander has a negative relationship with the victim, this may lead them to stand by passively and not offer support; having a positive relationship with the bully likewise increases the chance that they will react passively, or even join the bully.

Bystanders in cyberbullying

In research on the role of bystanders in cyberbullying (as well as school bullying), it is important to consider the context of cyberbullying. On the Internet, bystanders often don’t know and can only roughly estimate how many other children are witnessing the cyberbullying; they also cannot see others’ reactions. These conditions may lead to a diffusion of responsibility caused by the bystander effect, which consequentially results in the inhibition of supportive behaviour (Latané & Darley, 1970; Thornberg, 2007). The bystander effect can occur even when children are physically alone in front of their screens, because they might imagine that there are dozens of other viewers.

This potential for a wide audience is a peculiar feature of cyberbullying (Heirman & Walrave, 2008; Kowalski et al., 2008; Nocentini et al., 2010). In a school’s online community, the harmful materials (e.g. hateful messages or videos) can be potentially seen by many other schoolmates or even spread easily to a wider online audience by forwarding links. In some cases, the victim can also be denied access to the online community, i.e. he or she may be intentionally excluded by some of its members. Due to wide online audience, bystander’s can have lower tendencies to act on behalf of the victim. Moreover, what usually remains unseen by the audience is the victim’s emotional response (Heirman & Walrave, 2008; Slonje & Smith, 2008), which can lead others to underestimate the severity of the situation. As a result, this invisibility might also decrease empathy, and subsequently, the urge to intervene—among bystanders. As in the case of school bullying, this passive reaction can be interpreted as approval or even encouragement. Moreover, in cyberbullying, just a single visit to a certain site (e.g. a video on youtube.com) ‘counts’, while the actual reaction of the bystander behind the screen (e.g. disapproval) stays invisible. Therefore, in cyberbullying, the rejection of the bullying or support of the victimmust be expressed explicitly; otherwise it may not be registered, and the incident might continue without interruption.

On the bright side, the aforementioned features of the online environment are also the reason why bystanders’ activities are less subject to monitoring by the bully. In comparison with school bullying, bystanders and the bully are distant and mutually invisible online. Although the bystander’s actions may not stay anonymous in the specific context of the school online community, the distance may enhance a subjective sense of anonymity, and bystanders can therefore more easily express support to the victim. Specifically, they could offer social and emotional support or advice without fear of confrontation by the bully.

Research aim

Considering the aforementioned aspects of cyberbullying, we ask to which extent factors influencing bystanders’ behaviours apply to cyberbullying. To our knowledge, there are just a handful of studies on witnessing cyberbullying that focused on bystanders’ behaviours toward victims (Campbell, 2005; Li, 2007; Slonje, Smith, & Frisén, 2012). Thus, the aim of our study is to examine factors which affect supportive bystander behaviours in the form of emotional support and advice given to the victim. In our analysis, we first assessed the role of demographics (gender and age). Then, we focused on the individual psychological characteristics of the bystanders (prosocial behaviour, self-esteem, problematic relationships with peers) and their effect on supportive behaviour. The attention was also paid to the effect of bystanders’ relationships with the victim and bully and contextual aspects, such as bystanders’ emotional response to cyberbullying (i.e. upset feelings), the role of a victim’s direct requests for help, and fear of intervening. We also asked if the inclusion of these contextual factors in our analysis would change the role of individual characteristics in our model (i.e. if the inclusion of fear of intervening would change the effect of self-esteem and problematic relations with peers on supportive behaviour, or if the inclusion of upset feelings would change the effect of relationships with the bully and victim).


Procedure and participants

The present study uses data from a project that aimed to examine children’s experience with cyberbullying. A random sample of 58 primary and secondary schools in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic was contacted with a request for participation of students within the specified age range. Of these, 34 schools (59%) agreed to cooperate
and data from 2,092 children aged 12–18 (M= 15.1, SD = 1.86; 54.7% females) were collected. The questionnaire was filled out anonymously in school computer labs in the presence of a trained administrator who could answer children’s questions and offer technical advice if needed. Informed consent was obtained from the headmasters of the schools.

In the questionnaire, a short description of cyberbullying was offered, and participantswere asked about their experiences with similar events in the role of victim and bully. Further, we asked them if they knew anyone to whom something like the described cyberbullying had happened. A specific section of the questionnaire then appeared on respondents’ screens based on their particular answers. Those who answered ‘no’ to questions about being victim and/or bully (therefore were not victim/bully themselves), but ‘yes’ to knowing someone with cyberbullying experience (N= 665), were asked additional questions about the incident and their own reactions. First, they were instructed to recall the cyberbullying incident they considered most severe (in the case they knew about multiple cyberbullying incidents). Further, we asked these children by dichotomous question (yes/no) how exactly they learned about this incident (e.g. ‘the victim told me’), and we identified bystanders based on items: ‘I have been a direct witness of the event’ and/or ‘I have seen or read it somewhere on the internet’ (N= 379). Since the focus of this study is on a school online community, the research sample consists only of bystanders who knew the victim of cyberbullying in person from their school (N=156, age 12–18, M=14.99, SD = 1.67; 53.9% females).


Supportive behaviour. Respondents were asked seven dichotomous questions about their helpful/supportive reactions toward a victim of cyberbullying (see Table 1). The scale was created by counting positive answers; M= 3.19, SD = 2.27; Cronbach alpha = .79.

Prosocial behaviour
. Five items on prosocial behaviour from PTM-R scale (Carlo, Hausmann, Christiansen, & Randall, 2003) were used (e.g. ‘It makes me feel good when I can comfort someone who is very upset’, ‘I tend to help people who are in a real crisis or need’). Four-point answers ranged from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’; M= 3.36, SD = .51; Cronbach alpha = 0.79.

Self-esteem. Rosenberg’s ten-item self-esteem scale was used (Rosenberg, 1965) with
four-point answers ranging from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’ (e.g. ‘I feel that I
have a number of good qualities’, ‘At times I think I am no good at all’). M=2.84, SD = .52;
Cronbach alpha = .80.

Table 1. Items measuring support for the victim




Yes (%)

I told him or her to ignore it.




I tried to comfort the victim.


I told him or her that whoever was doing this was not worth the worry.


I let the victim know that I was sorry about what happened.



I tried to keep the victim occupied so he/she wouldn’t need to think about it.


I recommended him or her to tell someone who could help.


I gave the victim technical advice on how to make it stop.


At least one form of support




Problematic relationships with peers. A subscale ‘rejection from peers’ from a scale measuring quality of peer attachment (Širůcek & Širůcková, 2008) was used, consisting of eight items (e.g. ‘They reject me’, ‘They laugh at me’) with five-point answers ranging from ‘never’ to ‘always’); M= 1.74; SD = .60; Cronbach alpha = 0.84.

Relationship with the victim/bully.
Relationships with the victims and bullies were each measured by a single question ‘How would you describe your relationship with this person?’ with five-point scale answers ranging from ‘very good’, through ‘neutral’ to ‘very bad’. A sixth possible answer ‘none’ was also offered, to reflect the fact that the online bully can remain unknown (Willard, 2007; Kowalski&Limber, 2007) and, in this case, the relationship with him or her simply does not exist. Moreover, even in the case when one does know the person, the actual relationship may still be described as ‘none’ when it is characterized by indifference and lack of interest. A considerable number of children answered ‘none’ (relationship with the victim: 26.3%; with the bully: 30.8%). The assumption about the distinctive nature of ‘neutral’ and ‘none’ relationships was further supported by one-way ANOVAs and Pearson’s chi-square tests conducted to assess differences in other variables. Respondents who reported ‘none’ relationships toward the victim differed from those who reported ‘neutral’ in supportive behaviour, prosocial behaviour, upset feelings brought on by the bullying, effects of requests for help, and fear of intervening; regarding their relationships toward the bully, they differed in fear of intervening. The results supported the assumption that the categories ‘neutral’ and ‘none’ are qualitatively different. Therefore, respondents’ answers about their relationships to the victim and the bully were categorized as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘neutral’, or ‘none’.

Fear of intervening in the situation was measured by a single item (‘Some people are afraid to do something in such situations. Did this apply in your case?’) and was answered on a four-point scale (‘not at all’, ‘somewhat’, ‘likely’, ‘definitely’) (M= 2.06, SD = .95).

Upset feelings caused by the situation were measured by one question (‘When this happened, how much did it upset you??’), answered on four-point scale (‘not at all’, ‘a little bit’, ‘moderately’, ‘very much’) (M= 2.05, SD = .75).

Being asked to help the victim was measured by one question (‘Were you asked to help the victim?’) with a dichotomous yes/no answer (14.9% reported they have been asked to help). Age and Gender were also coded.


To answer our research question about the factors influencing the supportive behaviour of bystanders toward victims of cyberbullying, a four-step hierarchical regression analysis was conducted. In the first step, supportive behaviour towards victims of cyberbullying was predicted by demographical variables (gender, age). In the second step, individual predictors (prosocial behaviour, self-esteem, problematic relationships with peers) were included. In the third step, six dummy variables capturing the relationship to victim and bully were added; a variable indicating a good relationship to the victim or the bully was omitted and thus served as a base category. Finally, because we expected that some contextual variables can change the role of individual predictors (e.g. that the fear of intervention might change effect of self-esteem), in the fourth step, predictors capturing the context of the bystander’s reaction (upset feelings, being afraid to intervene, and being asked for help) were added. For all analyses, SPSS 20 was used.


Results show that demographical variables alone accounted for 6% of the variance in supportive behaviours toward the victim; however, only gender was significant predictor.Adding individual variables (prosocial behaviour, self-esteem, and problematic relationships with peers) in step two significantly increased the amount of variance to 17%; yet, only
prosocial behaviour had a significant effect. Relationships with victim and bully in step three and finally context variables in step four significantly increased the explained variance up to 39%.

There was significant effect of gender, with girls being more supportive than boys. However, this effect disappears in step four, when contextual variables were added. Of individual predictors, only prosocial behaviour had a significant positive connection to supportive behaviour. The effects of the bystander’s relationships with the victim and bully were interesting. A good relationship with the victim had a positive effect, but only when compared to no relationship, or to a bad relationship and only in the third step of analysis, before the inclusion of context variables. On the other hand, all types of relationships with the bully, in comparison to a good one, increased the supportive behaviour toward the victim. Among context variables, the respondent’s upset feelings (the strongest predictor in whole model) and receiving direct requests for help were both positive predictors of support.


The aim of this study was to contribute to an understanding of factors that may influence bystander reactions to cyberbullying. We examined the relationship between the individual characteristics of bystanders and supportive behaviour toward the victim. Contrary to our expectation, age, gender, problematic relationships with peers, and self-esteem had no effect on supportive behaviour by bystanders. On the other hand, among individual characteristics, a tendency toward prosocial behaviour was a positive predictor of supportive behaviour.

This result could be interpreted with regard to the context of cyberbullying, in which bystanders are rarely in the presence of the bully. They often witness the online incident alone, distant from other actors, and their invisibility to the bully can contribute to feelings of safety. Fear of retribution can therefore be overcome due to a perception of anonymity
and physical distance from the bully. This might explain why no effect was found for selfesteem and problematic relationships with peers, attributes which can have a negative effect of response when witnessing school bullying (Bjoerkqvist et al., 2001; Graham &Juvonen, 1998; O’Moore & Kirkham, 2001).

In this study, the bystanders’ relationships to the victim and bully were also examined. Specifically, we investigated the difference between those having a good relationship to the victim or the bully in comparison with those having a neutral, bad, or nonexistent relationship. According to our findings, the bystander’s relationship to the victim had an effect on providing support to the victim, but only before the inclusion of other contextual variables in the analysis. Before these factors were considered, those with a good relationship to the victim seemed to be more supportive in comparison to those with a bad, or more interestingly, nonexistent relationship to the victim. We assume that for those with no relationship, a state characterized by a lack of interest and indifference, the incident might be of no interest and the emotional response (i.e. upset feelings caused by the incident) necessary to incite prosocial behaviour (Eisenberg et al., 1989), is more likely absent. The association between the relationships to the actors and bystanders’ upset feelings was not examined directly in this study, but after the bystanders’ feelings were taken into consideration, the above described differences disappeared, which would support our explanation. Thus, we conclude that the emotional response was the important incentive for the bystanders’ reactions, although it was probably connected to the relationship with the victim. On the other hand, bystanders with a positive relationship to the bully were less supportive than bystanders on the whole (a finding that is in congruence with the literature on witnessing school bullying; Lodge & Frydenberg, 2005; Oh & Hazler, 2009), regardless of their emotional response. In this study, we characterized a virtual platform in which schoolchildren interact as a school’s online community, in which pre-existing offline social structures persist and influence the actors. Therefore, an offline bond with the bully can impact a bystander’s behaviour online: Those who are friends with the bully can still feel obliged to stand by his or her side, regardless of their own feelings about the situation.

- Macháčková, Hana; Dedkova, Lenka; Sevcikova, Anna; Cerna, Alena. Bystanders' Support of Cyberbullied Schoolmates. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology. Jan/Feb2013, Vol. 23 Issue 1, p25-36.

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