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Calculated Costs: Cyberbystanders' Beliefs about Helpfulness


Cyberbullying is a complex and challenging problem that affects nearly a quarter of school-aged students each year (Holfeld & Grabe, 2012; Patchin & Hinduja, 2015). Interventions aimed at decreasing the prevalence of bullying in schools have turned to whole-school approaches (Salmivalli, 2014). Through this whole-school lens, bystanders have become a key population for researchers to study, as most bullying incidents, including cyberbullying, have witnesses (Lenhart et al., 2011). These witnesses, or bystanders, have the power to intervene on behalf of the victim, and most bystanders report the desire to help, although most do not in fact intervene (Jones et al., 2015). What bystanders consider helpful in cases of bullying, however, is largely missing from the literature. This study aimed to close that gap by asking 20 middle-school cyberbystanders what they considered helpful in their online communities, as well as what factors may motivate them to be helpful (e.g., popularity, friendship, intensity of bullying). Each middle-school cyberbystander (nine female, 11 male) participated in a one-on-one, semi-structured interview that lasted approximately 30-45 minutes. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed, and coded to explore the themes that emerged. For the students in this study, the most helpful action cyberbystanders could take was peer support. Peer support was defined as comforting victims, spending time with them, and listening to them. However, the most important factor in determining whether to help was how close the victim was to the bystander. The closer the victim was to the cyberbystander, the more likely the cyberbystander was to show support for the victim. The belief in peer support was extended only to close friends, not non-friends or strangers. One of the main reasons for this preference was that cyberbystanders did not believe they would know what to say or how to comfort someone outside of their immediate friend group. Another key finding was cyberbystanders’ aversion to defending a victim, even if that victim was a friend. Defending was largely viewed as a public act, and as such, students had a heightened fear of peer backlash for posting messages of support in a group chat, which could result in the cyberbystander getting bullied.

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