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Study: Most people who witness online abuse ignore it

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The vast majority of students who witness cyberbullying don’t do anything about it, at least not right away, a new study has found.

BLAIR: It's difficult to define cyberbullying

BLAIR: It’s difficult to define cyberbullying

Researchers analyzed the reactions of 221 students who watched a fellow student being bullied in an online chat room. Only 10 percent of those who noticed the abuse intervened directly.

The abuse wasn’t real – it was an experiment – but the participants didn’t know that.

“The results didn’t surprise me,” said Kelly Dillon, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University. “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.”

However, despite that lack of direct intervention, two-thirds of the participants who noticed the bullying intervened indirectly by giving the bully or the chat room a bad review when the opportunity arose.

“Most of the people didn’t stand up to the bully but, behind the scenes, they did judge the bully harshly and try to pass that information on later when the incident was over,” Dillon said.

The study appears in the April 2015 issue of the journal “Computers in Human Behavior.” It corroborates findings by a University of New Mexico communications specialist whose 2010 master’s thesis looked at bullying by and of adolescents. Cinnamon Blair, UNM’s chief marketing and communications officer, called her thesis “The Coliseum Effect,” likening cyberbullying to the infamous audience participation in gory spectacles in ancient Rome’s Colosseum.

Blair set out to find the nature of electronic aggression in youth and corresponding mental health impacts. She concluded that “aspects of electronic communication encourage youth to act aggressively, prompting them to do things they would not think to attempt in the physical world.”

At the same time, she found, “adults are so out of touch that they are often unaware of the prevalence of electronic aggression … let alone being aware of how to control or reduce it,” adding, the “unsettling truth is that neither the Roman spectator nor the electronic one is merely an innocent bystander watching other people’s humiliation and conflict, but rather an active accomplice in the creation and staging of these events.”

In an interview, Blair emphasized the difficulty of defining cyberbullying. A physical bully repeats his or her demeaning actions again and again. A cyberbully may act only once but, due to the nature of the Internet, the event can be picked up and rebroadcast hundreds, thousands, even millions of times.

Dillon said that while it would be difficult to extrapolate the findings to New Mexico, the results here would probably be similar.” In general, “people don’t like to get involved, whether it’s a schoolyard bully, an online harasser, someone on the side of the road, or a parent admonishing a child harshly in a store.”