”Do I really need to help?!” Perceived severity of cyberbullying, victim blaming, and bystanders’ willingness to help the victim

Special Issue: Bystanders of Online Aggression


Whether bystanders in cyberbullying help a victim or remain passive is based on multilayered cognitive processes. In particular, perceiving and interpreting an incident as an emergency situation, realizing one’s own responsibility to intervene, and forming the intention to help are crucial preconditions for bystander interventions. The characteristics of information and communication technologies (ICTs) change and hamper these cognitive processes. Information and cues that guide individuals’ reactions to offline victimization are missing in many online environments (e.g., seeing a victim’s suffering). By applying a scenario-based experiment (n = 240; 62% female; Mage = 21.3), we investigate how cyberbullying incidents with differing degrees of severity (insults only vs. insults and threats) affect bystanders’ perception of the incident, their tendency to blame the victim, and finally their reactions to cyber victimization (i.e., willingness to help). Our results showed that participants evaluated an incident that included threats and insults (as compared to insults only) as more severe; this in turn was related to a higher willingness to help the victim. In contrast, a seemingly less severe incident (containing insults only) fostered participants’ tendency to ascribe (at least partial) blame for the incident to the victim. This victim blaming correlated with a lower tendency to support the victim. In conclusion, victims of seemingly less serious incidents in particular are at risk of experiencing prolonged suffering because bystanders fail to identify the emergency character of the situation and refuse to help.

Cyberbullying; cyber aggression; victim blaming; bystanders; helping behavior

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