Study: Most People Won’t Stop Online Bullies

In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed and left for dead in Kew Gardens, Queens. She screamed for help over a half hour while bystanders and apartment-dwellers above apparently ignored her pleas. Her assailant had time to disguise himself during the attack. She died of her injuries, and experts at the time called the failure of bystanders to act “Genovese Syndrome.”

While the online world isn’t nearly as dire as Genovese’s tragedy, its clear from a recent OSU study that bystander syndrome that bears her name is still alive and well. The study watched 221 students as they interacted in a chat room. A bully would appear and berate other members of the group. According to the study, “only 10 percent of the students who noticed the abuse directly intervened, either by confronting the bully online or helping the victim.”

The bully and the victim were obviously part of the study and their goal was to get a reaction from the other people in the chat room.

“The results didn’t surprise me,” said Kelly Dillon, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Ohio State [RELATED: An Interview With Dillon]. “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.”

According to the release, the bullying began three minutes into an online survey.

“We had the chat monitor say things like ‘How did you get into college if you can’t even take a survey?'” Dillon said. “Finally, after getting increasingly aggressive, the chat monitor tells the victim, ‘Figure it out yourself.'”

After three minutes had passed, the victim asked another question and the scripted abuse began again. In the script, the victim did not respond to the rudeness at all.

About 68 percent of participants said later that they noticed the cyberbullying in the chat window. Of the one in 10 who noticed the abuse and responded directly, more than half (58 percent) reprimanded the bully. One response, for example, was “How are you being helpful at all right now?” A quarter of those who responded insulted the bully, saying things like “I can smell the odor of loser from you.”

Was there an upside? Yes. After the study concluded, 70% of the participants reported or rated the bully in an anonymous review opportunity. This means that while participants didn’t stand up to the bully, they did try to prevent them from bullying again.

While this is cold comfort for the victims of online bullying, it’s clear that the medium does allow for some hope. Online bullying will become more and more common and it has real and often tragic effects. After the study, Dillon asked the participants what they thought.

“Many said they wanted to respond to the bullying, but weren’t sure what they should do,” she said. “We all do that occasionally. We’re all bystanders at some point.”