Online Classmates or Bystanders?

A study on bystander behavior and cyberbullying raises questions about student behavior in large online courses.

July 1, 2015

The more students who witness cyberbullying in an online setting -- for example, in an online course -- the less likely those students are to take a stand against it, a new study suggests.

The report, published in this quarter’s edition of Communication Monographs, explores how witnesses choose to act -- or not act -- in response to cyberbullying. Its findings suggest college students’ ability to intervene in cyberbullying changes depending on the number of other students witnessing the bullying, their perception of their own anonymity and how close they feel to the victim, among other factors.

While the study doesn’t focus specifically on cyberbullying in online education, author Nicholas Brody, assistant professor of communication at the University of Puget Sound, acknowledged in an interview that many of the findings apply to that setting.

In particular, Brody said, the findings suggest cyberbullying may be more likely to occur in massive open online courses and other settings where large numbers of students who don’t know one another outside of class gather.

Examples of that kind of behavior can be seen in cases such as a MOOC offered last year by the University of Copenhagen, where a plan to let students self-moderate quickly devolved into forum bans and stricter moderation. And outside of instruction, colleges routinely struggle to curb abusive behavior on anonymous websites and apps such as Yik Yak.

“Once online identity is disconnected from offline identity, it can sometimes lead to antisocial online communication,” Brody said. “When witnesses perceive themselves as not visible, they lessen their sense of personal responsibility for taking action and helping.”

Brody and his co-author, Anita L. Vangelisti, Jesse H. Jones Centennial Professor of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted two studies to examine how the bystander effect, a phenomenon that explains why individuals sometimes fail to help others in the presence of a crowd, manifests itself online.

In the first study, which involved 265 undergraduate students enrolled in a communication course at a large university in the Southwest, Brody and Vangelisti asked students to explain in detail a recent cyberbullying episode they witnessed on Facebook. They also prompted the students to reflect on variables such as their relationship with the victim, how many other Facebook users witnessed the bullying and whether or not they helped.

A follow-up study of 379 undergrads also enrolled in a communication course at a large Southwestern university asked students about those same variables, but used a controlled scenario. The students all read a made-up case of cyberbullying about a Facebook user whose account was hacked and used to post embarrassing pictures and status updates, however, the students were told that the user was either an “acquaintance” or a “good friend,” that he or she had more than a thousand or fewer than 200 Facebook friends, and whether students were listed as visible to the victim.

Both studies produced similar results. Students were more likely to act if the victim was a close friend, if the cyberbullying took place in a smaller group setting or if they could not hide behind the cover of anonymity.

“It comes down to friendship and closeness,” Brody said. “People are going to help out their friends. People are going to help out the people they feel closest to.”

While students may be less inclined to stand up for classmates online than in person, faculty members may feel less prepared to crack down on such behavior, Brody suggested. “Many educators feel comfortable managing those types of situations in the classroom, but how do you manage [it] in an online environment -- particularly when you’re trying to manage so many students?” he said.

Brody’s comments reflect one of the main qualms many faculty members have with online education, namely that they feel online courses don’t offer students as many opportunities to interact with one another and their instructors as face-to-face courses do.

Several surveys (including one by Inside Higher Ed) have found instructors expressing concern that teaching online means they won’t be able to answer questions satisfactorily or devote extra attention to students who need more help than others.

“There is a fear that online communication in general isn’t authentic,” Brody said.

Extrapolating the findings from the two studies, Brody said faculty members can design their online courses to discourage cyberbullying by putting students in small groups and encouraging them to interact outside required group work.

“What this research ultimately is trying to figure out is how to train people to be aware of when online harassment and cyberbullying is occurring and help them understand what factors might be detrimental to their sense of responsibility for intervening,” Brody said. “Once people are aware of what those factors are, they might be more likely to help out down the road.”


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