26/11/2014 08:18 GMT | Updated 25/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Enabling the Bystanders

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At a recent and excellent YMCA (Southampton) Conference on bullying, the sessions on bullying between individuals, within couples, in the workplace and when online revealed some surprising similarities between these different situations. Common to all of them was complexity, and a sense that perpetrator, target and bystanders were all caught up in a tragedy, that for all had deeper or earlier origins. Yet it was the position of the bystander that was most unsettling, and which for me threw light on demands for more legislation in this area; it then becomes a problem for law enforcers, who should sort it all out, and leave any bystander untouched and at ease. But in reality all parties are disturbed as the process evolves, and expecting someone else to sort it out does not relieve the growing feelings of guilt.

The recent McAfee survey of cyberbullying regarding young people 11- 17 years old suggested that the problem had doubled in the last year, and 35% had experienced cyberbullying, whilst 40% had witnessed it. There is much to consider regarding these figures, not least how young people perceive or define cyberbullying, highlighting a need to give more thought to the plight of the bystander in the digital world.

It was during a recent Digital Resilience Workshop in a Secondary School that a thoughtful young man of 16 years, when asked what troubled young people about the online world, spoke movingly of the challenges. Looking directly at me, he said 'When you see someone being bullied in the street, you intervene, even if you just report it, even to the police. When it's online, you don't do anything, because it could all turn on you, and you don't know what could happen'. The group of young people all nodded; when they see online bullying they stay silent, as if in dread of invisible threats and dangers that would arise if they tried to intervene. Fears of hacked accounts or false information spread through social media seemed as concerning as any aggression towards them. The message was clear, as one other said: 'There's an underclass, and you just don't want them to focus on you. You just don't go there'.

These troubling comments were not only a call to the adult world to engage more in the digital world, but also to understand more of the wider risks, and help them find solutions. The group seemed to understand their online behaviours in terms of morality tales, like a Grimm Brothers tale for the 21st Century, in which what happened could be traced back to certain actions or places visited online. They were sympathetic to those that had suffered, yet anxious for themselves. I struggled to talk with them about how to manage some of the group or even tribal behaviours that they may come across online. However, I was interested in the origins of the tales they were sharing with each other, and how some of our reporting of the online world may scare off bystanders who would otherwise act.

A recent update from Professor Sonia Livingstone and colleagues, on the excellent EU Kids Online project ( highlighted two issues. Firstly, despite all of the apparent concerns regarding their online behaviours, young people are exploring the ethical and moral questions of the online world and trying to find solutions, similarly communicating to each other through tales of what had happened to someone. In my experience these will often involve situations that have been widely reported, usually in the wider media. Secondly, recent findings revealed that children were strongly influenced by the media's often sensationalist reporting of certain online risks, despite the fact that these are in reality less likely to be experienced by the majority of online users. This can lead young people to focusing more attention on these potential risks than those they are more likely to experience, such as exposure to violent or sexual content or witnessing or receiving hostile messages.

If we are to enable young people in their wishes to support each other, or intervene when witnessing aggressive behaviour online, as they would if concerned in the street, we must evaluate and report appropriately online risks, and not paralyse them with nameless terrors that are not typical. If they are basing their actions and inactions on 'urban legends', sewn by sensationalist media reports, we create helpless bystanders, who in their own way are as traumatised as anyone else in the tragedy of cyberbullying. Balanced reporting does not create eye-grabbing headlines, but it does detoxify the morality tales and legends that young people are using to understand their world, and allow for Good Samaritan acts to flourish.