The Unresponsive #Cyberbystander: Why Don’t We Help

Kelly P. Dillon

Kelly P. Dillon

Kelly P. Dillon, PhD
Department of Communication, Wittenberg University

We know from decades of anecdotes, observations, and scientific research that it is critical to make bystanders aware of emergencies occurring in their immediate environment. In the post-9/11 era, the phrase “see something, say something” captured the idea succinctly. But what about less obvious emergencies, especially those online?  As it turns out, cyberbystanders do not act all that differently from offline bystanders, but the resources to intervene are multiple and easier to use.

Statistics and reports from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & Technology Division are alarming: 41% of Americans experience harassment online; 62% believe it’s a major problem, and 60% suggest cyberbystanders should play a significant role in curbing these behaviors (Pew, 2017). Severe harassment, such as threats of violence, seem obviously worthy of responses, but understated harassment like embarrassing pictures or jokes at someone’s expense, less so.  The gap between “seeing something” and “saying something” needs to close.

There are five key steps a cyberbystander needs to complete in order to intervene in online harassment, adapted from the Bystander Intervention Model (Latané & Darley, 1968): notice, interpret, take responsibility to act, determine how to act, and finally act. Up until now, only field studies or self-report surveys were available to determine how cyberbystanders intervened in online harassment or bullying.  Using a new experimental design, a series of laboratory studies were conducted to identify issues at each of these five steps that prevent individuals to intervene online when harassment occurs.  A first study found that cyberbystanders notice subtle harassment, regardless of visual pop-ups, purpose of visiting the online environment, time constraints, or even streaming music (Dillon & Bushman, 2015).  Nearly 68% of cyberbystanders reported noticing the event, but only 10% directly intervened.  Clearly, an empathic push is necessary for the cyberbystanders to intervene, but what additional information do they need to actively intervene?

Center for Disease Control and advise the targets to laugh off their bully’s taunts and teasing. But how else, in a cues filtered out environment (Walther, 1992) will cyberbystanders gather enough information to interpret communication online to intervene.  A second study (Dillon, 2015) found it is far more helpful for cyberbystanders to interpret what’s going on with assistance from the target.  When a confederate target acknowledged the online harassment, 20% of cyberbystanders intervened compared to only 10% of cyberbystanders who heard nothing from the target.  Clearly, the most important cues could come from the target themselves.

The third and stickiest step of the Bystander Intervention Model (Latané & Darley, 1968) is taking responsibility to help the individual in need. Here, what is best known as the “bystander effect” or “diffusion of responsibility” is most likely.  The larger the group of witnesses, the less likely it is any one individual will intervene.  In contrast, if bystanders witness an emergency in person and they are by themselves, they are far more likely to intervene (Fischer et al., 2011).  Online, however, crowd size is a presumption rather than an explicit number the bystander can see with his or her own eyes. When only one other inactive cyberbystander is present, nearly 30% of participants directly intervened in an incident of cyberbullying in real time (Dillon, 2017) compared to only 17% who were in the presence of five inactive cyberbystanders.  Additionally, cyberbystanders sometimes presume the presence of more individuals, watching their behavior online, than are actually there (Dillon, 2017). The social impact of proximate others may be amplified uniquely online;  certainly more research is necessary.

As we become increasingly aware of the volume and veracity of online harassment, we can just as easily learn how to use the tools at our disposal to intervene when necessary. The barriers to cyberbystander intervention are similar to those offline, but with awareness and effort, we can learn how to do something when we see something.


Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377.

Dillon, K. P. (2016). Diffusion of responsibility or diffusion of social risk: Social impact of hyperpersonal cues in cyberbystander intervention in a cyberbullying context (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University).

Dillon, K. P. (2015, November). Help me help you: The effects of victim feedback on cyberbystander behavior in cyberbullying. Presentation in Human Technology and Communication Division at 101st National Communication Association Annual Conference, Las Vegas, NV.

Dillon, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 144-150.

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M. & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A metaanalytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 517-537.

Pew Research Center: Internet & Technology (2017, July 11). “Online Harassment 2017,” from

Walther, Joseph B. (1992). “Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective.” Communication Research19, 52–90.

(Editor’s Note: Kelly Dillon received the Student Dissertation Award of the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology.)

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