Upstanding by design: built-in encouragement to call out cyberbullies

What prompts some people to intervene in cyberbullying, while others just stand idly by?

A Cornell research team has discovered a way to encourage people to intervene – and it can be built right into the design of social networking sites.

Cyberbullying, which can mean anything from offensive name-calling to purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, stalking and sexual harassment, is a prominent health concern. Research suggests 67 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 have been bullied online, which has been tied to problems in school, depression and even suicide. And 66 percent of all Americans – not just teens – have reported witnessing bullying behavior directed at others, but only 35 percent reported responding in any way.

“While cyberbullying is mediated through technology, it’s still primarily a social issue,” said postdoctoral researcher Dominic DiFranzo, co-author of the study. “But solutions to cyberbullying need to take into account understandings of both social context and technology.”

The researchers will present their study, “Upstanding by Design: Bystander Intervention in Cyberbullying,” April 21-26 at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

To understand how people become upstanders, not bystanders, in the face of cyberbullying, DiFranzo created a simulated social networking site called EatSnap.Love – a kind of Instagram for food on which he and his co-authors manipulated experimental conditions.

(The team has modified the site to create the Social Media TestDrive, a social media simulator that lets children practice being online while ensuring their mistakes won’t come back to haunt them, online or off.)

When creating EatSnap.Love, DiFranzo drew on a psychological theory called the bystander effect. It suggests the more people who see a distressing event, the less likely any one of them will intervene, he said. “The reason is everyone feels less responsibility for those interactions. If it’s just me watching it, it’s all on me; I have to help out,” he said. “But if it’s me plus nine other people, we all share one-tenth of that responsibility. Everyone thinks, ‘Someone else should be doing something.’” On the other hand, those who do feel accountable and personally responsible for the distressing situation are more likely to intervene.

He also drew on another psychological theory that suggests when people believe others are observing them, which activates a stronger awareness of the self, they tend to act more prosocially.

With those theories in mind, DiFranzo gave EatSnap.Love systems and design interactions to make users feel more responsible for what they read on the site. Users were told the size of their audience, and they got notifications showing others were alerted every time the user read a post on their newsfeed or did anything else on the site. Lurking, DiFranzo said, was no longer invisible.

“We were basically creating more social transparency,” added study co-author Natalie Bazarova, associate professor of communication and director of the Cornell Social Media Lab.

The researchers hypothesized that more social transparency would trigger users to feel more accountability and personal responsibility, resulting in more willingness to intervene when witnessing cyberbullying.

The study’s nearly 300 participants were exposed to four cyberbullying messages, including “This photo is uglier than you, and that’s saying something,” and “Your life is sad, look at what you eat.” As in real life, some of the posts included obscenities: “stop posting this (expletive), nobody cares.”

The researchers found those who received information on audience size and view notifications were more likely to intervene because they felt accountable and personally responsible for flagging the incidents.

“Our results showed that by making people feel a little more observed, they feel more accountable and responsible for what they see and do online, and they would be more likely to intervene when they saw these bullying messages,” he said.

The design transforms the passive, private action of reading posts on a social networking site into an explicit signal sent across the social network. “The view notification paired with audience indicators enabled a public signal of passive consumption, which was associated with increased flagging of cyberbullying posts,” the authors wrote. “ … In other words, creating social networking sites where digital behavior is more transparent may encourage prosocial behavior.”

The Social Media Lab team is continuing their work on cyberbullying, with future studies investigating design features that may increase empathy or encourage other prosocial behaviors.

Other co-authors were doctoral candidates Samuel Hardman Taylor and Franccesca Kazerooni, M.S. ’17, and Olivia Wherry ’16, MPS ’17.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Jeff Tyson