A new program from Macquarie University will attempt to put an end to cyberbullying in schools.

The study, led by Macquarie University researchers, will focus on teaching bystanders to actively defend their peers, putting an end to the culture of disengagement which allows the behaviour to continue.

While most programs focus on the reasons for cyberbullying and its consequences, this new study focuses on how young people might be facilitating bullying, and the impact of online anonymity.



What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying comes in many forms. Whether it is posts on social media, direct messages, emails, or photos, cyberbullying is classified as the use of electronics to intimidate or threaten another individual. Compared to traditional bullying, cyberbullying often has a wider impact due to its anonymity. Sitting behind a screen, the person performing the bullying feels safer and more in control.

This is especially true for young people growing up in a digital age. Not being able to assess the reaction of the victim, or identify the perpetrator, has significant impacts on their mental health and well-being. And this is also true for bystanders.

According to Kate Bussey, Associate Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University, bystanders play an important role in the continuation of these actions.

“Moral disengagement allows people to detach their behaviour from their usual moral code, severing the link between doing something bad and feeling bad about it.”

“They might still agree bullying was wrong, but they’ve justified it to themselves.”

While this is true for bullies, studies have also shown that bystanders often disengage from the negative repercussions of bullying, creating a culture of silence in schools and allowing the actions to continue.



How does it impact young people?

Initial research into the impact of cyberbullying was conducted by Professor Kate Bussey and PhD candidate Aileen Luo, through a survey of 563 students in years 7 and 9.

Each student was asked whether they have ever experienced an incident of cyberbullying, and what their role was in the event. Research found that while only 4.1 percent were bullies, 23.8 percent of the students were bystanders. Similarly, bullies and bystanders recorded much higher levels of disengagement from the events.

According to Aileen Luo, this emphasises the need for greater education to teach young people how to respond to cyberbullying, or emotional disengagement will only spread.

“The effect of being involved in cyberbullying is cumulative in that the more incidents of bullying someone is involved in, the more desensitised and morally disengaged they become.”

Professor Kate Bussey credits this lack of sympathy and action to the protection provided by the online world.

“It’s easy to feel that there are no consequences for cyberbullying, as you can’t see the victim’s reaction.”

“You could even argue that the internet is creating a breeding ground for moral disengagement, because it’s so easy to share a post and there’s that sense of anonymity.”



What can we do about it?

In order to better understand the implications of this new information, Professor Bussey is set to lead another study, which will monitor how a specially designed classroom intervention program can limit levels of moral disengagement and teach students to effectively manage their emotions.

She is currently looking for year 7 and 9 classes across Greater Sydney to participate in this study, with the hopes of ending cyberbullying by first reigniting an emotional awareness of the impact this bullying can have on peers and friends.

“What we’re aiming to do is help young people recognise that cyberbullying is always wrong, and give them the tools to intervene in a constructive way when it happens,” she says.

The hope is that young people will learn to acknowledge the impact they can have on others, whether it’s in person or through a screen. By encouraging greater emotional connection, they will feel the consequences of their actions and stop cyberbullying in its tracks.


To learn more about cybersafety and security in Australia, click here.