Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 4: The Role of Empathy

The RSA panelists are looking here into the importance of showing empathy in online bullying scenarios, in particular on the bystanders’ end.

Empathy Matters

Empathy Matters

David Kirkpatrick: I want to ask other panelists too about this issue of empathy, because I think almost everyone of you mentioned it as we were prepping for this. And I noticed you sounded like you might have a thought about some of the things Joe was saying. How do we think about empathy and how it relates to this whole problem generally? How do you look at it?

Sameer Hinduja: Well, given the right circumstances, having a crappy day, maybe we’re struggling with some sort of stresses in our family – we could be mean, we could be cruel, we could be vicious to somebody else, and, just like Joe mentioned, what happens is that you’re presented with an opportunity to harass or intimidate or threaten or embarrass somebody else, and so, at that very moment do you really allow your morals or consciousness or anything else to sort of guide your behavior? Probably not; you typically just fly off the handle, respond spontaneously, respond based on emotions, and you go off on another person, and that’s where the harm occurs.

And so, I believe that empathy is so huge because, again, if we come alongside these teens, if we say: “Look, I’m your biggest fan. I believe in you, I want to support you, but the behavior is the problem,” the behavior’s got to go. So how can we implicate their consciousness? How can we implicate their hearts at that very moment before they go ahead and send it?

And hopefully, that will lead some solutions, because pause before we post, like we like to say, and they’ll think: “Oh, wait, this is going to lead to some sort of harm.” It’s not just something we can relegate to cyber space, where it doesn’t have real-world ramifications – it definitely affects the other person: “I wouldn’t want them ever sending something similar to me.” So yeah, if we get them to pause and think about it, hopefully empathy will be informed and they won’t go ahead and send that message or post that photo.

David Kirkpatrick: And Jaana, you’ve actually studied this?

Jaana Juvonen: Yeah. So, again, I think that that’s a really great goal, and I think that’s another really good example about how the electronic communication form amplifies these things; that it is far too easy to send a message that is nasty, or at least not kind and considerate.

But there is a distinction between chronic bullies and then there are kids who do it without really realizing. But they’re not really the ongoing persistent bullies, so to speak. And I think that the empathy might work for those who do it inadvertently and didn’t really mean that well.

Hardcore bullies enjoy a distress reaction

Hardcore bullies enjoy a distress reaction

But for the hardcore bullies, what we know about them: they lack empathy, so far we’ve not been able to teach them empathy; they really don’t care about other people’s feelings, but they enjoy a distress reaction. And obviously, this now depicts a very different kind of view of, thank goodness, a small proportion of kids at any one time.

But what can we do there? If we can’t teach the hardcore bullies about empathy, we can teach the bystanders about empathy. And that’s, I think, one of the totally unused, uncapitalized aspects of whatever electronic communication that we are talking about. That is, in real world how this works is that all kids essentially say: “Bullying is wrong, it should not be tolerated.”

If we can’t teach the hardcore bullies about empathy, we can teach the bystanders.

When you see how kids react to bullying, nobody intervenes; very rare that anybody would be gutsy enough to go and try to intervene. However, when it happens, bullying stops within seconds. When one person says: “Hey, stop that, that’s not ok,” a peer would be really powerful, but why don’t kids do that? They don’t do it because that puts them at risk, right? So I’m not going to risk myself and get in between this powerful bully, because they typically are popular, they have a lot of status, they know exactly how to hurt other people, which is typical in bullying situations, that is, the more powerful the one is abusing his or her power to put down the vulnerable one.

If we now offset this imbalance of power by telling kids: “Hey, do it together. So you can stick up to the bully if you stick together. So if you combine your forces, you’re going to be much more powerful than any one kid.” And I think that the online environment is an absolutely fascinating place to try to teach kids about empathy and the role that they play as bystanders there, because the bully does not, in their case, know that they did not forward that nasty picture. So they could stop and not spread that nasty rumor.

Sameer Hinduja: I feel like definitely there’s concern about being labeled a tattletale, and so they hesitate. But I also feel like, you know, we work with tens of thousands of youths, they also say: “We just don’t know what to do.”

And so, my hope is that we can build into the workflow and the communication methods, industry can help with that as well, that right when they’re about to, they’re brought to think about the issue, they’re brought to consider: “Ok, what are the consequences?” and so forth. They know: “It’s not just ok. Should I talk to an adult? Should I go ahead and press the Report button on the site? Should I contact my cellular service provider to block this specific number?” They need to have on-hand various sort of assortment of options they can then pursue. Some of them are technical, some of them are more social and behavioral.

David Kirkpatrick: Mark, this issue of the bystanders played a big role in the hours leading up to Megan Meier’s suicide, right?

Mark Krause: I think that that’s probably right. While the defendant and her daughter and her employee were sending the nasty messages to Meier, there were some other people who were involved in the communication. They were sort of the masses that she was dealing with at that time. So, it undoubtedly led to her feelings of isolation and being ostracized that the masses were also against her.

David Kirkpatrick: I assume nobody spoke up and said: “Wait a minute…”

Mark Krause: No.

Read previous: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 3: Facebook’s Perspective

Read next: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 5: Insight into Social Reporting

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