Researchers have defined cyberbullying as a repeated, intentional act of aggression carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, against a target who cannot easily defend him or herself [1
]. Cyberbullying often takes place through e-mail, blogs, instant messages, text messages, chat rooms, websites, online games, or social networking sites [2
]. National survey data from the United States indicate that cyberbullying peaks during middle school, with 33.0% of middle school students reporting being cyberbullied [3
], although rates as high as 84% have been reported [4
]. Although some researchers have suggested that cyberbullying is an extension of traditional face-to-face bullying [5
], others argue that cyberbullying may be associated with greater harm than traditional bullying due to the potential for a large audience, unlimited access to targets, the possible anonymity of the cyberbully, and less adult supervision [6
]. Findings from two recent meta-analyses [7
] and a review of the cyberbullying literature [9
] indicate that being a target of cyberbullying is associated with significant mental health risks including depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms, and suicidal ideation. Further, these negative mental health outcomes have been documented even when controlling for traditional bullying [10
The consequences of cyberbullying are not limited to targets, but extend to students who witness cyberbullying as bystanders [11
]. Bystanders may intervene in cyberbullying either directly (e.g., by telling the cyberbully to stop) or indirectly (e.g., by reporting the incident) [12
], encourage the cyberbully (e.g., through commentary or like buttons) [7
], join the cyberbully (e.g., forwarding texts or posts), or remain passive by doing nothing [13
]. Research indicates 52.9% of middle school students report witnessing cyberbullying in the past six months [14
] and peers play an important role in maintaining cyberbullying [15
]. Thus, it is important to gain a better understanding of cyberbullying bystanders [11
]. The majority of research examining students who witness cyberbullying, however, investigates why students do or do not intervene when they witness cyberbullying as bystanders [13
], rather than examining the impact of observing cyberbullying on the bystanders themselves.
Although a growing body of literature documents the negative effects of witnessing traditional face-to-face bullying on bystanders [23
], there is limited research examining mental health risks among students who witness cyberbullying [27
]. When students who witness bullying do nothing to intervene, they may experience cognitive dissonance [28
]. The dissonance between what students believe they should do (e.g., intervene to help the target of bullying) and what they actually do might account for mental health risks seen among bystanders [24
]. Research examining the impact of school bullying on bystanders suggests that witnessing school bullying is associated with depression, anxiety [24
], and somatic symptoms [26
]. Researchers have also found that being exposed to school bullying as a bystander is related to feelings of isolation [23
]. Further, when students witness bullying, they may feel anxious about becoming a target themselves or experience a degree of co-victimization [27
]. Bystanders may also feel helpless [25
], which can lead to passive behavior and contribute to depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms. The feelings of helplessness, combined with cognitive dissonance related to remaining passive when witnessing bullying, may contribute to internalizing symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms) reported by students who witness school bullying.
It is unclear if the research demonstrating the relationship between internalizing symptoms and school bullying generalizes to cyberbullying. Although there are similarities between being a bystander of school bullying and cyberbullying, there are also some noteworthy differences. For example, in face-to-face bullying, bystanders are usually present, whereas in the case of cyberbullying, the bystander may witness the bullying while it is occurring or after the fact (e.g., a message is forwarded to them) [11
]. Further, passive bystander behavior has been linked to moral disengagement [29
], diffusion of responsibility [31
], and a lack of confidence [32
], knowledge, or skills to intervene [23
]. These factors may play an even greater role in cyberbullying due to the lack of social–emotional cues [34
], physical distance, real or perceived anonymity [34
], and ease of disseminating communication via social networks [35
]. In fact, research indicates witnessing cyberbullying is associated with higher levels of moral disengagement and lower feelings of responsibility and self-efficacy relative to witnessing traditional face-to-face bullying [35
Despite the high prevalence rate of witnessing cyberbullying and the potential for negative outcomes for cyberbullying bystanders, we could find only one study examining the mental health risks associated with witnessing cyberbullying among middle school students [27
]. Findings demonstrated witnessing cyberbullying was associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety. The authors, however, did not control for the effects of witnessing traditional school bullying. Research suggests that cyberbullying shares some common characteristics with school bullying and that there is considerable overlap between cyberbullying and school bullying [2
]. Further, researchers have demonstrated a positive association between witnessing school bullying and depression and anxiety [24
]. Thus, it is important to understand if internalizing symptoms is uniquely associated with witnessing cyberbullying or if the relationship is due to the overlap with witnessing school bullying.
Although there is a large literature on the negative effects of being a target of cyberbullying [7
] and a growing body of literature on the negative effects of witnessing school bullying [23
], there is limited research on the relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and mental health risks among middle school students. Since school bullying and cyberbullying co-occur [2
], it is important to examine the unique effects of witnessing cyberbullying on mental health risks. Additionally, because more than one half of middle school students witness cyberbullying [3
], identifying the unique relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and mental health risks can help inform intervention programs for cyberbullying bystanders in this age group.
The Present Study
The purpose of this study is to address this gap by investigating the relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and internalizing symptoms among middle school students in the United States. Our aim was to examine if witnessing cyberbullying is associated with internalizing symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms) over and above the effects of witnessing traditional school bullying. Examining the relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and internalizing symptoms will extend the current research investigating mental health risks associated with cyberbullying victimization to cyberbullying bystanders. We hypothesized that cyberbullying bystanders would report higher levels of internalizing symptoms than non-bystanders over and above the effects of witnessing traditional school bullying.
Cyberbullying peaks in middle school, with more than 50% of middle school students reporting witnessing cyberbullying as bystanders in the past six months. Although the association between cyberbullying victimization and internalizing symptoms is well documented and research indicates witnessing traditional school bullying is associated with internalizing symptoms [24
], there is limited research examining the impact of witnessing cyberbullying on bystanders [27
]. Thus, the purpose of the present study was to address this gap by investigating the relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and internalizing symptoms among middle school students in the United States. We included witnessing school bullying as a covariate to control for the significant overlap between cyberbullying and school bullying [2
]. Overall, our findings suggest that witnessing cyberbullying is uniquely associated with internalizing symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms, even when controlling for the effect of witnessing traditional school bullying.
Consistent with our hypothesis, results indicated that students who witness cyberbullying report significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms than non-bystanders. Findings parallel prior research indicating witnessing cyberbullying is associated with depression and anxiety [27
]. The current findings extend this literature by demonstrating that witnessing cyberbullying is associated with depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms even after accounting for the effects of witnessing school bullying. This finding is consistent with research suggesting that being a target of cyberbullying is associated with internalizing symptoms over and above the effects of being a target of traditional bullying [10
]. Thus, findings of this study add to the limited research suggesting that negative outcomes associated with cyberbullying extend beyond student targets to students who observe cyberbullying as bystanders.
There are several possible explanations for the association between witnessing cyberbullying and internalizing symptoms. For example, when students who witness bullying act passively, they may experience cognitive dissonance [28
]. Bystanders may experience negative affective states related to the dissonance between believing they should intervene, but doing nothing to help the target [24
]. Thus, cognitive dissonance may provide an explanation for internalizing symptoms reported by students who witness bullying [26
]. Additionally, bystanders may feel helpless and anxious when they witness cyberbullying but do not know how to intervene. It is also possible that cyberbullying bystanders may have been targets themselves and may experience re-victimization or co-victimization [46
] when observing others as targets of bullying.
4.1. Limitations and Future Directions
Although this study adds to the sparse literature of the mental health risks for students who witness cyberbullying, some limitations deserve note. First, the sample was recruited from one middle school in the Northwest region of the United States and was relatively small. Although we recruited 360 students, we were only able to obtain parental consent from 39.4% parents and achieved a final response rate of 36.1%. Thus, our final sample was smaller than we expected leading to a reduction in power for our analyses. Although our MANCOVA analysis was underpowered for a medium effects size, we did achieve statistical significance for the model, allowing us to conduct the appropriately powered post hoc ANCOVA analyses. Additionally, the low response rate suggests that we may have nonresponse bias in our sample, which is often seen in research using active vs. passive parental consent procedures [47
]. To improve the generalizability of the findings, larger samples from several schools should be used in future research. Next, because the study utilized a cross-sectional methodology, the causal direction of the relationship between witnessing cyberbullying and internalizing symptoms cannot be determined. Thus, longitudinal research is recommended for future studies. Further, we used a single item to measure witnessing cyberbullying. Using a multiple-item scale would improve the reliability and validity of the measure in future research. For example, a cyberbullying scale such as the Cyberbullying Questionnaire [48
] could be modified with participants reporting if they witnessed the cyberbullying items (vs. experienced them as a target). Additionally, although we controlled for witnessing school bullying, we did not control for cyberbullying victimization as we did not collect those data as part of the current study. Since students who witness cyberbullying may also be targets if cyberbullying and victimization is related to mental health risks [7
], future research should include cyberbullying victimization as a covariate. Finally, examining mediators of the relationship between bystander status and mental health risks was beyond the scope of this study. Future research could examine feelings of helplessness and cognitive dissonance as potential mediators of this relationship.
4.2. Implications for Practice
Findings from this study reveal that 32.3% of students reported witnessing cyberbullying in the past 30 days. Thus, nearly one third of students may be experiencing depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms related to witnessing cyberbullying. Mental health professionals inside and outside of the school setting need to understand that the impact of cyberbullying does not only affect targets of cyberbullying, but extends to those who witness cyberbullying as bystanders. Thus, it is imperative to address negative outcomes for middle students who witness cyberbullying as part of bullying prevention programs.
Researchers have highlighted the importance of a systematic, whole-school approach to effectively prevent and manage all forms of bullying behavior, including cyberbullying [49
]. However, according to a recent review of the cyberbullying intervention literature, the most frequently used intervention components included education on cyberbullying, coping skills and empathy training, communication and social skills, and digital citizenship [50
]. These findings parallel traditional bullying programs, with research indicating that only a few school-wide, comprehensive bullying prevention programs include a bystander intervention component [51
Researchers evaluating school-wide bullying prevention programs that include bystander intervention have demonstrated that these programs are effective in reducing cyberbullying [52
], as well as reducing internalizing symptoms among students trained in the program [53
]. Similarly, research indicates stand-alone bystander interventions are also effective in reducing internalizing symptoms for students trained to intervene in bullying situations [38
]. Therefore, implementing comprehensive, school-wide interventions that include a bystander component [55
] or brief, stand-alone bullying bystander interventions that focus specifically on bystander training for middle school students [56
] may be a promising approach for reducing the mental health risks associated with witnessing cyberbullying.