In an experiment, 221 college students in an online chat room watched a fellow student get "bullied" right before their eyes but only 10 percent did something about it, either by helping the victim or confronting the bully.

Even in the safe online world, modern young people are less inclined than ever to get involved. Using the online equivalent of taking a picture of a victim rather than helping, 70 percent of participants who noticed the bullying gave the bully or the chat room a bad review. For the experiment, the undergraduate students were led to believe they would be testing an online chat support feature that was part of a server used for online research surveys and studies.

The chat monitor was available to provide assistance while participants completed a series of personality surveys. The chat room window was visible on the computer screen while the participants completed their surveys. Participants were told they would be asked to evaluate the chat monitor at the end of the study.

Three minutes after the participants began taking their surveys, the cyberbullying of the victim began, following a script written by the researchers. Participants could see in the chat window that the victim was having trouble saving a response in the survey.

A conversation ensues, with the chat monitor becoming increasingly hostile toward the victim.

"We had the chat monitor say things like 'How did you get into college if you can't even take a survey?'" Dillon said. "Finally, after getting increasingly aggressive, the chat monitor tells the victim, 'Figure it out yourself.'"

After three minutes had passed, the victim asked another question and the scripted abuse began again. In the script, the victim did not respond to the rudeness at all, which avoided the common excuse that even the most tolerant of people use about bullying, 'they deserved it'.

About 68 percent of participants said later that they noticed the cyberbullying in the chat window. Of the 10 percent who noticed the abuse and responded directly, 58 percent reprimanded the bully. One response, for example, was "How are you being helpful at all right now?" A quarter of those who responded insulted the bully, saying things like "I can smell the odor of loser from you."

Less commonly, some participants offered technical support and social support to the cybervictim. One person complimented the victim, saying, "I'm sure you're smart!! You'll get it."

After filling out their surveys and testing the chat room, all participants were asked to grade the chat monitor and indicated whether they would recommend the chat room function to future participants. Nearly 70 percent of the people who noticed the cyberbullying and who didn't respond directly to the abuser gave bad marks to the chat monitor and/or didn't recommend use of the chat room - both of which were classified as indirect intervention.

Dillon said we shouldn't judge the people who didn't intervene too harshly, because we don't know why they didn't respond. "At the end of the study, when we told participants about the true purpose of the study, many who didn't respond or who responded indirectly said that they wished they had directly intervened. Many said they wanted to respond to the bullying, but weren't sure what they should do," Dillon said. "We all do that occasionally. We're all bystanders at some point."

Dillon said this research may aid in designing interventions that can help bystanders find ways to stop cyberbullying. For example, this study showed that relatively few participants responded directly to the victim, which may be most helpful in some cases.

"If witnesses think that they have to confront the bully, that may be tough for many people to do. But this study shows how they can help the victim, or remove the victim from the situation. That may be the best strategy in some cases," she said.

 Published in Computers in Human Behavior