Many students constructively defend others from cyberbullying. But those who aggressively defend their peers are likely to ‘morally disengage’ in the same way bullies do, ignoring their moral standards online and potentially escalating cyberbullying.
The discovery comes as a result of a study by Associate Professor Kay Bussey and three other researchers at Macquarie University, who surveyed 540 students aged 11–15. The questionnaire assessed students’ ‘defending self-efficacy’, which is their belief in their ability to stand up to cyberbullies, and their ‘moral disengagement’: when they act contrary to their professed ethical beliefs.
The researchers differentiate two types of cyber defending: aggressive and constructive.
‘Both aggressive and constructive defending responses aim to assist the victim and are pro-socially motivated. Constructive defending responses, however, are more problem-solving focused, whereas aggressive defending responses are likely to escalate the bullying (Luo & Bussey, 2019)’.
Constructive defending could involve comforting the victim, while aggressive defending includes making threats and insulting the bully.
Those who engage in aggressive defending are generally unconfident in their ability to defend the victims, and less likely to act online in ways they consider to be moral.
Bullies have been identified as showing high moral disengagement, but studies have shown that victim defenders display moral disengagement as well. This seems contradictory, if the defenders believe they are performing an ethical action.
The difference is whether they support the victims constructively or aggressively.
Constructive defenders show high self-efficacy and low moral disengagement: they believe in themselves and adhere to their own values. Aggressive defenders, on the other hand, are less confident in their ability to defend their peers, and are likely to ignore their morals when stirred to defend. This in turn creates more aggressive behaviour.
“If defenders are to be part of the solution and not a problem in anti-bullying strategies, they need to learn how to confidently respond constructively rather than aggressively to bullying episodes,” said Associate Professor Bussey.
The results also show that witnesses may adopt aggressive behaviour in cyber space.
‘The ease of retaliation, disinhibition caused by lack of visual cues, and as suggested by Bauman (2010), moral disengagement may actually be fostered in cyber space, which could well lead to even more bullying.’
The researchers did not expect this result. Scholars assumed that lower moral disengagement would be associated with cyber defending, since it’s an action seen as pro-social and virtuous in itself.
The more strongly participants believed in their ability to defend victims of cyberbullying, the more likely they were to report doing so constructively.
Cyberbullying and defending have raised tricky questions for researchers for some time, with different studies reporting different results. The multifaceted nature of defending may explain why some studies in the cyber context find a positive relationship between defending and moral disengagement and others do not.
Kay Bussey, Aileen Luo, Sally Kitzpatrick & Kimberley Allison. (2020). ‘Defending victims of cyberbullying: The role of self-efficacy and moral disengagement’. Journal of School Psychology.
Aileen Luo & Kay Bussey. (2019). The selectivity of moral disengagement in defenders of cyberbullying: Contextual moral disengagement. Computers in Human Behavior.
Sheri Bauman. (2010). Cyberbullying in a rural intermediate school: An exploratory study. The Journal of Early Adolescence.