12/23/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway? A New Approach to Fighting Cyberbullying

On September 10, 2013, police found Rebecca Ann Sedwick's dead body at an abandoned cement factory in Lakeland, Florida. The day before instead of taking the bus to school, Sedwick jumped off a tower and took her life at the age of 12. By the time of her death former classmates had been bullying her through social media for about a year with messages including "nobody cares about u," "i hate u," and "you seriously deserve to die."

The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as the "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices." Researchers at the University of Toronto found that about half of 2,186 middle and high school students report having been bullied online.

Even after Sedwick's death, one tormenter continued the bullying publicly with "Yes ik [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a f****] <3." Many people react to this story by blaming the two girls who sent the messages and their parents. However, people overlook the fact that this post received 31 likes in just 15 hours. People usually ignore those who actually encourage the bully.

The current anti-bullying campaigns focus on the bully and the victim, not the bystanders. Crystal Lake Middle School, where Sedwick's bullying began, had an Anti-Bullying Week. The activities were "Walk in Someone Else's Shoes," "Wear White Day," "Band-Aids for Bullying," and "Anti-Bullying Pledges." The main messages were about sympathizing with the victim and understanding the importance of not being the bully. There were no directions for how bystanders could help.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who was involved in Sedwick's case said, "We don't want to criminalize this, nor do we want this to be a prediction for criminal action, but what we want to do is create a system, a method, an opportunity, so kids that are bullies, or kids that are victims of bullies are properly dealt with outside the criminal justice system," Again, he suggests the solution depends on the bullies and victims.

Facebook and other media sites are public; many people can view messages that others post. The bystander effect is the phenomenon where each individual observer is less likely to help a victim the more people are present. Thus, public media sites are breeding grounds for inaction.

A 2011 study by researchers at Ohio University, University of North Carolina, and University of Pennsylvania found that people are less likely to help someone if there is someone else present and if they strongly fear embarrassment. When a confederate of the study was present, participants were less likely to tell the experimenter she had ink on her face than when the participants were alone. Among the people that did help, those easily embarrassed were slower to help.

Facebook and many other social networking sites have an easy way to report inappropriate behavior including cyberbullying. According to University of Toronto researchers, in one of four cases of cyberbullying there is a third party observer. It is clear that cyberbullying is very prevalent and that there are many bystanders that have the potential to make a change.

Although educating the bullies and victims might be helpful, there has definitely not been enough attention paid to the role bystanders could play in preventing cyberbullying.

If no one speaks out against the bully, the bystanders interpret the lack of response as an acceptance of the behavior. People make decisions on how to act based on the actions of others. Thus, the lack of resistance is contagious. Simultaneously there is a diffusion of responsibility because there are so many people on media sites and no one feels that it is her/his responsibility to speak up. This combination leads to great inaction by the observers.

Anti-cyberbullying campaigns should focus more on the bystanders. They should emphasize that no one should encourage or support the bully and that it is each individual's responsibility to intervene when she/he witnesses cyberbullying.

Helping a victim should be seen as something positive and empowering, not embarrassing. Further, it should be portrayed as what should be done and what is done.

Once one person helps a victim, the false consensus is destroyed and others are much more likely to also help the victim. Observers could calmly confront the bully, support the victim, or use an anonymous resource to report the bullying. These are simple and effective steps that are likely to spread and become even more powerful.

Even if the current campaigns are preventing some bullying, they are not eliminating it. In order to end bullying, the observers need to play a more prominent role. The current bystanders can become active fighters in stopping and preventing future cyberbullying.