Study provides new insights into why cyberbullying victims are blamed for being abused online

New research helps explain why victims of cyberbullying often receive little sympathy or support. The findings, published in Computers in Human Behavior, suggest that people often interpret abusive comments as friendly teasing.

In the study, 164 undergraduates at a British university saw screenshots of eight artificial Facebook timelines, which contained varying levels of abusive comments from one or more “friends.”

“We asked the public to rate how much the abuse was the victim’s fault and people consistently perceived it was something about them, they were responsible for it or they provoked the abuse even though they’ve said something as mundane as ‘going out for dinner.’ It is really quite scary,” said study author Christopher J. Hand, a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that victims were rated most socially-attractive when bullied often by a single friend or when bullied infrequently by multiple friends.

“It may be the case that when observers view multiple interactions between online associates (either few posts by many individuals, or multiple posts by a single individual) in a closed environment (i.e., Facebook friends), that the communication is perceived as teasing, banter or a dark friendship – and the ‘victim’ is therefore perceived as more ‘socially-attractive’ (i.e.,they must be somewhat likeable to ‘receive the attention’),” the researchers explained.

A low volume of abusive posts from a single friend was also associated with greater victim blaming than a high volume from a single friend, and there was a strong association between attractiveness and victim blaming.

“It appears that the least socially attractive ‘victims’ are also the ‘victims’ who are held most culpable for their abuse,” the researchers noted in their study.

“We set out to test the relationship between attractiveness and blame. We found that if someone was more physically or socially attractive, they were less likely to be blamed for the abuse and got more sympathy,” Hand said.

“Our results could be due to an observer desensitization effect, or that participants interpreted the posts as indicative of friendly ‘teasing’ or ‘banter’ within an established social relationship.”

“A lot of comments are not horseplay, but malicious, and I think we need to understand about how we support people more. Everyone should be able to use social media safely and responsibly but we don’t see that,” Hand added.

The study, “The volume and source of cyberabuse influences victim blame and perceptions of attractiveness“, was authored by Graham G. Scott, Stacey Wiencierz, and Christopher J. Hand.