Witnessing an incident of online bullying, bystanders are even less likely to intervene than in face-to-face situations, past research shows, but why? A new report from UCLA suggests a little victim blaming may be part of the reason. Observers on social media are less supportive of cyberbullying victims who have overshared, the researchers say.

The study worked like this: A research team led by psychologist Jaana Juvonen randomly divided its 118 study volunteers, all between the ages of 18 and 22, into four groups. Then, each group was shown a fictitious Facebook profile for an 18-year-old named Kate.

One group saw Kate make a negative personal disclosure about a relationship: "I hate it when you miss someone like crazy and you think they might not miss you back." Another group saw her make a positive disclosure: "I love it when you like someone like crazy and you think they might like you back." One group saw Kate make a negative comment about the HBO show Game of Thrones: "I hate it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you have to wait a whole week to watch more." And the final group saw her make a positive comment about the show: "I love it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you can't wait until next week to watch more."

In response to Kate’s post (no matter which one a participant saw), she received the same comment from a friend named Sarah — "Who cares! This is why nobody likes you." In turn, Sarah’s comment received six likes. At this point, the researchers asked the participants, 58 percent of them female, questions about this situation.

Exactly how did these silent observers view this online interaction?

Too Much Information

The majority of study participants considered Sarah’s comment an example of cyberbullying, the researchers discovered. However, depending on Kate’s original post, they varied in their response to the situation.

Online bystanders viewed Kate more negatively when she posted a highly personal disclosure, regardless of whether it was positive or negative, compared to when her post mentioned Game of Thrones. And, though differences were small, they showed less empathy for victimized Kate when her posts were more personal. Finally, whenever participants either blamed or felt less empathy for Kate, they also were less likely to express support for her, the researchers found.

Social media, just like real life, has unwritten laws, say the researchers. Oversharing is never acceptable to the crowd.

Source: Schacter HL, Greenberg S, Juvonen J. Who's to blame?: The effects of victim disclosure on bystander reactions to cyberbullying. Computers in Human Behavior. 2016.