Sunday, September 11, 2011

Understanding the Role of the Bystander in Bullying Situations

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

So many anti-bullying programs focus on getting bullies to stop their abusive behavior or empowering victims. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors, but more and more researchers are starting to acknowledge the huge role that bystanders play in any bullying situation. Bystanders are important, according an article on the website, because bullying often takes place in front of peers, providing the audience the bully craves, but rarely happens in front of adults. Most bystanders want to stop the bullying but they don’t know how, or they are afraid. According to Ken Rigby, an expert in bullying, “Children on the whole feel bullying is wrong and unfair, and most want to intervene….”

According to an article
on, there are hurtful bystanders and helpful bystanders. Hurtful bystanders might
• instigate the bullying;
• encourage the bullying;
• join the bullying; or
• passively accept the bullying by watching it and doing nothing.
Helpful bystanders, on the other hand, might
• directly intervene; or
• get help.
Bystanders have a number of reasons for why they don’t get involved, including
• thinking the bullying is none of their business;
• fear of becoming a victim as well;
• feeling powerless;
• feeling like the victim deserves it or brought it upon him or herself; or
• they simply don’t know what to do.

What can be done to empower kids to become helpful bystanders? Rigby has a few suggestions. One thing he says is important is to help kids see that their peers think bullying is wrong, too. Once they realize that they aren’t alone in feeling this way, they might feel like they can band together to intervene. Rigby also advises teaching kids that intervening can make a real difference. There is at least a 50% chance the bullying will end if bystanders try to stop it. Once the bully realizes his/her audience disapproves, he/she is inclined to stop, much like an audience booing a performer offstage. Next, Rigby stresses the importance of general anti-bullying education. Without anything in place, bystanders might feel more compelled to encourage the bullying rather than stop it.

Author and counselor Stan Davis suggests bystanders tell an adult when they see bullying, even if it is something general like, “Please watch the locker room at third period. There are bad things going on there at that time….” Davis also says we need to eradicate the idea that telling an adult is tattling. He says, “It’s not tattling, it’s being a witness to a crime.” Another idea from Davis is to offer the victim a means of escape by saying something like, “Mr. Smith needs to see you right now.” Finally, he suggests offering support to the victim by sitting next to him/her in class, at lunch, or on the bus. Even a phone call to the victim at home saying, “…I saw what happened and I didn’t know what to do, but I don’t think you deserved it,” could be enough to show the victim that someone sees what is happening and he/she is not all alone. One caveat: Stan Davis does not advocate intervening physically. In situations where the bullying is getting physical, he says it is necessary to get an adult to intervene.

Bystanders who don’t get involved can end up being victimized themselves in ways they didn’t realize. They may feel pressure to join in bullying or anxious about talking to someone who is a victim of bullying. In addition, they might become overcome with guilt for staying out of the situation. It is imperative to create a culture that does not tolerate bullying. It is the largest group, the bystanders, who have the power to influence the culture. Once bullies realize their behavior is not socially acceptable, it will wane and hopefully come to an end altogether.

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