Bullying and the Role of the Bystander

crimeOctober is National Bullying Prevention Month. Many organizations, including Middle Earth, are working to increase awareness of the prevalence and impact of bullying on all children. While this blog has covered many aspects of bullying in the past (see past topics on bullying), today’s article is focusing on an aspect of bullying that is not always discussed: the bystander.

So much information on bullying focuses on the bully and the victim that we might feel like we don’t have to pay attention if our child doesn’t fit into one of those roles. However, EVERY child fits in the role of the bystander at some point in their life, and it’s a role that has a significant impact on the problem.

Bystanders are people who witness bullying or cyberbullying in action, but who just watch and do or say nothing. Studies show:

  • Bullying takes place in front of an audience of other kids almost 90% of the time.
  • Children who are bystanders intervene only 20% of the time, even though most of them want to do something to stop the bully.
  • If a bystander discourages the bully, there is a 50% chance that the bully will stop.

Bystanders, then, represent a major opportunity! If we can get more people to intervene when they see troubling behavior, we might be able to make significant progress in reducing bullying incidents.

Reasons Bystanders Don’t Act

Common reasons children give for not intervening in a bullying situation are:

  • “Someone else will stop it.” Kids often assume that adults have the only responsibility for intervening to end bullying. Unfortunately, most bullying occurs where adults are not present.
  • “If I say something, the bully will start bothering me!” Unfortunately, sometimes doing the right thing for someone else results in the wrong thing for you. Teens, especially, are sensitive to intimidation and embarrassment, and they don’t want to become the next target. They’re afraid of retaliation or fear that their own group will exclude them for helping an outsider or for being a ‘snitch.’
  • “I don’t like what she is doing, but she is still my friend.” Sometimes the bystander is a friend of the bully. They might realize their friend is wrong, but they don’t want to get in a fight with their friend.
  • “I don’t really know them.” One justification for not intervening is that the teen doesn’t know either the bully or the victim, so it’s not their place to get involved.
  • “I don’t want to stand out.” Most tweens and teens spend the majority of their time trying to blend in with the crowd and want to “be normal” with their peers.
  • “I don’t know what to do to make it stop.” Bullying is an intense situation and it can feel overwhelming and confusing. Kids need specific instructions on what to do in common bullying situations if they are to feel empowered to act.

Without any education or support from adults, the vast majority of children will not take any action if they witness bullying.

Empowering Bystanders to Intervene

Bystander intervention is the idea that everyone can play a role in stopping bullying and harassment. But, for teens to buy into this idea of stepping into a potentially difficult situation, they need to believe two things: 1) bullying is wrong, and 2) intervening in a bullying situation can make a real difference. Parents should reinforce these values at home and role model them in their own lives.

Teens who witness bullying are put into a difficult situation. They may want to help, but they are afraid or not sure what to do. Discuss the following key strategies with your teen:

  • Don’t be an audience. Many times, bullies are encouraged by the attention they receive from bystanders. One of the most important things a teen can do in a bullying situation is avoid becoming an audience. That means your teen should not stare, laugh, video the incident, or post information about the incident online. Instead, your teen can act disinterested and walk away, or blatantly state that they don’t think bullying is entertaining.
  • Support the victim. Victims of bullying often feel very alone. Showing a victim a little support can make a big difference in their life. Possible ways to show support are: sending a kind message later that day, offering the victim a seat at the lunch table, walking to class together, inviting the victim to participate in an activity, or generally acting friendly.
  • Redirect the bully. If your teen knows the bully, he/she can try to redirect them to a different activity. For example, if your son is on the football team with the bully, he might remind the bully that they’re late for practice.
  • Help the victim get away. A bystander can sometimes offer the bully’s target a way to leave the scene. For example, your teen might say that a teacher is on their way to the area or tell the victim that “Mr. Smith” asked to see them right away.
  • Gather support. There is strength in numbers. Encourage your teen to talk to their friends at school to see if they can agree to intervene in bullying situations. Every school and every community has more caring kids than bullies. A bully would very likely back down if faced with a group of teens who were saying his actions were uncool.
  • Report the incident. Encourage your teen to tell a trusted adult whenever they see a bullying situation (especially if it is still occurring and an adult could intervene to stop the behavior). If the adult they confide in does nothing, tell your teen that they should try telling another adult. In fact, sometimes talking to several adults – teachers, coaches, the school principal, parents, and counselors – can have the best effect. Remind your teen that they can ask these adults to avoid naming them, so that they are not afraid of being labeled a snitch.
  • Set a good example. Your teen can be a role model in their school simply by being kind to others, not encouraging any bullying behavior, and participating in anti-bullying projects.


Bystander Intervention Can Also Prevent Sexual Assault

For teens, bystander intervention comes into play in even more situations than bullying. Imagine for a moment that your teenage son is at a party. He notices one of his peers encouraging a teen girl to drink several alcoholic beverages. Later, he notices that this boy is leading the very drunk girl toward a bedroom. Will your son intervene? Does he give the boy a thumbs up or does he pull him aside and prevent a date rape? As you can see, bystander intervention not only protects bullying victims, but also can prevent other serious actions, such as sexual assault.

Final Thoughts…

In summary, bullying is everyone’s problem to solve, not just the aggressor’s or the victim’s problem. If we truly want to change the bystander culture in our society, we must raise children who believe that no one deserves to be mistreated and that stopping bullying is just as much their responsibility as anyone else’s. Remind your teen that if he/she witnesses bullying and does nothing, he/she is sending a message to the bully that their behavior is acceptable. Teaching people to intervene, instead of standing by and watching, empowers each of us to play an important role in improving the environment in which we all live.

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