Someone who witnesses bullying, either in person or online, is a bystander. Friends, students, peers, teachers, school staff, parents, coaches, and other adults working with youth can be bystanders. With cyberbullying, even strangers can be bystanders.
Witnessing bullying is upsetting and affects the bystander, too. Bystanders have the potential to make a positive difference in a bullying situation by becoming an upstander. An upstander is someone who sees what happens and intervenes, interrupts, or speaks up to stop the bullying.
Youth who are bullied often feel even more alone because there are witnesses who do nothing. When no one intervenes, the person being targeted may feel that bystanders don’t care or they agree with what is happening. There are many reasons why a bystander may not intervene, even if they believe that bullying is wrong. They may be afraid of retaliation or of becoming the target of bullying themselves. They might fear that getting involved could have negative social consequences.
Why bystanders intervene or not
There are many reasons why youth may or may not intervene or defend the target of bullying. Some reasons bystanders do not intervene or respond to the bullying include:
- Fear of retaliation and being bullied themselves.
- Fear of losing their social status.
- They are not friends with the target of the bullying.
- Lack of knowledge about the individuals involved, the incident, and whether they perceive someone to be right or wrong in the situation.
- Awareness about a specific situation that takes into account the people involved and information about their ongoing actions.
- They do not believe teachers or school staff will address the bullying.
- They believe that adults will make the bullying worse.
- They do not know what to do to intervene or address bullying.
Bystanders do intervene or defend the targets of bullying because:
- They are friends with the target of bullying.
- They are morally engaged and treat others with respect or believe “bullying is wrong” bullying.
- They consider how serious or dangerous the behavior is and how frequently it occurs.
- They view the target of bullying as innocent.
- They have empathy and sympathy for the target of the bullying.
- The believe teachers or school staff will appropriately address bullying.
Prevention and intervention tips
There are many things that witnesses to bullying can do to become upstanders. Here’s some suggestions to share with your kids:
Prevention steps include:
- Being inclusive by welcoming or inviting others to join their activities and groups.
- Being a role model for pro‐social behavior by showing kindness, respect, and empathy for others.
- Walking or sitting with or near vulnerable kids who may be targets of bullying.
- Getting involved with bullying prevention efforts at school or in the community.
One study shows that when bystanders defend the target of bullying and intervene, the bullying stops within 10 seconds more than half the time.
Bystander interventions during a bullying incident may include:
- Defending the target of the bullying.
- Intervening as a group to show there are several people who don’t agree with the bullying. There is strength in numbers.
- Changing the subject can shift the focus.
- Questioning the bullying behavior.
- Using humor to lighten up a serious situation and redirect the conversation.
- Openly stating an objection to bullying.
- Stating approval of the victim and validating their social status.
- Walking with the person who is the target of bullying to help diffuse potential bullying interactions.
- Watching this video to learn how to stand up to bullies:
Bystanders can address bullying after it happens by:
- Reaching out to check in with the bullied person to let them know they don’t agree with it and that they care.
- Reaching out privately to the person doing the bullying to express concern, if they feel safe to do so.
- Reporting the bullying to a trusted adult, parent, teacher, or school administrator.
Why standing up to bullies is good for your kids
Everyone involved in a bullying situation is affected. A recent study on cumulative experiences of bullying found that youth involvement in bullying over time—either as the one who bullies, the one who is bullied, or as a bystander who helps bullies—resulted in multiple negative outcomes. Negative outcomes for the targets of bullying included depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Bullying perpetrators and the bystanders who helped them over time were associated with increased aggression. All three groups experienced decreased levels of optimism about the future.
There’s some good news in the study that suggests becoming an upstander to bullying has positive impacts for youth who address bullying. Bystanders who helped the targets of bullying through pro-social behavior were associated with higher academic achievement, self-esteem, and future optimism. Taking action to address bullying could include things like confronting the perpetrator or telling a teacher. The study suggested that these bystanders also worried about being bullied next, but they felt good about helping.
Encouraging bullying prevention and intervention strategies can help lower the risk and consequences of bullying for all.
This article is based on the following articles: “Bystanders are essential to bullying prevention and intervention,” “Being an upstander Is linked to future optimism,” “Bystanders to bullying,” “Becoming an upstander to bullying just got easier!”