Bystander to bullying can be one of the most controversial or dismissed roles when it comes to the problem with bullying. The typical advice children, teens and even adults receive is to “mind your own business”. “Don’t get involved”. However, there really is no such thing as an “innocent” bystander according to research. Nor are all bystanders alike.
According to Dr. Dan Olweus, creator of one of the leaders in bullying research and programming, there is a ‘bullying circle“. Of note, meta-analysis (the research looking at all the other research) shows the Olweus program is one of the best programs anywhere. It’s used around the world. Dr. Olweus’s bullying circle talks about these types of bystanders:
- Supporters/passive bullies: these are people who don’t take any active part in the bullying but support it in a way that others can note as supportive.
- Passive supporters/possible bullies: these are people who aren’t taking an active part, don’t show open support per se but like the bullying.
- Disengaged onlookers: these are the people who watch what’s going on, take that “mind your own business” attitude and don’t take any stand. They may pretend it’s not bullying to ease ease their minds.
- Possible defenders: these are the people most likely to move to being upstanders. They don’t like the bullying and they think they should help but don’t move toward actually standing up to help. They may feel afraid to stand up but they are more clear that it would be the right thing to do.
- Defenders: these are not really bystanders but are the upstanders. These are the people who step in and defend the bully target in some way. We want all witnesses to be defenders, or upstanders.
Why is it a problem to be a bystander anyway?
First, although peers are involved in 85% of all bullying episodes, they only intervene about 13% of the time. That means there is a large percentage of bystanders and only a small percentage of upstanders. Second, bullies gain reinforcement for their behavior when they have an audience even if that audience isn’t overtly supportive. Third, when people see that bullying doesn’t have negative consequences and can elevate social status (an audience is necessary for that), that increases the potential that one of the bystanders will actively participate as a bully in the future. Bystanders send a message of acceptability for the bullying behavior which gets internalized by everyone. Finally, bystanders ultimately contribute to taking away individual responsibility for the bullying behavior, decreases the guilt felt by the bully and increases the negative labeling put onto the bullying target.
Internally, bystanders suffer in their sense of self respect when they do nothing. If that doesn’t happen, then they are likely to rationalize the bullying as acceptable which helps break down social norms of kindness and civility. It becomes a vicious cycle but either way there are no winners.
How to help create upstanders:
1) Adults have to be teaching everyone that being a bystander without intervening is being complicit with bullying. We need to teach that doing nothing is not the right choice. “Stay out of it” is not the right advice and it helps keep bullying going. Teach kids they have a moral responsibility to do their part to stop mistreatment of others.
2) Teaching intervention requires that adults stop excusing mistreatment or bully behavior. See the first article in this series here to learn how. It also requires that we are clear about what bully behavior looks like (see here to learn steps) so we are able to teach the difference between teasing and taunting, as an example.
3) All potential upstanders need to understand that one of the most powerful things to do to help is to physically go stand with the bully target. Look at the target in the eyes and convey to him or her that what is going on isn’t ok but he or she is not alone. Talk supportively and in an encouraging manner to the target. Physically standing with the target in a supportive manner is stronger than telling the bully to stop.
4) Bystanders need to tap into their own empathy to ask what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of the bully behavior. What would it feel like to see that others are standing by and not helping? If the answer is anything close to “it wouldn’t feel good” then something needs to be done.
If a friend is being mean or engaging in rumor mongering or cyber bullying, privately tell that friend the behavior isn’t cool. Taking away the increased social status or social power by overtly saying it’s not acceptable and not elevating them in a friend’s eyes helps. If you doubt this, think about how effective it is for teens to let peers know that smoking is disgusting. It helps prevent smoking onset better than anything else.
5) Make sure to have a diverse group of friends to prevent falling into believing stereotypes. Diversity includes gender, socio-economic status, race, religion and even leisure interests and age. Befriend those who are socially isolated. Get to know the person who is being targeted and you just might learn they could be a friend.
6) Don’t participate in gossip. Say something if someone says something untrue or unkind about another. Correct untruths whether you see them online or hear about them in person. When you hear others taunting or mocking, say something positive about the person targeted in addition to letting the bully or group know it’s not ok.
7) Finally, schools need to strongly reinforce a culture that is truly character building and not just on the surface. Clearly identifying expectations about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior helps. Strongly teach upstander behavior, including tips and have student boards (e.g., “upstander ambassadors“) to help educate other students on upstander behavior as well help support bully targets.
Do you have a story about how being a bystander affected you? How about a story about becoming or being an upstander? Tackling bullying effectively needs community. Share your stories below!