The Role of Bystanders

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Depending on how bystanders respond, they can either contribute to the bullying problem or be part of the solution. Bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role, although some may think they do.

Hurtful bystanders may instigate the student who bullies or encourage him or her by laughing or cheering the bully behaviour. Some may actually join in the bullying behaviour once it begins. Most often, bystanders simply passively accept bullying by watching and doing nothing.

Canadian research suggests that 85% of bullying behaviour is witnessed by other students. But bystanders only try to stop bullying between 11 and 22% of the time. Helpful bystanders directly intervene or get help, by rallying the support of peers or by reporting the bullying to adults.

Bystanders who don’t intervene may think that the bullying is none of their business. Or they may fear getting involved, or feel powerless to stop the bully. They may not want to draw attention to themselves or they may think that telling adults won’t help or may actually make things worse.

Bystanders who don’t intervene or don’t report the bullying often suffer negative consequences themselves. They may experience anxiety about speaking to anyone about the bullying, powerlessness to stop the bullying, vulnerability to becoming the target of the bully or guilt for not defending the person being bullied.

It’s important to empower students to feel confident that they can be helpful bystanders. Parents can talk to their kids about how they can have a positive impact on a bullying incident. Young people need to know they will be supported by adults and this will make their proactive bystander’s role easier.

Young people also need to know that it is not wrong to let an adult know about a bullying incident. This is not ‘telling tales’ to trying to get someone else into trouble. The message has to be that it is the right thing to do.