The Courage to Stand Up to Bullying

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”   –Edmund Burke

When we picture “bullying”, the image that comes to mind is a single kid in front of their helpless victim, or maybe the bully has a group of supporters standing behind him or her. In these situations, it’s easy to blame the bully and point a finger at the friends, wondering how they could find joy in the misery of a peer. Take a moment though, and notice what lies on the edges of your mental picture.

The crowd. The rubberneckers. The “innocent bystanders” standing idly by – watching it all unfold. Surely there is some blame that lies with them too.

Bystander syndrome is the term coined for the phenomenon of standing idly by. This inaction not only perpetuates the act of bullying, but also adds to the prevalence of bullying in society. Bullying, it turns out, loves company.

Like most people, you’ve probably been a bystander. Unfortunately, it’s a common response. Many people see bullying happening right in front of them, and for a number of reasons, choose not to speak out or take action to stop the injustice. This passive response is an issue in and of itself, because most bullying happens in group settings where someone could step in to help. Bystanders, it turns out, are just as complicit to the act of bullying because bullies rely on an audience of their peers to validate their actions.

The role of the bystander in perpetuating bullying has been well documented. Tara Kuther, an associate professor of Psychology at Western Connecticut State University, has studied the difference in action when a person is alone versus when they are in a group: “Sometimes when people are in groups they might not do what they would do when they’re alone. They might not know what they should do.” As more people gather to see what’s going on, it becomes increasingly unlikely that any one person will act to intervene, even if they feel they should.

The bystander syndrome was first demonstrated by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, who conducted a study which demonstrated that the more bystanders present in a given situation, the less likely an individual was to intervene. This phenomenon occurs because of diffusion of responsibility (the notion that someone else will intervene, so I don’t have to) and social influence (the idea that we tend to act similarly to those around us).

The fact that we look to other to find out what to do is a given situation can actually work in a positive direction – assuming a single bystander works up the nerve to intervene. When someone stands up, it encourages others to do the same. Overcoming the bystander syndrome can be tough, especially in the adolescent years, for various reasons including social anxiety or fear of being ostracized by peers. Research from Ken Rigby, an adjunct professor of education at the University of South Australia and a bullying expert, has shown that only one in five children will intervene in the instance of bullying.

If we can equip more young people to stand up, we can dramatically reduce the instances of bullying that occur.

So what can be done to empower bystanders to decrease the instances of bullying? Research shows that equipping young people to recognize bullying is an important first step, followed by teaching strategies for how to safely intervene. Here are a few suggestions for addressing the bystander syndrome:

  1. Understand the bystander effect: Helping adolescents understand what bullying is, including the idea that being a bystander who takes a stand can make a difference. Research demonstrates that there is a 50% chance that a bully will stop if they receive discouragement from their audience.
  2. Give problem-solving strategies: Giving children the tools necessary to engage in constructive and cooperative problem solving can be beneficial. It can be incredibly tough, especially for students in school, to confront a bully. However, strategies taught through simple scenarios can greatly deter instances of bullying.
  3. Teach early intervention: Another step towards empowering the bystander is to teach children to stop bullying in its early stages. Instead of ignoring it, the bystander can try to diffuse the situation by simply asking the bully to stop or encouraging other bystanders to take a stand. By doing so at the outset, it’s less like likely that the bystander syndrome will take hold and affect the group’s behavior.
  4. Provide outside help: While there can be fear of repercussions in social settings, including the threat of being bullied, the bystander can seek outside help by telling a trusted adult, teacher, or counselor about instances of bullying.
  5. Distracting the bully: Another way to diffuse a situation is to distract the bully. This gives the person being bullied a chance to escape from the situation. Telling a joke or suggesting a fun activity for the group works well.
  6. Taking a stand: Another strategy for bystanders to take action can be to stand up for a target of bullying. This can take different forms, including joining them at times when bullying is likely to occur, listening to their concerns, and standing up for them in social situations.
  7. Being honest: Parents are responsible for having open and honest conversations with their children about the effects of bullying. This not only includes identifying bullying, but taking actionable steps towards empowering a bystander to take a stand in a tough situation.

The bystander effect can be overcome through awareness, discussions, and empowerment of people who find themselves in a situation where bullying is present. Research has shown that without a supporting audience, a bully is less likely to continue to engage in bullying behavior. The concept of bullying goes beyond the bully and the victim. It is just as important for bystanders to take action towards prevention and intervention.

Rigby, Ken, Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Davis, Stan and Julia, Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention. Research Press, 2007.

Latané, B. and Darley, J. M. (1970) The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.