We have looked at bullying from the perspective of the victim and the bully. However, there is another group of people who can have a profound impact on the behaviour of bullies but they are often completely unaware of this fact. These are the people who witness bullying, the Bystanders.
The majority of bullying incidents occur in front of witnesses, particularly bullying that takes place among children. Research has shown that for this age group there are witnesses present for over 80% of bullying incidents recorded.
In many respects, we should not be surprised at this statistic. Understanding the psychological make-up of the bully helps us to know why bystanders are present in so many cases. Bullies are often engaging in this behaviour to demonstrate their power over others, so bullying without an audience would be a pointless exercise for them. To remove the audience from the bully in many ways is as effective as removing the oxygen from a fire. However, there is one characteristic of this group that the bully depends upon: it is that the audience or bystanders remain passive or silent.
Research across continents in relation to bystanders shows remarkably similar results. Over 80% of those who witness bullying behaviour say they felt very uncomfortable while watching it. Two thirds of those who witnessed bullying said they would have liked to intervene but didn’t. Of those who did not intervene, almost 80% said they later regretted it. Of those who expressed regret at not attempting to prevent the bullying, among the many reasons cited for failure to intervene are the following;
- Fear of becoming the next victim
- They are unsure how their peers would react
- They feel it wouldn’t do any good.
Neglecting to intervene can be seen by both the bully and the victim as tacit support for the bullying behaviour. The victim is not aware that the majority of the spectators feel uncomfortable with what they are witnessing- to the victim the onlookers can be viewed as participants in the bullying rather than potential allies in preventing it. This is where awareness of the potential impact of bystander intervention becomes a crucial element in both supporting the victim and in changing bullying behaviour.
Impact of Bystander Intervention
One of the most positive and hopeful findings from research is the powerful impact that the intervention of bystanders can have in stopping incidences of bullying. Despite the feelings expressed by bystanders that it will not have any influence on bullying behaviour, the impact of even a minor intervention can be profound. In fact, it normally is highly effective.
The intervention need not be physical, and indeed it is generally more effective if it is not. Simple verbal comments such as “that’s not fair” or “that’s not funny” have been proven to be remarkably effective in stopping incidences of bullying. So effective is such intervention that where one person has the courage to say something like “stop it”, in over 50% of situations the bullying behaviour ceases within 10 seconds.
“Bullying stops in less than 10 seconds, 57% of the time when peers intervene on behalf of the victim” (Pepler et al, 1997)
Even if the bully persists on this occasion, the fact that he or she has been challenged in their behaviour, means they may be more reluctant to engage in such behaviour in future as they are now aware that they do not have universal approval for their actions from their audience.
So effective has this form of intervention been in stopping bullying that entire anti-bullying campaigns have been organised around this simple practice. For example, in Australia, the Alannah and Madeline Foundation has pioneered the Say Something Campaign that encourages people to speak up against bullying. By having the courage to speak out, a person is showing opposition to the bully and support for the victim at the same time. This simple act often empowers the person being bullied to take positive action to prevent the bullying, secure in the knowledge that he or she has support.
Speaking out also helps to create an environment where people feel confident and supported in challenging bullying behaviour. As a spokesperson for the Alannah and Madeline Campaign said, “When bystanders stand up to bullying, it really helps the person being bullied and the bullying behaviour is more likely to stop. We are encouraging people to find a voice for someone who can’t find theirs”.
In addition to speaking out, there are many other positive steps that the bystander can take to support the person being bullied:
- Moving towards the victim or leading him or her away from the person carrying out the bullying is a powerful and effective form of support.
- If the bullying does not stop, it is best to set an example by walking away.
- Encourage other bystanders to walk away also. By denying the bully an audience, there is no one left to impress with their show of power.
- Speak to the victim after the incident. Encourage him or her to talk to an adult or person in authority. If they feel unable to do this, ask them if they would like you to speak to someone on their behalf.
- Remember, informing a trusted adult or person in authority is not “telling tales”- it is a positive step in confronting the problem of bullying.
“Bullying is not about anger . It is not a conflict to be resolved, it’s about contempt –a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior or undeserving of respect. Contempt comes with three apparent psychological advantages that allow kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion or shame. These are: a sense of entitlement that they have the right to hurt or control others, an intolerance towards difference, and a freedom to exclude, bar, isolate and segregate others” (Barbara Coloroso, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander).