Bullies Thrive When Spectators Do Nothing

Bullies do not operate in private. They love an audience, preferably an audience of supporters who view a bully's aggression as a spectator sport. Yet even passive bystanders, who are often mistaken as bullying enthusiasts, promote the toxic social consequences of this dangerous, sometimes deadly, behavior.

Swearer and Hymel in “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying” (2015) describe it as “a unique but complex form of interpersonal aggression.”[i]  They aptly describe it as not merely a relationship between a bully and the victim, but a group event occurring within a social context where multiple factors operate to “promote, maintain, or suppress such behavior.”

One of these factors is the presence of others who are in a position to either cheer on the bully, or intervene on behalf of the victim.  Such intervention is absolutely necessary, given the fact that families and even school officials have limited control over bullying behavior, particularly when it happens after school, and off campus.  Yet there are nonetheless steps they can take.

School as a Safe Zone: Culture of Empowerment

Although parents can create the most supportive home environment an adolescent could wish for, they have limited control over what happens at school. Fortunately, school administrators are becoming increasingly vested in creating and maintaining a bully-free zone for students. This commitment includes a heightened awareness and perception of behavior on school grounds. 

Districts can take steps to gauge the frequency and severity of bullying by proactively assessing the situation in their area. They can collect local data and work with community partners, law enforcement, and parents, to gather the necessary information. 

Schools can also fight back against bullying by creating a positive school climate where young people feel connected and safe. They can enact anti-bullying policies and provide training for staff and students to increase recognition of bullying behavior, and learn the best methods to intervene, or to report it. 

In raising awareness and support for anti-bullying efforts, schools can enlist the help of students, faculty, adult mentors, and the community at large.[ii]  

Yet one of the most significant components of an anti-bullying campaign is a commitment to intervention. Efforts to stop bullying should discourage spectators, and encourage victim protection. 

Bullying is Not a Spectator Sport: Don't be a Bystander

Most people have witnessed an incident of bullying. The key word is witnessed.  Unfortunately, given the prevalence of bullying in schools today, the majority of witnesses are bystanders, not rescuers.  

Swearer and Hymel (2015) discuss the role of peer influence on bullying, note that bystanders often respond in ways that encourage, rather than discourage, bullying. This includes passively watching bullying behavior, which can be interpreted as condoning the bullying. They note that bystanders are viewed as a critical resource in the attempt to stop bullying, and peer support is an important component of anti-bullying efforts in schools.

Many teenagers are afraid to intervene in the bullying behavior of others or stick up for a bullied victim for fear of compromising their own social status. Yet some research indicates that students who stick up for victims can actually become more popular. 

Schoolyard Superheroes: Defending Bullying Victims Can Boost Popularity

A recent study by ven der Ploeg et al. (2017) researched the bullying dynamic among Finnish elementary school children in grades 4 to 6, in relationship to popularity.[iii]  Although recognizing the unfortunate reality that most students do not defend bullying victims, they found students who did, became more popular. They found no difference between defenders who had been bullied themselves, and those who had not.

Swearer and Hymel also note that individuals who defend bullying victims are usually more popular and better liked by victims, as well as the larger peer group. They suggest that high social status may generate the confidence necessary to intervene to protect bullying victims without worrying about retaliation.

Schoolyard Superheroes Save Lives

Bullies should be spotted and stopped. Adolescents who intervene in bullying behavior do more than allow a victim to save face, they can save a victim's life.  Standing up for victims raises awareness, inspires others to follow your lead, and discourages bullying behavior. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin's Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, the psychology of attraction, and reading red flags. She also teaches workplace violence and all aspects of threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD.

References

[i] Susan M. Swearer and Shelley Hymel, “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying: Moving Toward a Social-Ecological Diathesis-Stress Model,” American Psychologist 70, no. 4 (2015): 344–353.

[ii] For more information see https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/training-center/hrsa_guide_schoo...

[iii] Rozemarijn van Der Ploeg, Tina Kretschmer, Christina Salmivalli, and René Veenstra, “Defending victims: What does it take to intervene in bullying and how is it rewarded by peers?” Journal of School Psychology 65 (2017): 1-10.

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