Huntington Lake, which lies 2,500 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountains southeast of Yosemite, has been the home of Boy Scout Camp Kern since 1939. The lake is a deep reservoir known for frigid, clear blue water and excellent fishing.
In late June of 1963, campers representing Troop 41 from the California desert were lining up for lunch at Camp Kern, when two scouts from the troop grabbed a third, stripped him naked, and dumped him at the feet of his troop mates.
Laughter immediately erupted among the assembled scouts as the naked adolescent scrambled to his feet and sprinted to his cabin to put on his uniform, and what was left of his dignity.
Among those laughing the loudest was the scoutmaster, an engineer in his late 40s and the father of one of the troop members, who yelled at the fleeing, naked youth, “10 demerits! You’re out of uniform!”
The laughter, already loud, grew even more raucous. Most of the assembled scouts had known the humiliated boy since kindergarten and didn’t like him much. His nickname since third grade was “Spaz," short for spastic. Spaz was wimpy, uncoordinated, socially inept, and a loudmouth in the classroom. He was widely regarded as the most unpopular kid in school.
In other words, to the assembled scouts who knew Spaz, he deserved everything he got. Spaz also had it coming when one of his fellow scouts set his hair ablaze after campfire the night before, and Spaz had been “begging for trouble” when Troop 41 abandoned him on a remote trail during a rest break on a hike the second day of camp.
I know Spaz’s camping story well because I see him every day—when I look in the mirror to shave.
Camp Kern was not the first nor the last time I was bullied growing up, and my takeaway from the experience wasn’t that no one watching me suffer cared, but that bystanders cared a lot: They thoroughly enjoyed and encouraged the spectacle. Even adults like my scoutmaster, who was supposed to protect me, liked a good show.
My sense then — and now — is that bystanders play an enormously important role in the victimization of bullied kids and that getting bystanders to change their behavior could significantly reduce bullying and its many ill effects. These effects include teen suicide (80 percent of adolescents who take their own lives were bullied), school violence (86 percent of school shooters had been “picked on”), and teenage depression, anxiety, and drug abuse — which often persist into adulthood.
Behavioral research backs me up: Over 80 percent of bullying incidents occur before onlookers, and 57 percent of school children report being witnesses to bullying every year. Also, interviews with bullies show that the presence of an audience is one of their main motivations to bully: Abusing a peer is a good way to enhance your reputation and to get respect, according to self-admitted bullies.
As at Camp Kern, most of the time bystanders either do nothing to stop bullying or actively encourage it with laughing, taunts, and congratulatory “high fives” to the victimizers. Studies of schoolchildren show that although few admit to enjoying the spectacle of bullying, many say that “it is not my job to stop it,” or fear direct retribution if they intervene, or later peer scorn as a “snitch” if they report bullying to adults.
And with good reason: Once, when I did muster the courage to report abuse by high school classmates during gym period, the gym teacher, who was one of the football coaches, snorted, “I hate whiners,” and made me lean against the wall as punishment, nose first, in front of the girls’ gym class.
Kids quickly learn that adults — like their fellow bystanders — often blame the victim, so they prudently do nothing to stop bullying while it’s occurring and keep quiet about it afterward.
But school surveys show that when bystanders do intervene, bullying incidents drop dramatically. In a comprehensive “naturalistic” study of schoolyard bullying, Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig found that bystanders intervened in bullying incidents only 19 percent of the time, but when they did step in — for example, by simply telling the bully to stop — bullying almost always ceased. Statistics collected by The American Society for the Positive Care of Children reveal that although bullying remains a major problem in schools despite widespread anti-bullying initiatives, incidents stop within 10 seconds 57 percent of the time when bystanders intervene.
A 2013 article by Padgett and Notar in the Journal of Educational Research, titled "Bystanders are the key to stopping bullying," outlines several strategies for encouraging kids to step in. Among these are:
- Videos that build empathy for bullying victims and model appropriate peer interventions. An effective video might tell the story of a bullied student who is terrified to go to school, but who, despite stomach aches, nightmares, and insomnia, somehow finds the courage to go in each day. Another kid in the story, who admires the courage of the victim, decides one day to step between the bully and the bullied child and say firmly, “Stop that.”
- Simulations, where students act out the roles of bullies, victims, and bystanders so that they can experience firsthand what each role feels like. Children can be shown effective bystander interventions such as coming together as a group — there’s safety in numbers — to insist bullies stop their abuse.
- Consistent and predictable behavior from teachers. In particular, teachers and other adults need to act on reports of bullying and not ignore or punish those who complain of bullying or report the bullying of others.
- Demonstrating to kids, through simulations or storytelling videos, that intervening can elevate the respect they receive from others. For example, a video about bullying could show bystanders giving high-fives not to a bully, but to a brave kid who gets between the bully and his victim.
This last measure could be the most effective because it gets at the heart of why most bullies bully and why onlookers do nothing about it: social status.
Successful bullies elevate their social status at the expense of their victims. Bystanders to bullying risk losing social status if they intervene — and may get beaten up themselves. They worry — with good reason — about losing “street cred” for snitching. Finally, bullying victims, for their part, have learned that “whining” to adults will only drive their miserable status lower.
My belief in the powerful connection between striving for social status and bullying is intensely personal. After suffering at the hands of bullies for years, and living at bottom of the social pyramid until I was 18, I felt a powerful need to elevate my social standing after escaping my hometown for college.
After college, I worked hard to ascend the corporate ladder, so I could — at long last — feel some self-respect.
But as I moved to successively higher positions of power, a transformation came over me: As often occurs with bullying victims, I became something of a bully myself. I never used — or threatened — physical violence, but I did engage in public, verbal put-downs of subordinates.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, my sole motivation for verbally abusing underlings was a belief that it would somehow elevate my standing among those witnessing the abuse. After all, since age 5, I’d seen this strategy work every time, whether on elementary-school playgrounds or in high-school locker rooms.
I didn’t modify my bad behavior until a fellow executive — not my boss, who had promoted me because he thought I was an “alligator” — told me over a beer that my put-downs had achieved exactly the opposite effect: Both subordinates and peers distrusted me. According to my colleague, I’d earned the secret nickname “Mr. Personality” for my pointed, denigrating comments during engineering design reviews and financial meetings.
I was horrified to learn that I’d traded being disrespected as a victim to being disrespected as a victimizer.
Among schoolchildren, almost nothing is more important than the respect and acceptance of their peers, so I believe peer respect is the carrot and, as in my case, the stick that can ultimately ease the bullying epidemic in schools and the workplace.
I’m not proud that I perpetuated the abused-becomes-abuser cycle when I rose to positions of power, but the painful experience left me with a strong conviction that in trying to reduce bullying, we should focus less on bullies, who will always be with us no matter what we do, and more on the audience that bullies play to.
After all, any play that no one attends will quickly be canceled.
Learn more about how to prevent bullying by focusing on bystanders at stopbullying.gov.
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