In Bullying Facts, Bullying Resources

How The Bystander Effect Could Promote Bullying

Bystander Effect

Bullying in school does not involve only the bullies and the bullied — it also involves students who just watch the situation happen like a YouTube video. While some kids feel compelled to help, most do not take action because no one around them do so, or they do not know what to do. Parents must understand that the bullying problem is not just about the bullies; the bystanders who do nothing but watch are also the problem. Thus, the bystander effect can make kids more passive instead of more proactive in dealing with bullying.

According to, bullies need and like bystanders because they prefer to bully others in front of their peers when adults are not watching. However, bullies are more likely to stop if the audience shows disapproval. Even when some kids want to help, they do not do so because they are confused or afraid of the bully or what others might think of them if they intervene.

When kids do nothing, bullies tend to feel more empowered and will continue to physically or verbally harass other kids. Understanding the bystander effect and resulting behavior can help parents address this issue with their kids and teach them to take more proactive roles.

How the “Bystander Effect” Started

The bystander effect refers to situations in which people are less likely to help those in need when there is a greater number of people around them. When people witness bullying, they are more likely to intervene to stop the bullying if there are few or no other witnesses.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley first identified the bystander effect, which was originally called “bystander apathy,” after conducting four experiments that observed how people behaved in different situations. In one of the experiments, participants waited in a room alone, with a friend, with a passive confederate who works with the experimenter, or with a stranger. There was also another room adjacent to the waiting room, which was separated by a curtain. While the participants waited, the experimenter entered the other room and turned on a tape recorder that simulated the sound of a woman moaning with an injured leg.

Latané and Darley found that 61 percent of the participants pulled back the curtain to check on the source of the sound, 14 percent entered the adjacent room through another door, and 24 percent just called out. Nobody reported the accident.

Among those participants who were alone, 70 percent reacted. However, only 7 percent of those with a passive confederate reacted. These participants tend to look at the confederate for their response. Only 40 percent of those who were paired with a stranger offered help.

Interestingly, 70 percent of the friend pairs help, which was the same as the solo group. Latané and Darley confirmed that “the risk of inappropriate behavior is less with friends.” Participants felt that they had less responsibility and pressure to intervene if they thought there were other people around — hence the diffusion of responsibility. People tend to monitor the other people around them to determine how to act.

This classic study was a response to the homicide of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, in 1964, when 38 people witnessed the crime from their apartment windows and did not help the victim. No one even called the police.

Could Anti-Bullying Programs Help Increase Proactiveness?

The spotlight on bullying prevention is not just on the bullies. Bystanders who took action to stop bullies had very positive effects in reducing the bullying incidences and the bystander effect in schools. A meta-analysis that was published in School Psychology Review(2012) analyzed 12 school-based bullying prevention programs that involved almost 13,000 students that ranged from kindergarten to high school.

Researchers Joshua Polanin, Ph.D., Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., and Therese Pigott, Ph.D., concluded that such programs increased bystander intervention significantly. The results suggested that bullying prevention programs should also focus on bystander intervention behavior, not just on the bullies’ behavior.

Some research shows that students themselves should take action in dealing with bullies rather than asking a teacher or another adult to intervene. A 2013 study of more than 9,100 New Zealand high school students that was published in Journal of School Violence showed that schools with students who took action to stop bullying had significantly less victimization and less reports on bullying.

However, schools that had students who reported to their teachers to take action instead showed no decrease in bullying or victimization. This evidence shows strong support that schools should adopt such proactiveness among students to curb bullying.

Why Should Bystanders Care?

Some kids and adults may think that bullying only affects the bullies and their victims. However, bystanders who repeatedly witness bullying may be more likely to suffer emotional and physical trauma and distress than those who witnessed less bullying. Penn State researchers JoLynn Carney, Ph.D., and Richard Hazler, Ph.D., said such trauma could affect bystanders for life. In Penn State News, Carney said that bullying can cause bystanders to “demonstrate physical stress symptoms of increased heart rate and perspiration as well as high levels of self-reported trauma even years after bullying events.”

Based on their research on the effects of bullying on bystanders that was published in Journal of Humanistic Counseling (Fall 2011), Carney and Hazler surveyed 91 sixth graders from a rural Midwestern school about their exposure to bullying. Aside from the students’ demographic information, the survey asked about specific issues relating to the bully’s target and being a witness to bullying during the students’ academic year.

Carney and Hazler found that all the students in the survey were either bullied or had witnessed bullying. All had repetitive exposures to bullying. They also found that trust among the students was significantly related to more witnessing of bystander interventions and less bullying exposure.

In another study by Carney and Hazler, the researchers found that bullying is associated with anxiety levels and stress hormone activity right before lunch, a time when students have a higher expectation of being bullied or witnessing bullying. The study, which was published in Journal of School Violence (Spring 2010), also involved 91 sixth graders, who were given written self-reports on their physical symptoms before lunch. Students wrote a variety of responses, such as worrying about what other people think of them, staying away from things that upset them, and increased heart rate.

The researchers also took the students’ cortisol levels — a stress hormone — from their saliva and found that the combination of bystanding and bullying exposure was related to lower cortisol levels right before lunch.

Carney mentioned in Penn State News that this study shows that exposure to bullying repetitively can affect the physiology, which can lead to “physical symptoms and influence behavior, as well as potential future physical and social implications.”

Everyone, not just the bullies and the victims, are affected by bullying. It leads to lifelong social mistrust and damaged relationships that can cause a chain reaction of relationship problems that permeate into adulthood. Hazler said that trust was higher among students who were less exposed to bullying.

“Traumatic life experience is one of the strongest factors that reduce trust in other people, and study results suggest that a similar effect for school-age children may be related to the trauma caused by bullying,” said Hazler in Penn State News.

Tips for Parents

Parents and other family members can empower and educate their children about bullying and the bystander effect.

Take charge of the situation. Irene van der Zande, founder of Kidpower, emphasizes that kids should be more proactive and take charge of some emergency situations rather than relying on the crowd to initiate action. Instead of getting stuck in the group mentality, or “hive mind,” teach them other ways to respond to bullying. For example, if the kids are peers with the bullies, they could suggest other things to do rather than picking on people. If they do not want to call attention to themselves, they could walk away quietly and get help from an adult, van der Zande suggests.

Be directive and speak up. Kids can learn to call out simple orders for others to take action. Tell people to take action directly, and they are more likely to help, which can break the bystander effect. Teach kids to call out to bystanders to do specific tasks, such as calling 911 on their cell phone or call others to help them. If they are being attacked physically, teach them to yell at the person to stop or leave. They can even yell out the attackers’ physical descriptions and what is going on.

Showing verbal disapproval (“That’s mean!” “That’s not kind!”) will more likely generate agreement among other bystanders, which can make bullies stop attacking. Kids can also distract or deter bullying by shouting an adult is coming (“Police!” “Teacher’s coming!” “My dad’s here!”)

Avoid physical confrontation and walk away. Remember that bullies enjoy having an audience, which will promote their bullying behavior. Walking away from bullies and ignoring their put-downs and name-calling are the first lines of defense to avoid any physical confrontations that can lead to injury and trouble for both parties. stated on its website that walking away is not a sign of cowardice; it is a way of telling bullies that they do not matter and the potential victims and bystanders do not care. Teach kids to walk away with their head and posture held high to avoid certain body language that may show vulnerability to bullies. Before they walk away, have kids encourage others to leave, too. Being passive bystanders will reinforce bullying behavior.

Be assertive and talk about it. If the kids know the bullies, they can talk to them privately, asking what is going on, suggests KidsHelpPhone, which is a free, anonymous, and confidential online and phone counseling service for kids and teens based in Canada. If they do not feel comfortable enough to talk to the bullies, they can always talk to the teachers, school administrators and counselors, and their parents. Never remain silent when someone is bullied.

Avoid name-calling or mirroring the bullies’ aggressive behavior since it can backfire upon those who intervene. When the bullying is over, kids can talk to the victim and offer help or support. Gaining support and befriending victims can deter future bullying as long as the victims and their new friends do not engage in bullying behavior toward the bullies.

Raise awareness. Getting people to be aware of bullying and take action to prevent it from happening will more likely reduce bullying than doing nothing. Bystanders can combat bullying by joining their school’s anti-bullying or violence program, said KidsHealth. If the school does not offer such programs, students should start one on their own. Parents can help by working with the teachers, administrators, and other parents to help their kids deter bullying.

Being a bystander can promote bullying behavior. Taking the initiative to stop or deter bullying is one major step in reducing school violence, which will lead to a reduction of violence and related problems in society. Kids who are proactive bystanders can make a big difference in other kids’ lives — both the victims and the bullies — while making an example for other bystanders.

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