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Fact Sheet

Bystanders’ role in bullying

What makes a bystander different from a victim or a bully?

Bystanders are very different from either victims or bullies mainly because they make a decision to stay on the outside of the situation. Whereas victims and bullies are directly involved, bystanders think that avoiding the conflict altogether is either the right move or the best thing for them personally.

How exactly is someone a bystander?

It is difficult to describe what makes a person a bystander. There are several things a person does, or does not do, that can make them a bystander.

  • Purposefully ignoring the event entirely;
  • Witnessing the event and choosing not to take the appropriate actions;
  • Witnessing the event thinking something on the lines of, “at least that person wasn’t me.”

What is so wrong with being a bystander?

Research on bullying has often concluded that it occurs most frequently in the presence of bystanders who choose to merely watch the events unfold instead of doing something. By being there, you may give bullies more incentive to embarrass and threaten their victims because they will have an audience.

Unfortunately, many people believe that being a bystander is the best option to take. There are many reasons for this.

  • Some may believe that the bullying scenario is “none of their business,” and therefore they choose not to take sides because it seems too nosy;
  • Others feel that stepping in will make them the new target for the bully, making it seem as though intervening would only make things worse;
  • There is also a fear that intervening in a bullying situation by telling a teacher or a counselor will give them the unwanted stigma of being a “tattletale;”
  • Bystanders may feel that intervening will also do little. This is especially true in students who have approached teachers before regarding bullying, only to find that no action was taken.

If you are in a bystander situation, how do you intervene?

Bystanders need to realize that bullying is a serious problem, and that a lack of action on their part will only give bullies more opportunities to torment their victims. Some argue that close to 50% of all bullying events stop when a bystander decides to intervene (Dr. Ken Rigby), which just further shows the importance of intervening. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you witness bullying.

Don’t assume that this is a private matter between the bully and the victim. Incidents of bullying, especially those that are frequent, are often not because of personal reasons;

Don’t combat violence with violence. It takes a lot of courage for someone to step up on behalf of a bullied person. However, don’t use insults or physical violence to defend the victim. Now is not the time to show off. You will most likely only make it harder for the victim

Do not get discouraged if you have already talked to the teachers and nothing happened. Keep trying. Teachers and other school authorities will respond if they find out that the bullying is becoming a recurrent problem. Try talking to other teachers and counselors so that you can get more people involved in trying to stop the situation;

If you feel that this is none of your business, put yourself in the victim’s shoes. Bullying can cause severe anxiety, depression, anger, and frustration in a person, and can turn their life into a nightmare. You wouldn’t want to feel that way.

Is stepping in yourself the only way? What if the bullies might try and attack you?

You should never step in to protect a bullied victim if it might also put your own safety at risk. If this is the case, you should talk to a teacher, counselor, or even the school principal if the problem keeps happening. Be sure to ask if you can speak to them in private, in case you are afraid of being the next target for bullies. Even if you are not directly stopping the bullying, by taking action and going to seek outside help, you are taking steps away from being a bystander.
To share your cyberbullying experience, either as a victim or bystander, register for the forums and post here.

For More Information

See our other fact sheets regarding bullying.

You can also check out the following links:

Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence
The National Youth Violence and Prevention Center


The following sources provided information for this fact sheet:

Dr. Ken Rigby and Dr. Bruce Johnson: “Innocent Bystanders?”
Dr. Debra Pepler: “Bullying Interventions: A Binocular Perspective.”

Last reviewed: Feb 27, 2013


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