Bystanders: The Silent Majority

By Yana Belogiannis

Kids adopt specific roles in a bullying situation based on their personality traits, social expectations, family values and educational guidance. These roles give insight into their level of resilience; that is their ability to learn from and work through difficult experiences. Bullying is any intentionally hurtful act that repeatedly targets a particular individual by a person, or group of people, deemed more powerful. Bystanders are present in 85% of bullying incidences. The role of bystander, in the bullying paradigm, is an intriguing one and the focus of this article.

Political philosopher, Edmond Burke famously said "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Burke was on the money, but modern theorists worked out that the more people there were to witness a crime or wrong doing, the LESS chance there was that someone would get involved. This is known as the 'Bystander Effect' which came to light in 1964 following the murder of Kitty Genovese, in which dozens heard her being attacked but not one came to her aid or contacted the police.  A reduced sense of responsibility, due to an increase in observers, is only one reason why bystanders fail to intervene when they witness a wrong doing. They must also notice the situation, feel a desire to help and believe they are able to help.  

These elements are definitely present in school yard and online bullying. In all fairness to bystanders, they do have some legitimate reasons as to while they maintain their silence. It makes complete sense that they would see themselves as the next likely target of verbal, physical or cyber attacks and/or social exclusion. It is also possible that they may fear making the situation worse for the target or even be unsure as to how they can get involved. They are also likely to have family members or mentors that have modelled or promoted a bystander mentality such as "don't get involved in other people's business", or "stay away from people like that." This advice may be crucial in situations where a child or teen needs to maintain their safety, but in situations where there are multiple avenues of support for all involved, advice like this can perpetuate a culture of fear, apathy and ongoing humiliation.

Bystanders' avoidant behaviour not only services to enhance the target's humiliation and the bully's empowerment, but also decreases their own confidence in confronting fearful situations and lowers their empathy and moral responsibility. This can have serious consequences for their own relationships, achievements and resilience in working through life's unexpected hurdles.

Bullying is a long standing social and moral dilemma. It causes short and long term distress for all involved. Bystanders need to remember they are the majority and can effect positive change when united. In order to do this they need to know and like who they are and recognise that making a stance against peer humiliation is an important value to stand for. They also need to be aware and engage in the avenues of support available (e.g. individual and group counselling or restorative justice, anonymous reporting, online and telephone counselling agencies, involvement in school wellbeing initiatives).

Clear Horizons runs a fun and informative workshop for students, parents and educators called "Expel Bullying." Contact us for information on our "Expel Bullying" seminar.