If You are a Bystander

Bystanders are a major part of the bullying problem.  66-85% of bullying takes place in front of others.

I’ve realized that you become a bully if you are just watching someone get bullied and you don’t say anything.


Types of Bystanders

There are different types of bystanders – some active and some passive.  They all reinforce the bullying and are part of the problem.

  1. Some bystanders participate in starting the bullying, for instance by prodding or encouraging the bully
  2. Some bystanders laugh or give attention to the bullying thereby providing an audience and encouraging the bully
  3. Some bystanders join in the bullying once is started, which can range from physically bullying the target to excluding them from a group or “piling on” in cyberbullying.
  4. Most bystanders are silent or turn away

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.


Why Do Bystanders Stand By?

There are a number of natural reasons that people choose to be bystanders vs. being upstanders.  These reasons have more power when a bystander feels like they would be acting alone. 

  1. 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;
  2. Some fear that stepping in will make them a target for the bully
  3. Some believe that stepping in would only make things worse
  4. Some don’t recognize the bullying behavior for what it is
  5. Some believe that telling an adult would be “ratting” someone out – being a “tattletale.”
  6. Some have tried to step in and had little effect or adults have not responded, so don’t believe their actions really matter
  7. Some just don’t know what to say or do.
  8. Some are afraid of retaliation or fear that their own group will exclude them for helping an outsider
  9. Sometimes bystanders believe the target deserves to be bullied

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”


Impact of Bullying on Bystanders

Bystanders who do not become upstanders can become victims of bullying, even if they aren’t the target.  There are several experiences they can have that can be uncomfortable or highly problematic.

1. Increased Feelings of Fear and Anxiety.  Teens who consistently witness bullying and do not find the courage to become upstanders can experience a good deal of fear and anxiety – even though they are not the target.  The background anxiety that is generated can be complemented by specific fears of becoming a target.  They can end up living with a sense of insecurity that can cause a surprising degree of psychological damage.

Fear and anxiety can also cause a high level of stress that can cause bystanders to lose interest in school and other activities and even skip school or see decreases in grades. 

If bystanders can overcome their fears or anxiety and intervene, they can replace those emotions with a sense of empowerment.

2. Guilt.  Bystanders know that bullying is wrong and that they should do something to stop it.  When they fail to act on their values and intervene, they can experience a strong sense of guilt or shame.  Like fear and anxiety, guilt and shame can significantly impact a bystander’s sense of esteem and even lead to self-destructive behaviors.

If bystanders can become upstanders, they can become part of the solution vs. part of the problem and replace the guilt with a sense of pride.

3. Restricted Emotions.  Failing to act when others are hurt by bullying can cause bystanders to pull back or dull their emotions.  In trying to avoid the fear and anxiety or shame and guilt, the highs and excitement can be undermined.  Caring and empathy can be dulled even to the point of beginning to blame the target.  Boredom can outweigh interests. 

If bystanders can become upstanders, they can afford to be more aware of their emotions and be more interested and engaged in life.

4. Impact on the Three Core Challenges.  Being a bystander can affect all three of the core challenges on the teen heroic journey.  Being a bystander can undermine identity – “I am a person who stands by…vs….”  Relationships can be handicapped by the lack of empathy, lack of confidence, sense of guilt and fear or anxiety about what to expect from others.  Competencies – particularly related to relationships and self-management – can be undermined by the lack of awareness and engagement and diminished self-esteem and confidence. 

If bystanders can become upstanders, none of those factors need to get in the way of their meeting the three core challenges.

In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Martin Luther King,

Most bystanders want to do the right thing. If you as a peer, parent or educator want to help put an end to bullying and support the bystanders, the best strategy is to empower the bystanders to do what they know is the right thing.   Let them know that they are the best protectors of their peers and support them in taking the initial actions to get involved.

Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success.

Johann Wolfgang von

We Need Bystanders to Become Upstanders.

Upstanders are the single most powerful force in preventing and countering bullying.  Whether you are a bystander or an upstander, you are involved and your choices and behaviors matter.

  1. As a teen, you can choose whether to be a bystander or upstander – and you can prepare yourself to be an effective upstander.
  2. As a target, you can ask people to be upstanders and support you – and you can give them ideas about how to do that.
  3. As a parent, you can guide your teenager in being an upstander, in engaging upstanders to support your son or daughter if they are a target and you can be an upstander
  4. As an educator, you can work to create a culture in your school that supports upstanders, works effectively with targets and challenges bullies. 

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring – all of which have the power to turn a life around.