Bullying and cyber bullying usually involve 3 distinct personas—bullies, victims, and bystanders. The bully and victim roles are usually obvious in any such situations, but the role and impact of the bystander—the person who witnesses and opts out—can be less apparent. Bystanders possess more power than one might think.

In bullying and cyber bullying situations, bystanders can play an important role. They can be witnesses or encouragers to an aggressive action. Sometimes it may seem that if students are not initiating or engaging in problematic situations, they are doing what they should. However, this may not always be the case.

Bystanders: Contributors to the Problem or to the Solution?

Let’s take a closer look. Bystanders are those who observebullying. If bystanders merely stand on the sidelines and watch bullying occur and take no action to prevent it, should they be considered contributors to the problem? Some say yes. Bystanders don’t often share this viewpoint, yet it is an important one to discuss with students.

Reactions and Feelings of Bystanders

When witnessing a bullying incident, bystanders can experience a variety of feelings. Students can become upset by what is happening; yet others might actually enjoy watching it. Still other students are frightened by the retaliation of the oppressor if they should interfere, so they avoid reporting the situation to an adult. While it seems farfetched, some bystanders are influenced by the bully. This misplaced influence is perhaps due to insecurity or the need of the bystander to be part of a group, causing some bystanders to admire the strength of the antagonizer, so they do nothing. Other students are upset by their failure to stop the bully due to intimidation, or simply because they don’t know how.

Who Bears Responsibility?

As educators, we have a responsibility to engage in difficult conversations and provide all students with information, advice, and strategies for effectively dealing with bullying. All students should be educated on what steps to take in conflict situations. Do bystanders have a personal responsibility to intervene? Are bystanders supposed to protect the victim?

Teach students about the 6 pillars of character

A possible avenue for broaching this subject with students could be to review and discuss The 6 Pillars of Character (see illustration above). The third pillar, Responsibility, presents an opportunity for educators to expound on the importance of being responsible and doing the right thing when witnessing bullying behavior. Giving students an easy-to-understand illustration of the characteristics necessary for a safe and productive learning environment may cast a different light and make them think about their choice to merely observe or to take action.

8 Helpful Bystander Actions

What exactly are the appropriate actions for bystanders? What are the consequences of intervening or not? Being available to provide support for the bystander is important, as is being available to provide intervention to the victim and for the bully. Adults should remember how difficult it is for students to intervene in any situation when many are struggling to fit into this challenging and social environment called school.

Do NOT give your power away. See yourself as powerful!

Here are eight strategies to share with teachers and students during your discussion about bullying and cyber bullying.

  1. Walk away from watching a fight and invite others to do the same.
  2. Refrain from sharing a negative social media post, text or tweet—then “un-follow” the bully.
  3. Avoid giving your power away to anyone, especially to a bully, by giving them attention or the popularity they seek with harmful actions.
  4. Encourage and publicly praise students who exhibit natural leadership qualities when they silence onlookers or shut down gossip with positive conversations and compliments.
  5. Provide students a way to report an incident or concern to an adult “anonymously” so they’re not worried about retribution—telling is not tattling.
  6. Follow up with administrators who are responsible for reports of bullying to understand what has been done and if it was effective.
  7. Give students examples of bullying or conflict situations, then involve them in brainstorming ways these situations could’ve been resolved with bystander intervention.
  8. Educate all students about respect and empathy for fellow students by discussing reasons students may be acting out. Watch this short clip about empathy in today’s world.

We recently interviewed an elementary school counselor; she described telling students, “You can forgive people for bad behavior, but if they repeat the action it may be time to reconsider how much time you spend with them. Do NOT give your power away. See yourself as powerful!”

Bystanders Play a Crucial Role

Bullying situations can be quite complex. A logical conclusion is that bystanders can play a crucial role in preventing the escalation of this drama and conflict. Bystanders can choose to be contributors to bullying incidents, or be part of the solution. Let’s make it a priority to intentionally make a difference among students and stop this needless aggression!