Behaviour - Protect the witnesses

Bystanders are victims of bullying, too, and their experience should be explored in the classroom

Ian Rivers

When bullying occurs, it is easy to forget that it often does so with an audience. Be it in the playground, classroom or on social media, it is rare that others are not watching the events occur, and more often than not those others stand silently by, though on occasion they can be drawn in to become part of the bullying - as bully or victim.

The role of the bystander has been the subject of little research. Most studies on bullying tend to ignore bystanders and presume that, unless they support the target of the bullying or the perpetrator, they remain largely unaffected by the antisocial behaviour they see. This is not the case.

In a study I conducted with colleagues from Boston College in the US and York St John University in the UK, we found that students who witness bullying experience depression and anxiety. The most severe negative reactions were found in those who had been perpetrators or targets in other bullying incidents.

This highlights a real issue in the way bullying is handled in schools. When addressing a bullying incident, it is often easiest to deal with the main protagonists, rather than consider that others are involved and, perhaps, hurting. Often there is not enough time in the day to bring students together as a class or a year group to discuss an incident, yet it is crucial. Without talking it through and allowing students to express their opinions and concerns, two issues arise.

First, important information about the difficult nature of the relationship between the perpetrator and the target may be missed, and without this information efforts to resolve the conflict can be hindered.

Second, it is vital that some assessment is made of the class as a whole and its response to the incident. Who is quiet? Who is vocal? Are there indications of distress? Defence mechanisms used by bystanders to protect themselves after an incident include becoming perpetrators (perhaps in a secondary or supporting role) and becoming less visible or more withdrawn. Those who isolate themselves risk becoming targets as they stop sharing common experiences with classmates.

So where in a busy curriculum can these issues be discussed? Personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE) is, of course, the starting point. In its report entitled No Place for Bullying, England's schools inspectorate Ofsted recommends that schools use their PSHEE and citizenship curricula to teach about difference and respect for others, and adapt those curricula to address issues associated with diversity and bullying within the school and wider community. Schools can use PSHEE and citizenship classes as forums to ensure that the bystander role in bullying is addressed effectively.

These issues can also be explored in sex and relationships education (SRE). Good SRE ensures that children and young people understand love and intimacy, but it can also be used as a forum for discussions of difference and diversity, challenging attitudes and beliefs that may result in bullying. If we are truly concerned about the messages that bystanders receive and perhaps act upon when bullying occurs, SRE can address misinformation, promote diversity and difference, and assure bystanders that their school condemns bullying.

Research has shown that students' engagement or identification with their school, its philosophy and its values is incredibly important in combating bullying. Bystanders represent the majority of students in any school, and if they identify with the mission and aims of the school, and say "no" to bullying, then perhaps we can really begin to tackle the problem.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development and head of the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in London. He is also visiting professor at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Strathclyde.

In short

  • Students who witness incidents of bullying may be affected by what they see to a point where teachers need to offer support as they would to a victim.
  • Bystanders can also be drawn into the incident itself, or become targets.
  • Schools need to address the role of the bystander directly through the curriculum, taking care to watch how different students react in the discussion process.
  • Engaging with bystanders is crucial, as they make up the majority of students involved - be it indirectly - in a bullying incident.
    • What else?

This video offers advice for bystanders to bullying. bit.lyBystanderAdvice

Read a feature on a community approach to tackling bullying. bit.lyCommunityFightback


Rivers, I and Noret, N (2013) "Potential suicide ideation among bystanders of bullying behavior", Journal of Adolescent Health, 53 (Supplement 1), S32-S36

Rivers, I, Poteat, VP, Noret, N and Ashurst, N (2009) "Observing bullying at school: the mental health implications of witness status", School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211-223.

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Ian Rivers

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