Empower pupils to beat the bullies

Ian Rivers has gained international recognition for his research on bullying. Here, he looks at the role of the bystander

Ian Rivers

What are bystanders? Social psychology tells us that they are people who bear witness to an event and who, by their action or inaction, can change the outcome of that event.

Much of the research conducted on bystanders' behaviour has cast them as passive, almost anaesthetised, observers whose behaviour is very much secondary to the "event" taking place. While there has been much more interest in the role of bystanders in workplace bullying, it is only recently that school-based research has moved away from looking at their behaviour - or the lack of it - and focused more on their own emotional well-being, in an attempt to understand why they do not intervene.

Together with colleagues from Boston College in the US (V. Paul Poteat) and York St John University in the UK (Nathalie Noret), I have attempted to better understand the "mindset" of the bystander, in the hope that it will provide me with further clues as to why bullying continues, despite 40 years of research and intervention.

In essence, this research has resulted in a recasting of the role of the bystander into three very distinct types of pupil: the confederate, the co-victim and the isolate. These three types are very different from the pupil who does not engage; these are pupils who are desperate to avoid the torment being meted out on their classmate. This is not rocket science, but it does highlight a flaw in much of the research that has gone before: without taking into account the experiences of bystanders, we may have underplayed the lasting impact that bullying can have on individuals and the school community.

So what do we learn if we recast the bystander in these three roles? We learn that the confederates of the bully may not be the mythical monsters we have demonised, but pupils who experience a great deal of emotional turmoil, such as feelings of self-loathing. This can lead to a series of harmful outcomes for all involved, such as an escalation in violence perpetrated against the victim (ironically to maintain a positive self-image), substance use or truancy.

For the co-victim, clinical studies of community violence tell us that the potential for long-term psychological harm is just as real as if the bystander had been the target of abuse. One systematic review of 26 studies of the implications of exposure to community violence among urban adolescents found a relationship between witnessing violence and poor mental health, post-traumatic stress and, surprisingly, aggression. In fact, there is increasing anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of the most heinous acts of violence perpetrated in schools have been carried out by young people who were themselves victims of bullying.

For the isolate - those who try to distance themselves - the story is less clear. Very little is known about this group. Sometimes these pupils appear as reference groups or control groups in studies because they report little or no involvement in bullying. But if the fear of being humiliated or abused by others actively encourages these pupils to hide away, this protective defence mechanism (albeit effective in the short-term) may also have lasting detrimental effects. Isolating oneself may reduce feelings of personal failure, but it can also result in internalised hostility and self-loathing, which have been linked to depression and self-harm. Furthermore, isolation itself may not be a useful long-term strategy: it has been linked to unpopularity, especially among adolescents, and identifies isolates as potential bullying "targets" without friends to support or protect them.

So what can we do? As part of an expert panel convened in the US, I reported on the findings from our study exploring correlations between being a bystander and contemplating suicide. One finding stood out from the others: bystanders feel powerless.

We need to empower pupils to stop bullying. But what does this mean? It means instilling in perpetrators a sense of disloyalty when they break the pupil code and victimise others. It means that every bully should know she or he has broken the code they have developed with their peers, that they have let themselves down and, more importantly, let everyone else down.

We do not need gimmicks, DVDs, complex strategies or the myriad of for-profit resources that are out there. If we do need training in our schools, it is social skills training. As adults, we know how difficult it is to talk to strangers, and yet we presume that this comes naturally to children. Bullying is most prevalent in the first year of secondary school, we are told, so that may be a good place to reboot our efforts.


Ian Rivers is professor of human development in the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University. This article is based on his inaugural lecture, entitled "A Land of Mythical Monsters and 'Wee Timorous Beasties': reflections on two decades of research on bullying".

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Ian Rivers

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