Bystanders – Are they really the answer?


Bystanders – Are they really the answer?

The following article is in regards to the phenomenon of bullying in schools.  Bullying seems to occur in the presence of peers (fellow students) (Padget, 2013, p.33) and bullies perpetrate their attacks when their peers are present (Salmivalli, 2010, p.113).  Peer bystanders are said to be present in 85-88% of bullying situations (Padget, 2013, p.33; Salmivalli, 2010, p.113) and these bystanders represent the largest number of individuals that are present during the bullying situation (Heinrich, as cited in Padget, 2013, p.33).  Salmivalli (2010) did a study which related bystander’s behaviour to the frequency of bullying.  They found that reinforcing the bully was positively related to bullying frequency, i.e., if the bully had reinforcement from peers, then more bullying occurred.  Alternatively, they found that defending the victim was negatively associated with the frequency of bullying, i.e., defending the victim resulted in less frequent bullying (Salmivalli, 2011, p.668).  The results suggest that the behaviour of bystanders does influence the frequency of bullying; thus, the importance of the role of the bystander in developing intervention programs (Salmivalli, 2011, p.668).

Foremost, it is important to understand the definition of a bystander.  Unfortunately, the literature is not exactly clear on this issue.  For example, Salmivalli (1996 as cited in Salmivalli 2010) suggests the following roles:

(i) bullies

  (ii) assistants are children who join the ringleader bullies

(iii) reinforcers provide positive feedback to bullies (e.g., by laughing or cheering)

(iv) outsiders withdraw from bullying situations

(v) defenders take sides with the victims, comforting and supporting them

(vi) victims (targets)

Some others have broader definitions of roles that individuals play, as follows in Padget (2013, p.33):

(i) bullies

  (ii) bully-victim – person who engages in bullying behaviour and is a victim of bullying behaviour

    (this is similar to a paper in the workplace bullying literature, e.g., When Prey Turns Predatory)

(iii) bystander – are individuals who are neither victims nor perpetrators of bullying

other definitions:

– usually accepts or even participates in the bullying or they may try to stop the bully

– someone who is an uninvolved nonbully/nonvictim peer onlookers and are facilitators

(iv) victims (targets)

Furthermore, Padget suggests that bystanders can flee the scene of an incident, thereby enabling bullying to occur, because the bully then has a disproportionate advantage (Padget, 2013, p.34), i.e., the potential for there being a defender decreases.  As well, bystanders who watch the bullying incident, but don’t intervene, reinforces the bullying behaviour (Padget, 2013, p.34).  Additionally, Olweus (2001 as cited in Salmivalli 2010, p.114) suggests that there eight bystander modes of reaction to a bullying incident, i.e., positive–neutral–indifferent–negative and behaviors – acting versus not acting (Salmivalli 2010, p.114).  Thus, from the preceding discussion, it can be seen that the “bystander group” is a highly diverse group (and sometimes not well defined) and therefore would require many strategies in order to effectively mobilize this group to stop bullying.  In my personal opinion, bystanders are those who are neither bullies nor victims, i.e., there are three roles: bully, bystander and victim (target).  My rationale for the statement is the bully initiates the incident and at that very point, everyone else, with the exception of the target, is a bystander.  Bystanders then fall into specific roles based on how they respond to the bullying situation.

Bystanders do have the power to intervene and effectively stop bullying, but very few do intervene (Siegel, Blank as cited in Padget, p.34) and Jeffrey found that only 10% of peers intervened in bullying incidents (2004 as cited in Padget, p.34).  A study of 6th and 8th grade students indicated that 20-29% were reinforcers or assistants, 26-30% withdrew from the incident and 17-20% were defenders (Salmivalli, 2010, p.115).  Thus, the smallest group of individuals were defenders.  The reasons for individuals not intervening is probably as diverse as the individuals that make up the bystander group.  

There may be many reasons why students don’t intervene and the following is a few examples.  It has been suggested that bystanders would like to intervene in a specific bullying incident, however, there is a gap between their attitudes and behaviour (Padget, 2013, p.35).  This is essentially moral disengagement, i.e., individuals have rules for behaviour (moral standards), although, they may not act in-line with those standards in certain situations.  For example, individuals may be enlisting a mechanism of moral disengagement, specifically, diffusion of responsibility, i.e., if there are many witnesses to a bullying incident, each person’s sense of responsibility is diminished (Salmivalli, 2010, p.115); thus, decreasing the potential for someone actually stepping in to stop the bullying.  They may think someone else should step in to stop the bullying.

Alternatively, individuals may be rationalizing or justifying their behaviour (essentially the mechanism of moral justification), for example, an individual may have a low self-efficacy to become a defender.  This can be seen  in studies where it has been shown that peers who withdraw from a bullying situation is positively associated with empathy, but negatively associated with self-efficacy to defend (references as cited in Salmivalli 2010, p.115).  Thus, peers may feel empathetic towards the target, but feel that they do not have what it takes to confront the bully.  Alternatively, they may fear becoming the new target, are afraid of making the situation worse or simply do not know what to do (Padget, p.34).  Thus, they rationalize that they do not have to act.  Furthermore, if one considers assistants and reinforcers as part of the bystander group, those individuals are enlisting the mechanism termed “disregard of consequences”, e.g., they are ignoring or minimizing the harm that is being done to the target, which is a consequence of the act of bullying.

Herein lies the question – what is the answer to school bullying?  Some have suggested a change in school climate as the answer and this is based on the premise that not taking action to stop bullying implicitly implies that bullying is permissible (Padget, 2013, p.39) or that bullying can be limited  if not permitted (Siegel as cited in Padget, p.37).   These statements are very similar to the literature on workplace bullying, e.g., workplace bullying will only occur in a work environment that either explicitly or implicitly accepts the behaviour (Einarsen, 1999).  Thus, one needs to fully define what “school climate” encompasses.  This could be as broad as a change in school-wide attitudes toward bullying, i.e., zero tolerance policy.  This means no bullying of any kind, including peer-to-peer, teacher bullying (teacher bullies student), teacher-targeted bullying (student bullies teacher) and no staff member (teacher or other school personnel) should be allowed to engage in bullying behaviour.  In my opinion, not only will this empower those bystanders that already have high self-efficacy to defend, but it may empower those with low self-efficacy to step up and defend, for two reasons: (i) they know what they are doing is right and (ii) they will know the school will support them.  The added benefit is – if students learn this attitude in school, they hopefully will carry that attitude with themselves into their future lives, which includes the workplace.  As a final thought, in my opinion, the development of an appropriate school climate (or workplace environment) precedes the responsibility of the bystander in preventing bullying.

Terrance J. Sereda, 28-Oct-2016


(1) Padget S. and Notar C., (2013), Bystanders are the key to stopping bulling. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 1(2), 33-41.

(2) Salmivalli C., (2010), Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15, 112-120.

(3) Salmivalli C., Voeten M. and Poskiparta E.,  (2011), Bystanders Matter: Associations between reinforcing, defending and the frequency of bullying behavior in classrooms. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(5), 668-676.

(4) Lee, R. & Brotheridge, C. (2006), When prey turns predatory: Workplace bullying as a predictor of counteraggression/bullying, coping and well-being. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(3), 352-377.

(5) Einarsen S. (1999), The nature and causes of bullying at work. International Journal of Manpower, 20(1/2), 16-27.

Bystanders – Are they really the answer?

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