For years, discussions on bullying centered around two central figures: the victim and the bully. However, experts have now broadened their focus to include a third party: the bystander. A bystander can be defined as anyone who sees bullying occurring and does nothing to stop it. Though not directly involved in the situation, studies show that bystanders could potentially be the most powerful players of all. In fact, it’s been shown that over 50% of the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds of someone intervening. In light of this knowledge, more and more schools are working hard to train students to know when and how they should step in when they see someone being bullied.
Sounds easy enough, right? It’s not. The phenomenon known as the bystander effect is an occurrence in which the more people that are present, the less likely individuals are to help someone in need. This effect was first brought into the limelight in the late 1960s after a woman was killed outside her apartment. When details of the murder emerged, people were horrified to learn that over 30 witnesses had been present at the time of the crime, yet not one responded to the woman’s cries for help. While it is easy to criticize these people, research reveals that such behavior is far from uncommon. What could possibly cause such callousness?
The causes of the bystander effect are deep and complex and only just beginning to be understood more fully. For many years, the cause of this effect was said to be diffusion of responsibility. People simply assumed that someone else would help. However, research is now suggesting there may be more to the story.
Interestingly, it is not diffusion of responsibility alone which leads to the bystander effect, but also the desire to not stand out. Studies showed that when researchers instructed one person to step up and aid the stranger in need, others quickly joined in. It wasn’t that these people didn’t want to help or that they were passing the buck (although I’m sure this was the case for some); they were either too embarrassed to step out, or unsure if they should. An article on VeryWell.com described this as the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways, stating, “When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.”
This is quite revealing for the issue of bullying amongst children. If we as adults care so much about what other people think that we will not reach out and help in an important situation, how much more will children, who are still learning who they are, care about what others think? How much more difficult will it be for them to stand out from the crowd?
This additional facet of the bystander effect tells us that we must approach the issue in a new way. We don’t need to keep telling kids bullying is wrong—they know that. We don’t need to keep telling them they should help others—they know that too. We need to get them from point A: knowing that they need to help, to point B: actually helping. How do we do this?
First, we must help students recognize the problem. Students may know they don’t want to intervene when they see someone being bullied, but they may not be able to explain why. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize a behavior in someone else. Show students clips from the bystander effect studies. Talk about what happened and why it happened. Then, connect the situation to bullying. How are the scenarios the same? How are they different? How would the students have behaved if they were in the video? If they saw someone being bullied?
It’s important to remind the students that the point of this exercise is not to shame anyone, it is simply to become more aware of a problem, the role we play in that problem, and why, so together we can begin moving towards a solution.
Second, we must help students practice being upstanders. One reason people do not step in and help others is because they are not sure what to do or they forget in the heat of the moment. Give kids the skills they need to step in and then practice those skills until they become second nature. Be sure to provide multiple solutions to fit the different personalities of your students. Role play different scenarios and talk through any fears. The more we practice something, the less frightening it becomes.
Third, practice observance. It’s easy to become so absorbed in our own lives that we don’t even notice when those around us are in distress. Teach students the subtle signs of bullying and encourage them to be watchful for those in need.
Finally, provide examples of helpers. Many people do not step up out of fear of looking weird or awkward. Show your students that standing up for others makes them leaders, not losers.
The bystander effect reveals a harsh reality of human nature. However, it also reveals the potential for good inside everyone. While the people in the bystander studies did not help initially, they were quick to help as soon as someone else led the way. It just takes one person, one act of bravery, to inspire bravery and goodness in others. The bystander effect is real, but it is not insurmountable. With careful education and awareness, it is possible to turn bystanders into leaders that will change the world for the better.
Want to take the learning further? Check out these picture books and their accompanying discussion guides, lesson plans, and crafts to spark discussion on the topics of bullying, bystanders, and helping others.
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This is A. Blob by L. A Kefalos. $14.95
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