Definitions/Characteristics of Bullying (page 3)

— State: Kansas State Department of Education
Updated on May 1, 2014


While far too many students report that they are bullies, victims, or both, the vast majority of young people are neither bullies nor victims. Instead, most students fall into the category of bystander. This group includes everyone — other than the bully and victim — who is present during a bullying incident. According to John A. Calhoun, president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), 6 out of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school one or more times each day. In addition to the terrible problems that bullying creates for those who are directly involved, student bystanders to bullying also experience feelings of fear, discomfort, guilt, and helplessness. According to the U.S. Department of Education, bystanders may experience the following:

  • Be afraid to associate with the victim for fear of either lowering their own status or of retribution from the bully and becoming victims themselves
  • Fear reporting bullying incidents because they do not want to be called a "snitch," a "tattler," or "informer"
  • Experience feelings of guilt and helplessness for not standing up to the bully on behalf of their classmate
  • Be drawn into bullying behavior by group pressure
  • Feel unsafe, unable to take action, or a loss of control

It is clear that bystanders display distinct patterns of behavior during a bullying incident; these responses represent students' attitudes toward the problem of bullying (e.g., positive, neutral-indifferent, negative) as well as the actions they are likely to take during an actual incident. The Bullying Circle below, based on Olweus' early research as well as the research of Salmivalli and colleagues, illustrate and describe each of these bystander roles.

Cycle of Bullying

In addition to describing the various roles that students can play in a bullying situation, the Bullying Circle further depicts the importance of moving young people to the right — specifically away from the bullies and their supporters and toward defenders of victims. In a study by Boulton and Underwood (1992), middle school students responded to the question, "What do you do when you see a child of your age being bullied?" in the following manner:

  • 49 percent said they tried to help in some way.
  • 29 percent said they did nothing, but thought that they should try to help
  • 22 percent said they would not help because it was none of their business.

A full third of the young people in this study indicated that they could see why bullying happened, which seems to suggest that they — at some level — accept and/or condone bullying behavior among their peers. And, in another study by Whitney and Smith (1993), 18 percent of the participating middle and high school students said that they would join in if their friends were bullying someone. While most attempts to reduce youth violence have focused on the perpetrator or the relationship between perpetrators and victims, it is increasingly recognized that such interventions do not go far enough in creating safe schools and communities. It is also critical to consider the role of bystanders, whose influence in perpetuating or escalating violence has often been overlooked.

Bystanders clearly have a range of choices when it comes to bullying. They can passively accept it, overtly encourage it, or denounce a bully's actions and provide support to the victims. In fact, it is clear that many students who possess characteristics typical of victims are protected against bullying because of such social factors as peer acceptance and supportive friends.

Click here for some examples of how bystanders have either missed opportunities to prevent violence or have actually succeeded in averting tragedies at school.

Breaking the Bullying Cycle

Practical Handouts for Parents and Teachers

Youth Artwork:

  1. Why Bully?: This picture is from the Chill Out Space of the Bullying. No Way! Web site.
  2. Faces: This picture is from the Art Miles Mural Project and PapaInk, the Children's Art Archive.

  3. Stop: This picture is from Artwork Left on the Table, a privately held collection of student work assembled by Alternative Art Teacher Gayle Ann Beard, and PapaInk, the Children's Art Archive.

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