Bullying is a Group Phenomenon − What Does It Mean And Why Does It Matter? (page 2)

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

Combat Bullying by Influencing Bystanders

Bystanders might be easier to influence than the active, initiative-taking bullies. The bystanders often think that bullying is wrong, they feel bad for the victim, and they would like to do something to help. Converting their already existing attitudes into behavior is a challenging task, but it might nevertheless be a more realistic goal than influencing an individual bully by adult sanctions or rewards only.

Even if the change in bystanders’ behavior would not lead (at least immediately) to changes in the bully’s behavior, it is very likely to make a difference in the victim’s situation. Mobilizing the peer group to support the victim is crucial in minimizing the adverse effects for those who are victimized.

  • Victimization is an attack on the victim’s status but also on his or her need to belong (13), and often a successful one.
  • Having protective friendships at the classroom has been shown to buffer against further victimization as well as the negative influences of victimization (14, 15).

Raising children’s awareness of the role they play in the bullying process, as well as raising their empathic understanding of the victim’s plight, can reduce bullying. Additionally, students should be provided with safe strategies to support the victim. When the reward structure of the classroom changes, supporting and defending the victim can actually become reinforced and rewarded.

Targeting the bystanders does not mean that individual bullies should not be influenced. Both universal and indicated interventions are needed to effectively put an end to bullying. When bullying comes to the attention, the particular case should be handled, not together in the classroom but by private, firm discussions in which it is made clear that bullying is not tolerated.

In Finland, we have developed a national anti-bullying program, KiVa, funded by the Ministry of Education, based on the principles above(16). It is currently being piloted in more than 100 schools all over Finland and the first results seem really promising. Even good theory-guided principles are not enough, if adults at school and at the home front lack effective tools for their anti-bullying work.

Christina Salmivalli is a professor of psychology at the University of Turku, Finland, and a professor-II in the University of Stavanger, Norway. She is currently leading, together with Elisa Poskiparta, PhD, the development and evaluation of a national anti-bullying program (KiVa) in Finland.


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  3. Oolthof, T., & Goossens, F. (2008). Bullying and the Need to Belong: Early adolescents’ bullying-related behavior and the acceptance they desire and receive from particular classmates. Social Development, 17, 24-46.
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  12. Kärnä, A., Voeten. M., Poskiparta, E., & Salmivalli, C. (submitted). Classroom-level factors moderate the effect of individual risk on victimization.
  13. Hawker, D., & Boulton, M. (2001). Subtypes of peer harassment and their correlates. In J.Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and the victimized (pp.378-397). New York: Guilford Press.
  14. Boulton, M., Trueman, M., Chau, C., Whitehand, C., & Amatya, K. (1999). Concurrent and longitudinal links between friendship and peer victimization: Implications for befriending interventions. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 461-466.
  15. Hodges, E.V.E., Boivin, M., Vitaro, F., & Bukowski, W. (1999). The power of friendship: Protection against an escalating cycle of peer victimization. Developmental Psychology, 35, 94-101.
  16. Salmivalli, C., Kärnä, A., & Poskiparta, E. (in press). From peer putdowns to peer support: A theoretical model and how it translated into a national anti-bullying program. In S. Shimerson, S. Swearer, & D. Espelage (Eds.), International Handbook of School Bullying.
  17. Caravita, S., DiBlasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. (in press). Unique and interactive effects of empathy and social status on involvement in bullying. Social Development.
  18. Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., McDougall, P. (2003). Bullying is power: Implications for school-based intervention strategies. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 157-176.
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