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You may not realize it, but bystanders (witnesses) to bullying can suffer consequences just from seeing someone get bullied. These consequences can include anxiety, difficulty trusting others, and a decreased sense of safety. As a bystander, you can learn how to safely intervene when you see bullying. “The most effective way to stop a bullying situation is to show support for the student being bullied,” says Bailey Lindgren, associate at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.
58 percent of students in a recent Student Health 101 survey said that if a classmate posted an inappropriate picture of their friend, they would tell the friend and immediately report it to the social media site. This is an example of bystander intervention.
Ellie stepped in the last time she saw Becky bully Ryan in person. Now she keeps seeing Becky bully him on social media. This time, she decides to…
Post words of support on Ryan’s social media pages, such as, “Ryan, I think you’re awesome.
Ellie doesn’t know what to say to Becky to get her to stop bullying, but she hopes that supporting Ryan might at least help him feel better.
When Ellie sees that Becky posted something mean about Ryan on Twitter, she posts an uplifting message: “Ryan is awesome. Retweet if you agree.” Ellie texts a couple of her friends and asks them to share the post. Within an hour, the post already has 32 retweets from different people at school.
Did it help?
Yes. Reaching out to someone who is being bullied and getting other friends involved are some of the best ways to stand up to bullying, according to Bully Bust. Even if Becky continues to bully Ryan, knowing that there are people who support him—especially since some of them are Becky’s friends–makes him feel a lot more confident about the situation.
When Ryan sees the nice comment Ellie posted and how many other students are sharing it, he feels relieved and accepted. He hadn’t made many friends yet since he moved to town, which made the bullying seem worse. But now that he sees Ellie and other students supporting him, Ryan feels more confident at school. He also spends less time thinking about Becky’s bullying and starts to join a few clubs and make new friends.
Give everyone in class a positive message on a sticky note and write everyone positive messages on social media.
Ellie has started to notice how much bullying goes on at her school and online every day. Most of it isn’t as public or as mean as what Becky’s doing, but Ellie still thinks that the attitude around school needs to change. She read about a girl who combated bullying by giving everyone in her class a positive message on sticky notes, and was inspired to do something similar.
Check out the #positivepostit movement on Twitter and Facebook.
First, Ellie checks with the principal to make sure it’s OK. Principal Mathews thinks it’s a great idea, and even offers to help Ellie by spreading the word to other students, so Ellie goes ahead with her plan. The next morning, students go to their lockers and find notes like, “I think you’re awesome!” and “You’re beautiful, inside and out.” After school, the trend takes off and students start posting similar messages on one another’s social media pages with the hashtag #positivepostit.
Did it help?
Yes. Ellie’s positive notes make everyone feel good about themselves, which in turn makes them a little nicer to one another that week. Even though the effect is short-term, the notes help people see how good it feels to give and receive positive messages rather than engage in negativity. People start to talk about bullying being a problem at school, and Ellie’s project becomes the starting point for a school-wide anti-bullying campaign.
Take screenshots and anonymously report the incident to the school and to the site administrators.
Ellie thinks that Becky’s bullying has gotten way out of hand and needs to be stopped, so she decides that it’s time to tell an adult. Even though she wants to help, she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s the one who reported Becky. Luckily, her school has a website where she can anonymously report bullying incidents.
Ellie takes screenshots of everything that Becky has posted about Ryan and attaches the files to the form she fills out on the website. She also flags and reports every mean post on social media, so the site administrators will remove them. Within a few days, the posts are gone and Ellie hears that the guidance counselor is talking to Becky and Ryan to investigate the anonymous complaint.
Did it help?
Yes. According to Stop Bullying, students who are being cyberbullied or who witness cyberbullying should keep evidence of the bullying as proof for reporting. Some schools now have websites that allow students, parents, or faculty to anonymously report bullying. If your school doesn’t have one of these websites, you can still report anonymously. The easiest way to do this is to write a note explaining the situation and leave it with an adult you trust, with evidence of the bullying.
Post negative comments about Becky on social media. (What not to do.)
Ellie sees that Becky is posting mean things about Ryan and is done trying to get Becky to stop. She’s talked to Becky privately about her behavior, but Becky never listens. When she sees Becky’s new status—“Ryan is the worst. Go back to where you came from.”—Ellie can’t handle it anymore. She starts posting on Becky’s page, saying, “Becky, you’re a terrible person,” and “Why do you have to be so stupid?”
Becky and Ellie post insults back and forth. When other students see this, they think that both girls are acting immature. A few days later, they both get called to the principal’s office. Another student anonymously reported them for bullying each other, and now both girls are in trouble.
Did it help?
No. When Ellie bullies Becky back, it only makes Becky angrier and makes the situation worse. Even if Ellie has good intentions, saying mean things to Becky is no better than what Becky is doing to Ryan. “Spreading rumors or retaliating just accelerates the problem,” says Becki Cohn-Vargas, PhD, director of Not in Our School. “Students often deal with bullying this way, but it only makes the problem bigger, and students can become trapped in a cycle of bullying and retaliation.”
What could Ellie have done instead?
Instead of being mean to Becky, Ellie could have chosen to be nice to Ryan. That would have given Ryan the message that he doesn’t have to face Becky’s bullying alone. Plus, Becky might be less likely to bully Ryan when she knows that other students are against her behavior.
Matt is tired of seeing Becky bully Ryan in the cafeteria. This time, he decides to…
Ask a friend to back him up, and to tell Becky, “Quit acting like a bully; Ryan is a cool guy. Leave him alone.”
Matt usually ignores Becky when she’s bullying Ryan, but this time he’s sitting at a table right next to her and can see how upset Ryan is getting. He knows he can’t ignore it anymore. To try to avoid turning it into a situation where Becky starts bullying him too, he tells his friends that he’s going to say something to Becky about it and asks them to back him up. They’re all tired of Becky’s bullying, so they agree.
When Matt tells Becky that Ryan is cool and she should leave him alone, Becky is too surprised at first to say anything. She recovers quickly, telling Matt, “Why should I care what you think?” but doesn’t go any further because she doesn’t want to start fighting with Matt and all his friends.
Did it help?
Yes. Matt can see how happy Ryan is that someone stepped in to help him. Even after Becky’s comments, he’s starting to smile. Matt and his friends ask Ryan to eat with them, and he gladly accepts. Matt barely knew Ryan before, but it doesn’t matter. By stepping in and inviting Ryan to join him, Matt is safely supporting Ryan against Becky’s bullying.
“Calling out the person doing the bullying doesn’t always help,” said Morgan, from Lawrence, Kansas. “I try to comfort the person being bullied and give them emotional support. In the end, it affects them and their self-image the most, and that’s what we need to repair.”
Remind Becky about the school rules on bullying, telling her, “You’ll get suspended if you get caught bullying again.”
Everyone knows that last week Ryan told a teacher about Becky bullying him and she got detention. The other students were impressed that Ryan was able to say something, and hoped that the punishment would make Becky stop.
When Matt sees Becky bullying Ryan again, he knows that she could get in more trouble. He tells her, “You’ll get suspended if you get caught bullying again.” Matt figures that reminding her of this is a good way to stop her without having her turn on him instead. It makes Matt sound like he’s looking out for Becky, when he’s really looking out for Ryan. According to No Bullying https://nobullying.com/bullying-how-students-can-fight-back/, if students who bully realize that they’ll be reported for it every time, they’ll usually stop.
Did it help?
Yes. When Becky hears Matt, she gets a little nervous, but tries to hide it. “I’m only going to get caught if someone tells on me,” she says. “And I know you wouldn’t tell on me, right?” Matt says, “I might not, but there’s a whole cafeteria full of students and teachers here.” After that, Becky realizes that a teacher or another student could easily get her in trouble for bullying Ryan again and backs off.
Gather his friends and walk away.
Most people don’t remember anymore, but Matt was bullied when he was in elementary school. When he sees Becky bullying Ryan, he remembers what it was like to be bullied and wants to help. When Matt was getting bullied, it usually happened only when other kids were around. When no one else was there, the bully just ignored him. This gives Matt an idea.
Instead of saying something directly to Becky, he tells his friends (loudly enough for Becky to hear), “Come on, let’s get out of here.” Matt’s friends are sick of hearing Becky bully Ryan, so they all move to the other side of the cafeteria.
Did it help?
Yes. It may seem like Matt is hurting Ryan by walking away, but leaving can actually help the situation. Students who bully are looking for rewards, such as popularity or making other people laugh, according to Stopbullying.gov. When Matt and his friends walk away, Becky no longer has an audience. Becky continues to bully Ryan for another minute or two after the group leaves, but when she realizes no one is paying attention, she loses interest and starts ignoring Ryan instead.
Report it to a teacher or another adult at the school. Learn the difference between tattling and telling.
This time, Matt decides to report Becky to a teacher, even though he’s a little afraid that his friends will think he’s a snitch or that Becky will bully him if she finds out. He asks his friends, “Hey, don’t you guys think someone should do something about the way Becky is treating Ryan? Maybe a teacher can help?” They all agree and offer to back up his side of the story if he tells Mr. Baker. Matt trusts Mr. Baker, and now that his friends have his back, he feels more comfortable going to an adult.
Mr. Baker, a teacher whom many students admire, happens to be on lunch duty today. Matt walks over and tells him what’s happening between Becky and Ryan on the other side of the cafeteria. Mr. Baker wants to be able to hear what Becky is saying, so he stands near her to listen. As soon as he hears what Becky is saying to Ryan, he takes her to the principal’s office.
Did it help?
Yes. Sometimes, trying to intervene in a bullying situation yourself is the right thing to do. Other times, the best thing to do is to get an adult involved, especially when the bullying behavior is repetitive or when the situation becomes unsafe. An adult can punish Becky for bullying Ryan, but they can also make sure Ryan gets the help he needs.
Once school staff can see that bullying is a problem, they can also help change the environment in the school as a whole. For example, after Mr. Baker saw what was happening in the cafeteria, he started running anti-bullying workshops. The students liked the workshops and together, the staff and students were able to lower the rate of bullying.
Tattling vs. telling
Going to an adult can be helpful if you see someone being bullied, especially if you don’t feel comfortable intervening yourself. An adult can help if:
- The bullying is continuous
- The situation seems like it might be dangerous
- You just don’t know what to do
Many students worry that if they tell an adult—whether it’s a parent, teacher, or other school employee—about a bullying situation, they’ll be seen as a tattletale or a snitch. But there’s a difference between tattling on someone and telling an adult what’s happening. If Matt or Ellie tells a teacher what Becky is doing just to get her in trouble, that’s tattling. But if they tell an adult because they see that Becky’s behavior is hurting Ryan, that’s telling, not tattling, and can help Ryan a lot.
If you’re worried about what other students will think if you tell an adult, there are ways you can report anonymously. For example, you can slide a paper under the school counselor’s door or send a message from an email address you create just for that purpose. Whether you do it anonymously or not, chances are other students will be glad you stepped in.
“In high school, I witnessed a guy bullying a girl who has a handicap,” said Mark, a college student from New Albany, Indiana. “I talked to some people around me to see their thoughts about what he was doing. They thought it was ridiculous. A supervisor was notified, and eventually he stopped bullying her.” If there’s a bullying situation in your school, it’s likely you’re not the only one who wants it to stop. You’ll find more support than you might think when you go to an adult.
Continue to eat his lunch and do nothing. (What not to do.)
Matt hates to see Becky bully Ryan, but he doesn’t think there’s anything he can do to stop it. He’s not naturally a confrontational person, and he’s a little afraid that Becky will start bullying him if he tries to intervene.
While Becky is bullying Ryan, Matt just sits quietly with his friends and eats his lunch, trying to ignore it.
Did it help?
No. Staying silent might seem like an easier option, but according to Reach Out, it can encourage bullying to continue. Anyone who is watching Becky bully Ryan:
- Becomes part of her audience, which encourages Becky to continue her behavior
- Can sometimes be held responsible for taking part in the bullying
- Becomes more likely to experience negative consequences, such as anxiety
Becky may not listen to Matt if he tells her to stop, but it could “break the ice” for other students to actively discourage Becky’s behavior. If he didn’t want to confront Becky, he could also have reached out to Ryan to let him know that he isn’t dealing with Becky’s bullying alone.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, PhD, director, Not in Our School, Oakland, California.
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