A forthcoming study in the journal School Psychology Quarterly suggests that children and adolescents who witness bullying suffer even more psychological stress than the victims themselves.
For this study, an international team of researchers surveyed 2,002 students between the ages of 12 and 16, at 14 public schools in England. Students were given a list of bullying behaviors, such as name-calling, kicking, hitting, and spreading rumors, and asked to indicate whether they had witnessed, committed, or been the victims of any of those behaviors over the previous nine-week school term. Most had seen such goings-on, the survey found. A fifth confessed to having been perpetrators and a little over a third acknowledged being victims.
The researchers found that students who had witnessed bullying acts were more likely than either the bullies or the victims to say that they had experienced depression, anxiety, hostility, and inferiority, and other feelings of psychological distress over the same span of time. Study co-author Ian Rivers, who is from Brunel University in the UK, says the higher levels of stress among the bystanders may stem from worry about being the bully's next target or guilt for failing to stick up for the victim.
These findings add to a growing body of research that focuses on bystanders in bullying-prevention efforts, rather than just the victims or the bullies, which is what a lot of research in this area used to do. What these newer studies are beginning to suggest is that the real action in preventing bullying may be, somewhat ironically, with those who stand silently by and watch.
Rivers seems to agree. In a press release on this study, he says, "School psychologists can help students realize that they don't have to be a bystander. They can be a defender."