Bullies and bystanders: What to do when you witness bullying

03 Jun 2019
Research conducted by Friendly Schools illustrated that 91 per cent of children reported witnessing bullying.

While exact statistics are harder to calculate for adults, bullying isn’t limited to school, it can happen in workplaces and other social settings as well.

Research also shows that bullying in schools is reported by only half of those being bullied. It can be really difficult to tell people that you’re getting bullied. Whether it’s something that’s said in person or online, you may not feel comfortable enough to speak up.

Bullying can occur between one person and another, or a group of people, but ‘bystanders’ play an important role in diffusing bullying or prompting the bullying to continue.


The impact of bystanders

A bystander can be someone who sees or knows about the bullying going on, or someone who supports the bully. As a bystander, you could be a friend of the person bullying or being bullied, or simply someone walking past who witnesses it.

A bystander may act in different ways, including:

  • watching what’s going on and not getting involved

  • pretending not to see it and ignoring what happens

  • joining in and bullying

  • actively stopping it

  • or going to find help.

How to seek help

Sometimes a bystander might say “it’s not my business” or “I don’t want to get involved”, but that doesn’t always mean that they are ok with what’s happening. More often than not, they really don’t like what’s going on, but perhaps don’t feel comfortable to get involved.

This can be for a number of reasons, including:

  • A very aggressive physical fight (ti needs to be safe before intervening)

  • They might think it will make them a target or hurt their reputation

  • It may create a bigger problem or confrontation, endangering others.


Practical ways a bystander can help

As a bystander, you can do more than just step into the situation – you have a lot more power than you realise. Here are some practical ways you can help:

  • Get rid of the crowd – bullies often feed off of attention and an audience that doesn’t try to stop what happens. If you walk away and convince others to do so, quite often that bully will have no motivation to continue what they're doing

  • Ask someone for help – it’s ok if you can’t physically help, or if you’re not comfortable speaking up. Find an adult or someone you trust to help the person being bullied

  • Afterwards, you can assist in finding the right help, or even talk to people who can help on behalf of the person being bullied

  • Let the person bullied know they aren’t alone

  • Call the bully out on their behaviour.

Bullying situations you may face

Bullies can quite often be people you know or even close friends, putting you in uncomfortable situations where you don’t know what to do. In those situations, there are some ways to stop the situation.

When your friends are doing the bullying

  • Find out what’s causing them to behave this way, as there’s usually a reason behind the bullying

  • Let them know that what they're doing is unfair and that they rethink their behaviour, because their actions are harming others

  • Sharing your concerns about your friend's bullying behaviour is difficult, so it's important to take time for yourself to focus on self care.


When your friends want you to join in

  • politely refuse, avoid yelling or escalating the situation

  • try not to over-explain your response. If it bothers you, talk to someone about it afterwards

  • if the situation is out of control or getting that way, try to leave discreetly

  • if this is someone or a group that does this regularly, you may need to consider whether they’re the right people to have in your life.

As a bystander, you have the power to inflate a bullying situation or bring it to an end. If you choose the latter, you can really help someone in need.

If you have more questions, headspace offers many other resources and information on bullying.