What Is the ‘Bystander Effect’? Kids Explain How It Harms

Our Hatch kids are at it again, with a savvy, responsible message all kids (and adults) should watch. One of their latest conversations focuses on cyberbullying and the “bystander effect,” and the message is clear: When you’re not fixing the problem, you’re part of it.


First off, if you’re a concerned parent wondering what cyberbullying looks like, know that it comes in many forms — all of which are potentially emotionally destructive for the victim.

“A cyberbully may make use of denigration as a means of intentionally spreading hateful lies about a victim,” explains Dr. Richard Shuster, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping Podcast.

Other common forms of cyberbullying are: 

  • Impersonation. “This often involves the creation of a fake social media profile in which the victim’s fake profile may attack others such as sending vulgar messages to a teacher or principal, ” says Shuster.
  • Intimidating group chat creation. Some of the Hatch kids share that they’ve been invited to group chats on social media, where they say the “goal is to put everyone down.” They also say they’ve witnessed “racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic things” in group chats.
  • Image manipulation. “With the emergence of smartphones and advancement of cameras and video-editing software, a cyberbully can manipulate pictures of their victims and post them across social media, ” reveals Shuster.
  • Exclusion. According to Shuster, an example of this could be a victim not being invited to an online group on Facebook intentionally when all their peers are.

More: Witnessing Childhood Bullying Changed the Way I Parent

What about when our kids aren’t the ones being bullied? That’s a huge relief — but our job doesn’t end there. Because although it’s natural to want to keep kids away from anything potentially harmful or controversial, telling them to “just stay out of it” isn’t good enough. (And just because your kid isn’t being bullied right now, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.) According to the Education Development Center’s Eyes on Bullying, kid bystanders can either contribute to the problem or the solution — they rarely play a neutral role even though they may think they do.

This is where the “bystander effect” comes into play: It’s a social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to try to help a victim of bullying when others are present. “It was first demonstrated by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1964,” says Dr. Tim Lynch, a psychologist who studies how computer interaction affects personality. “They found that if there are many people witnessing an event, most will not help or call someone to aid another believing that some other observer will do that. We get paralyzed in crowds and feel that it is someone else’s responsibility to respond.”

But that false reliance isn’t the only thing keeping kids from taking action: “If I stand up to [the bullies], I’m also going to be targeted when I did nothing wrong,” explains one of the Hatch kids.

“It really makes you feel like you can’t do anything,” says another.

More: How to Spot the Subtle Signs of Bullying

But intervening does work; when bystanders step in, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57 percent of the time according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services anti-bullying website, Stopbullying.gov.

How does that work when we witness bullying online, when the abuse, intimidation and harassment take place virtually and not in the playground, in the schoolyard or on the street? Lynch admits that it’s difficult to reduce the bystander effect in cyberbullying situations due to the very nature of computer and social media communication.

“We feel more insulated from other people because they are screen names,” he says. “Plus, there is a perception of anonymity in texting, emailing and social media posting that makes cyberbullies bolder and bystanders even less likely to act. The nature of the medium acts as a deterrent to coming to another user’s aid in cyberbullying cases but lends itself to others joining in on the cyberbullying in order to feel part of a group.”

And the resulting bystander damage is far-reaching. Aside from the distress to a victim when a bystander does nothing, their lack of action may cause conflicted feelings, including guilt, which can increase the bystander’s own emotional distress, explains Shuster.

More: We Asked Tech-Savvy Kids to Go Without Phones for a Week

There are lots of aspects of our kids’ lives we can’t control. But we do have the power to stop cyberbullying.

“The more people who choose to switch their role from that of a bystander to what is known as an upstander — an individual who chooses to stand up for the victim rather than passively allowing the bullying to continue — the greater the chance that bullying will be reduced,” says Shuster. “An upstander can help a victim in several ways. The most powerful, of course, is to publicly denounce the attack and stand with the victim. Further, engaging peers to join in the support of the victim can have a potentially more impactful effect, as the bully themselves may become fearful of being viewed negatively.”

Cyberbullying may be a relatively new danger, but it’s one that can have devastating effects. To find out more about what you can do to prevent it, visit Stopbullying.gov. And remember what one sage Hatch participant had to say: “Not saying anything is just adding fire to the flame.”

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