Bystander Intervention in Bullying Incidents: A Misguided Experiment
A video has been making its rounds lately showing two young men engaged in a social experiment of sorts. The video shows one hounding, harassing, pushing, punching, and threatening the other because the target apparently failed to do the “bully’s” homework. The two play out this interaction over and over again directly in front of various people at various locations on a university campus, presumably to see who would intervene, and how. To their surprise, most of the onlookers simply ignore or walk away from the “incident.” They just seem to not want to get involved. The actors are critical of this and actually confront several of them afterwards to try to get an explanation. But, my question is: should we have expected anything different?
Many of those who’ve discussed the video on social media, or posted comments on the YouTube video itself, applaud the efforts of these two for apparently exposing a serious problem: people just don’t care. If people genuinely cared, it is reasoned, then they would intervene when they saw bullying happening and it would stop. But this perspective leaves me shaking my head and saying to myself “if only it were that easy.” I have mixed feelings about this little experiment and its potential consequences, and it seems valuable to discuss them here.
Is This Experience Representative?
One of my concerns about this particular approach is that I don’t feel that the situation depicted is realistic. When it comes to bullying overall, there is a lot that happens that doesn’t look like what we see in the video. In fact, I would argue that this is the least likely of possibilities. What is portrayed is very stereotypical (you’ve got a physically more aggressive dude with a backwards hat pushing around a seemingly weaker and wimpier—and smarter?—target). Sure, some young people are bullied like this, but I doubt this scenario represents the norm. It’s true that bullying frequently happens right in front of us. But most often it is a lot more subtle than what is being portrayed in these scenes. It is unlikely, for example, that two strangers are just going to suddenly appear in front of you in the midst of such a blatant physical altercation like what we see.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of research out there when it comes to bullying among university students, so it is hard to know exactly how prevalent the problem is and what the typical experience looks like. Even so, I doubt that very much of it looks like this: direct physical bullying perpetrated right in front of a stranger in a common area. I’ve been connected to colleges for over half of my life and I have never seen, nor even heard about, situations like this happening. I don’t question that it does happen, but is it really helpful to use a statistically rare incident as an indicator for general response?
What Would You Do?
It’s so easy to watch a video like this and exclaim with passion and confidence that if you were to confront such a situation you would most definitely do something! If we ask people whether they would intervene if they saw someone who was being mistreated, I imagine many would say that they would. But would they really? I mean, it is very easy to envision heroic intervention in times of chaos or tragedy, but it is wholly another thing to actually do it.
Back in November of 2000, Sameer and I were attending an academic conference in San Francisco. At the completion of one of the day’s presentations, we left the conference center and began our mile or so walk to our hotel on the other side of the city when we came upon two individuals fighting in the street. One was flailing punches while the other had his adversary firmly by the hair. For some reason, I instinctively and immediately stepped in to separate them. They were both complete strangers to me but I jumped right in. I didn’t recall what Sameer did while I was trying to break up the melee, but when we talked about this video and remembered and reflected on the incident in San Francisco, he admitted to me that he just froze and felt paralyzed. In hindsight, my interjection was probably foolish: who knows what I was possibly getting myself into! The whole incident lasted less than a minute, and I seriously question whether I would act similarly if put into the same situation today. I think I would, but a person never really knows until actually faced with the situation.
The Bystander Effect
Some might interpret the failure to act as a function of the “bystander effect.” The theory behind this idea is that oftentimes even good and caring people refuse to take action when confronted with someone in need of help. Perhaps they don’t think it is any of their business, or maybe they think others will step in. Maybe they feel it isn’t their place to intervene and behave differently from the social group around them, which gets them to think “no one else is doing anything, why should I?”
The bystander effect was made famous in the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, who was 28-years-old when she was stabbed to death outside her home in New York City on March 13, 1964. There is nothing exceptional about a New York City murder (there were 635 other homicides in the city in that year), but what shocked the conscience of most people was that the murder was reported to have happened largely in plain sight (even though it occurred at 2:00am) with over three-dozen witnesses but little intervention by any of the onlookers. According to a newspaper story: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Some question the facts as reported in this case (see especially Levitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics), but nevertheless, a bystander effect has been well documented in the literature. People just don’t typically leap into action in these kinds of situations.
That said, the bystander effect doesn’t really apply in the cases observed in the video since in most of the situations the bystander was alone, not in a group. The bystander effect usually only applies when a person within a larger group refrains from taking action. In the video, the persons being tested are mostly by themselves. So something else has to be causing the inaction.
I don’t believe that the majority of people failed to act because they were apathetic or uncaring. They were just as likely legitimately afraid for their own safety. Furthermore, we don’t know how many of the people who were leaving the area would have contacted the authorities or taken some other action to resolve the situation once they were in a safe place. I did notice a general theme that most of the bystanders in the video were seemingly mild-mannered and not very physically intimidating (except for one guy that seems to come out of nowhere when he hears the ruckus). Were these particular individuals targeted for this because they were the least likely to respond (especially physically)?
It’s Good to Have Options
In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to compel someone to intervene in a physical bullying incident. If the person feels physically and socially capable, then by all means he or she should. But the truth is that many just don’t. It is true that most who witness bullying do want to do something. So we believe it is crucial to equip teens with a variety of tools they can use should they confront a situation like this.
It is important to remember that, unlike the scenario depicted in the video, most teen bullying happens between, and in view of, people who are known. That is, typically witnesses to bullying either know the one doing the bullying, or the one being targeted, or both. If they are not comfortable stepping in at the moment when it occurs, they still have other options for responding:
- tell an adult that they trust will take appropriate action,
- talk to the one who was being bullied after the fact and offer support,
- anonymously report the incident, and persons involved, to their school,
- report cyberbullying to the website it appears on,
- enlist friends to help resolve the conflict, or
- choose another response that does not place themselves at risk for harm.
Without question, we need to do more to equip and empower teens who witness bullying to do something to help (see Chapter 4 of our new book Words Wound, entitled “Start Standing Up, Not Standing By”) . Expecting that they intervene when they see a physical altercation involving complete strangers, though, might not be the best idea for most young people under most circumstances.
Finally, I am concerned that the popularity of this video may lead to unintended consequences. For example, others may be inclined to pursue similar “experiments” with the hope that their video will go viral. This video has been viewed over 3 million times in just a couple of weeks and teens have been known to do whatever it takes to get noticed. What happens if one of the witnesses intervenes with violence before the performers have a chance to let them know it’s just an act? What if someone has a weapon? Plus, teens may target others for harassment, and – if caught – simply point to their friend in the bushes recording the whole thing, and exclaim “it was only an experiment!” I’m sure some opportunistic tormenter will attempt to use something like this as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
I also fear this video might be viewed by some who are being bullied as further confirmation that no one out there really cares about them or is willing to help. While dramatic, maybe it’s even reasonable to conclude that we are all pretty much alone in the world, given the repeated failures of people to intervene on behalf of others, even when they see victimization occur directly in front of them. I am thinking in particular about a teen who is bullied in a more hidden or indirect way, and struggles to explain his or her experiences to a parent or teacher. If a person who directly observes bullying right in front of them doesn’t think it deserves a response, what hope does the teen who suffers in silence have?
Teens: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral!
Next week, our newest book will be released. And we are seriously pumped! Like all of the others, this one is on the topic of cyberbullying. But this book is not like all of the others. Rather, it is the first book on cyberbullying that we know of that was specifically and intentionally written for teens. Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral represents our effort to give youth the tools and inspiration they need to effectively prevent and respond to cyberbullying. And more than that, it encourages them to utilize the power of technology to spread kindness throughout their schools and broader communities.
We’ve long advocated that tackling teen tech problems requires a comprehensive and coordinated effort that includes parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and other community leaders. But it should also involve those who are at the very center of these issues: teens! And we know from the many conversations we have had with teens over the last few years that they do want to be a part of the solution. Until now, however, not much was available to help them. This book changes all of that.
Written for Teens
Whether teens are being cyberbullied, or just tired of seeing it affect their friends and school, Words Wound offers real-world advice that they can put into practice today. The book includes dozens of stories from teens who have experienced cyberbullying or who have worked in their communities to fight it in creative and effective ways. Teens are able to learn directly from those who have been wounded by words, but also from many who refused to stand idly by as their classmates were being mistreated. Readers will come to deeply appreciate the serious harm that comes from cyberbullying, but even more importantly learn the strategies they need to do something about it. Specifically, it empowers teens to combat cruelty with kindness, and to harness the power of positive peer pressure to persuade all teens to act with respect toward others, whether online or off.
It was a blast writing this book because it allowed us to get out of our comfort zone and write much more informally than we usually do. It was as if we were sitting down and having a chat with a teen. We get to hang out with students all of the time in schools all across the U.S. (and beyond), so we feel like we have a solid handle on what they are dealing with and how they are confronting online challenges. And we have also heard from them about what works and what doesn’t.
I deliberately tried to get inside the head of teens as I was writing for this book over this past summer by, for example, listening to current pop music by Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, and Lady Gaga instead of my usual favorites from the early 1990s. In fact, Lady Gaga had a small part in inspiring us to write this book. We were invited to participate in the launch of her Born This Way Foundation in February of 2012. The Foundation is all about empowering youth and giving them “the skills and opportunities they need to build a kinder, braver world.” We love this mission! At the launch event, an audience member asked Lady Gaga what she thought was the best way to teach students how to intervene in bullying incidents. In reply, she explicitly called for more resources to be directed to teens to help them navigate these issues (see 1:02:20 in the video). Upon reflecting on her answer we realized that there really wasn’t much out there for teens on how to deal with cyberbullying. We knew they were thirsty for information, and so we wrote this book.
Also Helpful for Adults
Even though this book is for teens, we also see it as a great resource for parents, educators, or really anyone who works with youth to help them navigate the difficult intersection of adolescence and technology. Adults who read the book will learn from teens themselves as their experiences represent the bulk of the book. They will also be given teen-tested and approved strategies for dealing with cyberbullying, and come to appreciate the importance of their role (and responsibilities) as the “Trusted Adult.” We enlisted input from several teen editors to review the content in the book to make sure the suggestions were realistic, appropriate, and relevant to them (special shout out to Kylie and Kevin who went above and beyond in their efforts to help us!).
Moreover, to assist adults, we’ve created a companion Leader’s Guide which will be freely available and allow teachers, counselors, or youth group leaders to use Words Wound to teach teens about empathy, cyberbullying, and digital citizenship. It includes learning objectives, discussion questions, activities, and assessment questions for every chapter. We believe it is perfect for educators who are looking for a teen-oriented book to guide them through lessons on these difficult concepts. This is especially important given the federal mandate that schools teach about cyberbullying awareness and response.
More Than a Book
Ultimately, our hope for this project is to take it well beyond just the book. We really want to create a mindset among teens where care and compassion become contagious and where cruelty is viewed as simply not cool. We know there are pockets of youth out there in their schools actively promoting this perspective, and a few of their stories are highlighted in the book. We will continue to support their efforts by showcasing success stories on our new teen-oriented website www.wordswound.org and popular social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). Be sure to visit those sites, and continue to follow this blog as we roll out exciting new resources and activities to help teens delete cyberbullying and make kindness go viral!
To pre-order a copy of Words Wound, visit Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound.
Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral
By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja
Many well-meaning researchers and experts have written a number of books for adults that detail the nature and extent of cyberbullying, and offer suggestions for parents, educators, and other adults to effectively respond to the problem. In fact, Dr. Patchin and Dr. Hinduja have written three books just like this! Words Wound is different. This book represents their effort to speak directly to teens. They’ve long argued that it takes a coordinated community effort to address cyberbullying, and teens can and should be a big part of that. And they want to be.
Whether teens are being cyberbullied or simply sick of seeing the drama play out online every single day, Words Wound offers real-world advice that they can put into practice today. The book includes dozens of stories from teens who have experienced cyberbullying or who have worked in their respective schools to stop it in creative and meaningful ways. Readers are able to learn directly from those who have been wounded by cyberbullying, but also from many who refused to put up with it at their schools. Teens will come to deeply appreciate the serious harm that comes with cyberbullying, but more importantly learn the strategies they need to be part of the solution. Specifically, it encourages and empowers them to combat cruelty with kindness, and to harness the power of positive peer pressure to persuade all teens to act with respect toward others.
Patchin and Hinduja have spent more than a decade studying cyberbullying and have spoken to thousands of teens – those who have experienced, participated in, or witnessed cyberbullying. Based on what was learned, they believe teens are uniquely positioned to be the primary catalyst of lasting change in their schools and communities. Words Wound represents a reflection of teen voices and provides a toolkit of helpful and practical ideas based on their varied experiences.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2014). Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral. Minneapolis, MN, Free Spirit Publishing.
Chrysler + RFK SEATBELT Google Hangout – October 2, 3013
Dr. Patchin discusses cyberbullying with Dr. Patti Agatston as a part of Chrysler and RFK Project SEATBELT.
Criminal Charges Filed Against Two Involved in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide
Two girls (a 14 year-old and a 12 year-old) have now been arrested and charged with felony aggravated stalking for their involvement in the bullying of 12 year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick. Rebecca jumped to her death on September 9th after enduring months of bullying, online and off, from as many as 15 classmates at Crystal Lake Middle School. Among the messages were repeated calls for Rebecca to end her life, including “Drink bleach and die” and “Can you Die Please?” She changed her Kik Messenger profile name to “That Dead Girl” and then did just as they had asked, and committed suicide.
Two of the tormenters are now facing criminal charges. But at least one of the them doesn’t seem to be too concerned about that. According to an AP report, the older of the two who were charged allegedly boasted about her behavior toward Rebecca, even after the suicide: “‘Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a …’ and you can add the last word yourself,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd noted, referring to a Facebook post. This kind of response from a teen accused of bullying is actually very rare. Most of the time, when teens are confronted with their bullying behaviors, they are dismissive, but generally apologetic. Not brazen. The question is, does her behavior (or maybe just her attitude) warrant a criminal response?
Additional Criminalization of Cyberbullying Generally Still Not the Answer
I’ve long advocated against the further criminalization of cyberbullying as it occurs among adolescents. As a criminologist, I can appreciate the purpose and role of the criminal justice system to ensure public safety by intervening in targeted and meaningful ways with those who violate the norms of society. Lately, however, our “interventions” have largely amounted to mass incarceration with little offered in terms of rehabilitative services. While the juvenile justice system has traditionally been more focused on providing treatment to troubled youth rather than simply locking them up, the scarcity of resources certainly has constrained the ability of juvenile and family courts across the country to provide the type of comprehensive programming needed to solve the underlying problems.
As a result, the justice system (for minors and adults alike) should be reserved for the most serious of cases involving the most obstinate of offenders for which alternative remedies have failed. It is unknown whether any of the girls involved in bullying Rebecca had been disciplined at home, at school, or elsewhere. Given the seriousness of the actions committed over an extended period of time, coupled with the ultimate outcome, perhaps this is precisely the kind of case where a criminal charge is warranted.
But I am still reluctant to resign myself to that position, especially given the ages of the girls involved. What they did was wrong and requires intervention and appropriate discipline. I’m not sure, however, that prosecuting them criminally brings us any closer to solving this problem among teens. It is unlikely to deter them from future misbehavior (any more than other school and family responses), and is even less likely to deter others from similar behaviors. In general, an adolescent’s behavior is more influenced by caring adults and peers than the threat of legal sanction. So it is the primary responsibility of parents and educators to work together to prevent incidents from escalating to this point, and to work together to come up with an appropriate response strategy when it does.
What About the Parents and the School?
Many have rightly asked “Where were the parents in all of this?” It appears that Rebecca’s parents were trying to do everything in their power to resolve the situation. She contacted the school but when the behaviors continued she felt it necessary to remove her daughter from the environment and home-school her. Even with that, the bullying continued. Not much is known about how the parents of those accused of doing the bullying responded. Some have suggested that the parents be charged for their inability to control the behaviors of their children. Holding parents accountable for the behavior of their children is challenging, but may be applicable when parents know about delinquent behavior but fail to make a reasonable effort to stop it. It is very likely that the parents in this case will claim that they had no idea about the nature and extent of their child’s online behaviors. They should have.
It’s also unclear what actions the school took to remedy this situation. Schools have a responsibility to ensure a safe learning environment for all students in their buildings and from what is being reported, Rebecca was bullied at school for months. Clearly she did not feel safe since her parents felt it was necessary to remove her from the school. Not only do schools have an obligation to respond to bullying, but they must do so in a way that stops the bullying. For example, last year a jury ordered Pine Plains Central School District pay a former student $1 million dollars when he was unable to attend his regular high school because of repeated harassment. In this case the school did respond by suspending those who were doing the bullying when it was reported to them, but the court said that they should have taken more steps to ensure the bullying ceased.
In short, the vast majority of bullying and cyberbullying incidents can and should be handled by parents working with schools to resolve the situation in a way that ends the bullying. It seems that there were many missed opportunities in this particular case where those adults could have gotten involved to stop the bullying more effectively, but didn’t. The bottom line is that the bullying needs to stop. If it doesn’t, then additional steps need to be taken until it does. A criminal charge should fall at the far end of any comprehensive continuum of punishment and reserved for those rare instances where all other efforts fail.