6 Ways Bullying Impacts Bystanders

Kids who witness bullying may be as affected as victims

girl peeking around a corner

Most people do not enjoy seeing other people hurt. As a result, watching another person be bullied can have a huge impact. In fact, witnessing bullying creates a wide range of emotions and stresses that can take a toll on the bystander. From anxiety and uncertainty, to fear and guilt, bullying significantly impacts bystanders.

In fact, preliminary research suggests that kids who witness bullying may be as much at risk psychologically as the victims and the bullies.

And much like victims of bullying, their physical health, mental health and even academics can be affected. Here are six ways bystanders are impacted by bullying.

Bystander Effect

Bystanders also can be affected by what is known as the bystander effect, which happens when a group of people watch a bullying incident and no one responds.

During a bullying incident, one person is likely to help the victim. But in a group of three or more people, no one person feels like it is their responsibility to take action. So as a group, they are less likely to step forward and help the victim.

According to John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were the first to research this phenomenon in 1968, individuals are slow to respond because of what is known as diffusion of responsibility. When this occurs, bystanders feel like the responsibility to do something is shared by the entire group. So it slows their response or they fail to respond at all.

Additionally, bystanders may be slow to respond because they are monitoring others in the group for their reaction. They are trying to determine if the situation is serious enough to do something and they will watch to see if someone else will step forward. Sometimes when no one steps forward, bystanders feel justified in doing nothing.

This inaction is often referred to as the bystander effect.


Some bystanders are plagued by uncertainty. They see the bullying and know in their heart that it is wrong, but they have no idea what to do. This is why parents and educators need to empower bystanders on appropriate ways to respond. There are a number of things that bystanders can do to help, but oftentimes they do not know what those things are. With a little guidance though, kids can learn how to respond when witnessing bullying.


Fear is another reason why bystanders fail to do anything when they witness bullying. Some bystanders are afraid to say anything because they fear embarrassment or ridicule. They also may worry that they will say or do the wrong thing and make the bullying worse. So instead they remain silent. Meanwhile, other bystanders are afraid of being injured or becoming the next target if they come to the victim’s defense. And others are fearful of rejection. They worry that others in the group will turn on them, make fun or them or ostracize them if they stand up for the victim.


After the bullying incident is over, many bystanders are weighed down with guilt. Not only do they feel bad for what happened to the victim, but they also experience overwhelming guilt for not intervening. They also can feel guilty for not knowing what to do or for being too fearful to step in. What's more, this guilt can weigh on their minds long after the bullying has ended.

Approach-Avoidance Conflict

The combination of fear and guilt can lead to what is known as an approach-avoidance conflict. This phenomenon occurs when there is a sincere desire to help with a situation but an equally strong desire to avoid the situation. When it comes to bullying, kids can feel guilty for not helping and too scared to help at the same time. It is like they are being pulled in two directions at once. Sometimes the urge to help is stronger and wins out. Sometimes the fear of consequences is higher. The result is indecisiveness, which leads to feeling out of control and produces high levels of stress and anxiety for the bystander.


Bystanders also can develop anxiety about bullying. After witnessing a bullying incident, some bystanders begin to worry that they will be the next targets especially if the bullying is severe or an ongoing issue at the school. This anxiety also can lead the bystander to worry about safety and security at school. This then makes concentration difficult. Bystanders sometimes are so overcome by anxiety that they avoid the areas where bullying occurs. They also may avoid social events and other activities due to anxiety about bullying.

Sometimes, in an attempt to cope with anxiety and to avoid becoming targets, bystanders may join cliques or succumb to peer pressure. Bystanders may even become bullies just to avoid being bullied themselves.

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