Bearing Witness to Bullying

Matthew JohnsonOne of the biggest changes in our understanding of bullying has been an increased awareness of the important role witnesses play in any bullying situation. This has been partially because of cyberbullying, which makes it possible for witnesses to be invisible, to join in anonymously, to revictimize a target by forwarding bullying material – or to intervene, to offer support to the target and to bear witness to what they have seen. Just as we're coming to realize how important witnesses to bullying are, though, we need to be careful to recognize how complex their role is.

It's only been recently that research has paid attention to the role of witnesses in bullying scenarios, and few studies focus specifically on witnesses. [1] What research has been done has shown that witnesses can be just as important as targets or perpetrators in determining how a bullying scenario plays out [2] and that witnesses may suffer negative effects that are as bad or worse as those suffered by the target. [3]

Unfortunately, while our messages to youth about what to do when they're targets of bullying have become much more nuanced, the instructions they get on what to do if they witness bullying remain black-and-white: stand up to defend the target and report the incident to an adult authority. These rules are often accompanied by a heavy dose of shaming, with the implication being that to remain silent is to take the bully's side; some laws and policies have even made it mandatory for students to report bullying if they see it.

There's no question that it's possible for witnesses to do a great deal of harm, whether it's by directly joining in the bullying, encouraging the perpetrator, or even revictimizing the target by sharing a bullying post or video. It's also well-established that when witnesses to bullying stand up and defend the target it can make a tremendous and positive difference – but not in every situation. There may be just as many cases where intervening can do greater harm to the target, the witness, or both, and witnesses may have a number of valid reasons for not wanting to report bullying when they see it.

In considering what advice to give youth who witness cyberbullying, we might begin by asking why they might choose to report it. A number of psychological mechanisms have been identified that can make people less likely to intervene in a situation that they're witnessing: the bystander effect, which makes us less likely to act if we're part of a crowd; moral disengagement, where we convince ourselves not to intervene on the grounds that what's happening is "just a joke" or "isn't that serious" or that the target "deserved it"; and the modeling by schools, parents, and popular media that may discourage intervention. All of these are regularly cited by bullying experts as barriers that we have to mitigate and teach youth to overcome. As well though, there are a number of quite reasonable fears that might make someone reluctant to report or intervene in a bullying situation:

  • Fear of being a target. Saying that anyone who witnesses bullying should confront the perpetrator is not unlike suggesting that everyone who sees a mugging should try to stop it. Standing up to defend a target – especially if you turn out to be the only person who stands up – can easily lead to becoming a target yourself, without necessarily having a positive effect on the situation.
  • Fear of loss of social status. Even if intervening or reporting doesn't lead to the witness becoming a target, it can still have long-term effects on a young person's social status, either by being associated with the target (youth who are marginalized for reasons such as poverty, [4] disability, [5] being a member of a visible minority group [6] and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender status [7] are substantially more likely to be targets) or being labeled a "snitch" – both of which may easily be preludes to being a target of bullying.
  • Fear of escalating the situation. Both targets of and witnesses to bullying often fear that either standing up to a bully or reporting bullying to a parent or teacher is more likely to make things worse than better. Many of the youth who participated in our Young Canadians in a Wired World focus groups [] said that they were reluctant to report bullying to teachers because they felt the situation was likely to go out of control, especially in cases where teachers were bound by "zero tolerance" policies to respond to cyberbullying complaints in a particular way. While a 2012 study found that reporting bullying to school staff or a parent succeeded in ending the bullying more than half the time (57 percent and 61 percent respectively) the researchers did not ask what consequences there might have been in the cases where it did not work. [8]

There are other ways in which a witness can make things worse by intervening, as well. Imagine if a straight or closeted gay youth is being harassed with homophobic comments and a well-meaning witness tries to defend him by saying "There's nothing wrong with being gay!" Despite their good intentions, the witness will have unwittingly contributed to the bullying. Moreover, it is often difficult – especially for a witness who only sees part of a bullying relationship – to determine who the original perpetrator is: one 2012 study found that 39 percent of respondents gave "revenge" as their reason for bullying someone and 10 percent said it was because "I'm being bullied myself." [9] Most teachers have seen examples where more socially adept students quietly taunt a victim until she finally reacts in an outburst that gets the victim, and not the initiator, into trouble; similarly, youth in virtual worlds frequently use "report buttons" and other mechanisms for reporting bullying to target new or younger players. [10]

Even more complex are reciprocal bullying situations where two people may play the role of both target and perpetrator – what youth often refer to as "drama." In these cases, intervention by witnesses can prolong the conflict, make it more severe and even lead to other bullying relationships as friends of each participant line up and intervene on her behalf. One of the sources in Alice Marwick and danah boyd's paper The Drama: Teen Conflict, Gossip and Bullying in Networked Publics gave this example of drama:

There’s a girl from West Beverly that got in an argument with a girl from South Beverly and they were at a party. So then when I looked on Facebook the next day there were all of these comments on [there] like “I love you, I don’t think you’re a— whatever the girl called her.”

Marwick and boyd's sources also said it is the participation of witnesses that feeds drama: "Other teens talked about the involvement of other people 'with no lives' who jumped into arguments 'where they didn’t belong.'" [11]


Given the potentially negative consequences of intervening in a bullying scenario, should we be telling witnesses not to intervene? The short answer is no; there's plenty of evidence that suggests that under the right circumstances intervention can have positive effects. What we do need to do is develop more nuanced advice for witnesses, provide them with tools that make intervention easier and less risky, and teach them a variety of strategies for different contexts.

To begin with, we need to make it easier for witnesses to report bullying without fear of consequences. Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center recommends a system that allows students to report bullying incidents anonymously, in order to minimize the risk of being made a target or labeled a "snitch." [12] This program seems to have had good results at those schools that have implemented it, but it needs to be handled delicately. To begin with, if it's accompanied by a "zero tolerance" bullying policy that prevents teachers and administrators from using their best judgment in responding to complaints, students will be unlikely to report bullying. As well, it's important to remember that it's difficult to be genuinely anonymous in a small society such as a school. One of the participants in our Young Canadians in a Wired World focus groups explained how even anonymous reports can have fallout for the target:

I remember back when I was in Grade 7, I was bullied a little and, like after gym class one day, and that same guy got called down to the office, I didn't tell anything, but everybody thought that I snitched on him, so I actually got bullied more because they thought that I snitched.

A good starting principle for witnesses would be "first, do no harm." As well as not participating in the bullying, witnesses should be encouraged to think ethically about their responsibilities as witnesses. Rather than automatically following any single rule, young people who witness cyberbullying have to think carefully about the possible consequences of the different ways they may react. Instead of telling youth to report and intervene each time they witness bullying, we can teach them to think of themselves as active participants in the situation, and consider different approaches for different situations, such as:

  • Document the bullying and, if it seems that it will do more good than harm, report it
  • Comfort the target and offer help privately
  • Mediate between the target and perpetrator
  • Confront the perpetrator

While the role of witnesses to bullying is important, we shouldn't let it distract us from the larger factors that make bullying more or less likely. If we're going to tell witnesses to take an active role in bullying scenarios, we need to make sure that they're getting the same message from school staff, parents and media. We can empower witnesses to act by only changing our culture – in each school and in society at large – so that all people are expected to take responsibility for what they do online.

[1] Levy, Nathaniel et al. Bullying in a Networked Era: A Literature Review. The Kinder & Braver World Project Research Series, September 2012.

[2] Hawkins, D., Pepler, D. & Craig, W. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development, 10, 512-527.

[3] Rivers et al. Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (4): 211.

[4] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012). Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.

[5] Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., Ólafsson, K., with members of the EU Kids Online Network (2011) ‘EU Kids Online Final Report’.

[6] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012). Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.

[7] Hinduja, S., and Patchin, J. (2011) ‘Cyberbullying Research Summary Factsheet: Bullying, Cyberbullying and Sexual Orientation’.

[8] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents. MediaSmarts, 2012.

[9] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012). Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.

[10] Collier, Anne. "Cyberbullying: The view from behind a kids' Web site.", October 27 2011. <>

[11] Marwick, Dr. Alice and Dr. danah boyd. “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, September 2011, September 12, 2011.

[12] Hinduja, Sameer. "Anonymous Reporting for Bullying and Cyberbullying Incidents." Cyberbullying Research Center, November 29 2012. <>