Help youth explore their roles for interrupting hurtful bullying

Promote ways that young people can change from being passive bystanders, to positive allies if they witness bullying situations.

When bullying situations occur among young people – whether they happen face-to-face or through electronic means – they often involve a larger circle of bystanders or witnesses. The responses of these onlookers can significantly influence these situations. Bystanders can “egg on,” reinforce and escalate the bullying behaviors, worsening the situation for the person being targeted. Bystanders may also choose to stay silent for a variety of reasons, including concern for their own safety or a belief that the person being targeted deserves what’s happening. Unfortunately, this silence can also be seen as reinforcing the hurtful behaviors.

Other youth who witness bullying taking place may choose to intervene in supportive, visible and helpful ways. They might use their voices in the moment to interrupt the behaviors, they might get help from an adult or they might reach out to the person being targeted – all of which have been identified by kids as helpful peer responses. Through these kinds of actions, young people are modeling ways to move from being passive bystanders to being powerful allies. Allies are people who support the struggles that someone else is going through and who use their voices and actions in positive and helpful ways.

Understanding why some kids intervene while others choose not to was the focus of a study recently highlighted in the Journal of Early Adolescence. The study explored the perceptions of elementary and middle school students about bullying situations and their responsibilities for intervening. The researchers found that young people who had positive attitudes about those who were being bullied felt a higher responsibility to intervene and were more likely to take positive action. The study also examined ways that peers and parents affected the students’ actions. If students believed that their peers and parents valued and supported taking positive action to interrupt bullying situations, the students indicated they were more likely to intervene.

Some experts stress that taking time to explore what influences our roles within bullying situations – including the attitudes and beliefs of those around us – is a critical part of bullying prevention efforts. They also stress the importance of providing opportunities for young people (and adults) to build, strengthen and practice a menu of strategies for being positive allies. These opportunities can better position all of us to respond from a place of care and concern for both those who are being targeted by hurtful bullying behaviors and those who are carrying out the behaviors.

Creating opportunities for this kind of dialogue and skill-building is the focus of a new Michigan State University Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments. Designed for use in out-of-school settings (such as 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts and afterschool programs), Be SAFE is designed to help youth (ages 11-14) and adults work in partnership to create settings that are physically and emotionally safe. For more information about Be SAFE, you can download a free PDF of the Introduction section of the 224 page guide at the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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