The Positive Snowball Effect – Bullying, Bystanders, and You

bullying inside a library
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on


Today I was reading an abstract of an article from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. The article was titled “Peer Bystanders to Bullying: Who Wants to Play with the Victim?” (Howard AM, 2013 Jun 26). The article outlines a study that was done to see the effect of peer responses to bullying. Basically they put some boys ages 10-15 years old in a waiting room with some actors of the same age. The actors were to play the parts of bully, victim, and bystander. Later all the boys were sent to play a game together. The child actors exhibited escalating bullying episodes and in different scenarios the bystander’s behavior varied from aide to the bully, defender of the victim, or passive outsider. The study included about 200 boys and I think the results are a very clear indication of why it is important to talk to children about how to react to bullying.

How much does peer behavior influence our kids and the way they treat other people? I would like to think my children treat everyone with kindness and are not influenced negatively by their peers but is this truth or just wishful thinking?

According to the results of the study is seems that when the bystander was passive the other boys had a tendency to disengage from the bullying and it “decreased their willingness to include the victim in the game.” To me this shows that when children observe bullying it is crucial that they defend the victim, not just refrain from bullying themselves. I think of it as a positive snowball effect. By standing up for the victim others will notice and go out of their way to include the victim in other activities as well.

Doing this is not always easy. Most children, and adults for that matter, are often afraid to get involved. They don’t know what to say or they might be afraid that the bully will turn on them. They might even be embarrassed to be associated with the victim. This is why talking about what to do with our kids is so important. I often discuss how to handle this with my children. I tell them the importance of standing up for other kids if they see them getting picked on. I also encourage them to talk to new students – no one likes being the new kid. I remind them it does not mean you will be their best friend or even that you will remain friends but it does help the new student transition until they are comfortable.

What do you do to teach your children or students about bullying? We cannot expect our children to know how to handle such a hard situation without training. We teach them to look both ways before they cross the street and how to say please and thank you. Just telling a child to be kind is not enough. Experts suggest that we role play with our kids, ask them open ended questions on how they would handle a situation, ask them how it would make them feel if they were the victim.

Be specific. For example, “If you were in a group of people and someone made fun of you how would you feel?” or “Pretend you’re sitting down alone and a group of kids started asking you questions that made you uncomfortable what would you do? How would you feel if they made fun of you? How would you feel if others were watching and did not say anything?” Then make suggestions on how they should respond and finally act it out with a few kids. This not only helps the children who are being bullied but the bystanders as well. It is very empowering for children to have a plan of action and to know they are doing the right thing.

Here is a link to the abstract of the original article. I hope this inspires you to talk to your child or your students about what they can do to help make bullies back down.
Here are some other resources to help you implement an anti-bullying campaign in your area.
by Alycia Shapiro – Co-Founder & President of SensoryEdge

Questions? You can email Alycia at
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At SensoryEdge our focus is to educate, inform, and inspire each person caring for children to be and do their very best. It is not always easy and sometimes we don't take action (or we take the wrong action) because of a lack of understanding the real issues. We hope that the conversations that occur here will help in some small way better the lives of children, their families, and the professionals who work with them. We are always looking for valuable contributions to our site so if you are interested in becoming a contributor contact us.