In almost every tragic case of bullying, there are bystanders. They see the scuffles in the school hallway, and read the vicious stream of insults on Facebook, and look away, or log off. They are both the nervous audience for the bully, and the tear-stained faces in the school assembly when a student commits suicide and the grief counsellors step in.
But they are also the ones with the real power on the playground – more than parents and teachers. One student confronting a bully is often enough to stop the abuse instantly, Canadian research has found. But support doesn't even need to be that daring: In a U.S. national survey, victims said that peers helped most by simply spending time with them, and sharing advice.
And yet research suggests that students offer assistance on the scene or later less than 25 per cent of the time. Improve that number by teaching the right skills, experts say, and we might not read so many horrible headlines about teenagers like Jenna Bowers-Bryanton, who would rather die than face the bullies.
Jenna, a 15-year-old aspiring songwriter from Truro, N.S., killed herself in January after months of bullying at school and online. She received hateful text messages on her cellphone in the middle of the night. She was pushed in the hallway at school. Online, the insults bruised like punches: You are ugly, you are fat, you should kill yourself. She had few defenders, says her mother, Pam Murchison.
At Jenna's funeral, friends left letters in a basket under her urn to be buried with her. Ms. Murchison said the letters included a common regret: Dear Jenna, I wish I had done more to help you.
"They didn't do much of anything," says Ms. Murchison, though she understood why. "They were afraid of being the next victim."
Helpless observers also suffer: A 2009 British survey found they may feel as much depression and anxiety after a bullying incident as the victim. In a recent survey by Wendy Craig, a Queen's University psychologist and a leading Canadian researcher on bullying, students said they wanted to help, but didn't step in because they didn't know how, were worried about being considered "a rat" if they told a teacher, or didn't trust adults to be effective.
Her research shows that when students spoke up, or jumped in physically, half of the incidents ended abruptly. Telling an adult is the ideal response – the more students who come forward, the more likely school officials will react. But in the higher grades, Dr. Craig said, teenagers need specific skills: how to rally their friends to face down the bully or reach out to the victim.
Too often, says Stan Davis, the author of Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention, kids get the message that directly confronting the bully is the only option. But, he points out in an e-mail interview, "We adults do not do this when we see a parent yelling at their child in a store or if we witness a robbery. Instead, we might make a distraction in the case of a parent, or call 911 in the case of a robbery."
According to a 2010 survey of 13,000 U.S. students from Grade 5 to Grade 12, victims of bullying reported that bystanders were the most helpful when they comforted them after the fact, helped them get away from the situation, or gave them advice. Telling an adult was farther down on the list. And they ranked all those actions higher than direct intervention.
What makes the difference may be numbers: A chorus of voices, especially online, can change the conversation. The presence of silent digital bystanders is particularly poisonous – the victim is invisible, and one joking comment can quickly set off a competitive string of nasty insults.
Sabrina Friskie, a Grade 11 student at Westminster Secondary School in London, Ont., describes this scenario: Someone tagged a picture of another student with a nasty comment, but because it was on a third party's Facebook page, the target of the insult couldn't remove it. Ms. Friskie sent the link to a couple of friends, who joined her in criticizing the original poster online. The picture was quickly taken down.
"It's important to have a group," says Ms. Friskie, who is performing in a school play that explores bullying, this week. "Otherwise, you feel like you're drowning in everyone's negativity."
While parents worry their kids might be victims (and emphasize how not to be a bully), the bystander role is often ignored, researchers say. Online, for instance, teenagers don't realize that sending a link or adding to the hits can contribute to bullying, says Shaheen Shariff, an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University who studies cyberbullying. Her research shows that the larger the number of "cyber-voyeurs," the longer the bullying persists, and the worse it gets.
"It's all about socially responsible digital citizenship," she says – helping teenagers recognize that they can bring about a positive change in the online culture. (Parents have to be part of that conversation, she says, although teens are reluctant to discuss their negative online experiences, often because they think mom and dad will limit their Internet time an attempt to protect them.)
For Jenna, who was struggling with depression, the taunts were too much. Now her mother speaks at school assemblies to remind students to look out for each other.
" 'Just leave it alone, mom,' " Ms. Murchison recalls her daughter saying not long before she died. " 'I'll look after it.' " But she couldn't – not on her own.
Editor's Note: Westminster Secondary School is a public high school located in south London, Ontario. An incorrect location was given in the earlier version of this story.