Voices in Education

Stand Up or Bystand? New Insights on Bullying
Why do we hear so much about bullying in schools today? Is bullying worse now than ever before? Or is it just more visible to the outside world—more pervasive in the new digital era?

Some would argue that whether or not the dynamics of bullying are worse or better now, they are at least very different. One thing that is different is that we do know more—anecdotally, clinically, and empirically—about those social relationships within the youth culture that are usually clumped together under the umbrella of bullying. For example, research shows that most adolescents have negative attitudes toward peer victimization and express interest in helping victims. It also shows that when young adolescents witness situations of bullying in their schools and take action to protect the victim by expressing disapproval to the perpetrators, the prevalence of bullying is likely to decrease. And yet it will come as no surprise that social scientists, like people in general, find that most adolescent witnesses remain uninvolved when someone else actually suffers the impact of bullying, be it by the fists of a lone assailant or by the cutting words of the members of a popular clique. Faced with this paradox we wonder: Why is there such a disconnect between what students say they would do and what they actually do when they witness bullying in their schools?

Our own research, published in the Harvard Educational Review, shows that the witnesses’ lack of upstanding cannot be reduced simply to fear or blind obedience to a group. Instead, we find that students’ responses to bullying are regulated by a complex system of rules of the culture—a set of socially constructed prescriptions for action that students receive from the different groups to which they belong. These complex and often subtle rules of the culture are connected to ancient aspects of our human nature that have been around for a long time, have survived in many different cultures and will survive in the new virtual worlds that are rapidly appearing. We identify these aspects of human nature as three fundamental personal needs: safety, connection, and power.

Based on our research, we argue that to reduce the prevalence and negative impact of bullying in schools, we must include all students in transforming the rules of the culture that enable harassment. Furthermore, we must ensure that the rules of the school culture provide all students with mechanisms to fulfill their personal needs for safety, connection, and power in ways that are positive and socially constructive.

We close with the following question and look forward to the conversation that ensues: How can we most effectively work in schools and other community settings to take advantage of the rules of the culture that ameliorate the virulent aspects of bullying (especially those intensified by 24/7 access to social networks) while nevertheless acknowledging that, like the common cold, social conflict can never be fully eradicated?

About the Author: Silvia Diazgranados Ferráns is a New Civics Early Career Spencer Scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Robert L. Selman is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Human Development and Education and the founder (in 1992) of the Prevention Science and Practice Program within the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are the authors of "Rules of the Culture and Personal Needs: Witnesses’ Decision-Making Processes to Deal with Situations of Bullying in Middle School" (Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2012).