Bystander Roles in Bullying

“There are no innocent bystanders.” – author William S. Burroughs

The act of bullying is often a complicated expression of the two main characters: the perpetrator(s) and the target. states that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school age children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying is the exploitation of that imbalance of power between the aggressor and the target. The reasons why a child may engage in bullying behavior are important to understand, but it is also important to learn about the other children who are witnessing the event. They play a dynamic role in bullying as well and these children are the bystanders.

Bullying occurs for a variety of reasons depending on the child committing the bullying act. In many bullying instances, the perpetrator is motivated by power, high status and visibility. If that is the case, the bully needs bystanders. Bullies are selective as to whom they target and who is present, and this is especially true for the offender who is seeking a higher social status and popularity. Children who engage in becoming a bully will select targets who are less likely to strike back and will also engage in bullying behavior when there are other children available to witness the act (bystanders.)

Bystanders play an important role in bullying for several reasons. First, youth who bully others are often perceived as popular by their classmates especially during adolescence. One study states that youth who engage in aggressive behavior become increasingly popular over time. Secondly, when no child challenges the behavior of bullies, other students come to falsely perceive it as others approving of it. This is called pluralistic ignorance. Lastly, bullies carefully select their targets based on the target appearing submissive or insecure. The perpetrator of bullying will gain the maximum social accolades with peers/bystanders at the same time as reducing their risk of harm or loss of affection from their peers.

Dan Olweus, PhD, is a Swedish-Norwegian psychologist widely regarded as a pioneer of research on bullying. Part of his contribution is the concept of the Bullying Circle which explain the various roles children play when bullying happens. A wonderful graphic adaption of the Bullying Circle is featured below with the permission of Barbara Coloroso, best-selling international author, consultant, speaker and BRRC board member.

Bystanders can engage in various roles and are supporters (even if they are silent) to bullying. There is a price to pay for children who are bystanders as their self-confidence and self-respect can be diminished.

The various bystander roles are:

  • Henchmen – They take an active part in the bullying but do not plan or start the bullying.
  • Active Supporters – These children may encourage the bullying and seek social and material gain.
  • Passive Supporters – Appear to enjoy the bullying however do not show open support.
  • Disengaged Onlookers – Children in this category may turn away and feel like it is none of their business.
  • Potential Witnesses – These students oppose the bullying and know they should help and do not act.

Bullying research states that raising children’s awareness about all the roles in the bullying process can clear the path for moving more children into the upstander and defender role. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can aid in increasing student engagement, understanding and creating empathy. Teachers should have their students reflect on their behaviors when witnessing bullying and facilitate discussions and brainstorm different ways to respond the bullying. Schools and teachers should provide safe and effective strategies to report bullying and support the bullying target. Just as peers can serve to “encourage” bullying, they can also encourage resisting, reporting and aiding children caught in the crossfire of bullying.

Looking at the Bullying Circle, it becomes obvious that we want to assist children to proceed counterclockwise to become the resister, defender or as BRRC labels it, an upstander. The leap from potential witness is much less challenging than from being a henchman or active supporter. Over and over research states that even just one person having the strength to resist the bully and defend the targeted child can stop the bully and provide comfort and compassion to the bullying target.


By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center