Peers are important allies to those targeted by bullying
Youth who are bullied say that support from peers is even more powerful than support from adults, and that strategies used by both groups can make a positive difference.
When young people witness bullying happening to others, their most common response is a passive one – or at least that’s how they might appear externally. This might be because they expect that someone else will take action to interrupt the situation. They might also believe that if no one does intervene to stop it, this is proof that the situation isn’t serious, doesn’t matter, isn’t their concern or all of these. They may also be afraid to take action, especially if the bullying is being done by someone they see as popular and powerful. They fear that taking action could result in being targeted themselves or losing their own social status.
Young people may also feel like they don’t know how to step-in and use their voice and that doing so could make things even worse for the person being targeted, and studies on the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs show this to be true. Depending on the skills and approaches used by bystanders who do speak up to interrupt the behaviors, the bullying might come to an end or it might escalate. What is clear from recent research is that kids who have been victimized say that there are some strategies used by other youth that have been really important in helping things get better.
The Youth Voice Project from Pennsylvania State University used a questionnaire with young people in grades 5 to 12 from around the country to get their perspectives about the effectiveness of school programs designed to reduce bullying and harassment. Youth who reported being mistreated by their peers were asked to share their thoughts about the effectiveness of self-strategies (telling people to stop, walking away, fighting back, telling an adult, etc.), actions by educators and actions by their peers. They reported that both school staff and their peers gave significant positive support by connecting with them, encouraging them and listening to them – and the support of peers was even more powerful than that of adults.
This speaks to the importance of helping young people explore, develop, strengthen and practice ally behaviors. Give them opportunities to role play scenarios where they can make it clear that they don’t support hurtful behaviors. Invite them to think about ways to connect with others in order to build or deepen relationships, share ideas and offer support. Let them know that this doesn’t mean they need to become “best friends” with everyone, but they can find ways to check in on a regular basis with kids who need this kind of support.
They can also look for opportunities to include them in public ways – sitting with then at lunch or on the bus, walking with them between classes, or inviting them to join a team or youth group. Finally, they can look for ways to help those who have been targeted get help from adults. In the Youth Voice Project survey findings, youth reported that having their peers offer to go with them to talk with adults about being bullied was one of the helpful peer strategies for improving their situation.