Peers’ beliefs greatly influence how kids respond to bullying situations

Exploring social norms helps early adolescents understand what’s underneath passive responses to bullying and ways they can move toward helping and caring responses.

Bullying is not an isolated process that only involves those who carry out harmful behaviors and those who are targeted. It nearly always takes place within a larger social context that involves many others – young people and adults – as witnesses to what’s going on.

Among these witnesses (also called bystanders), some actively support and reinforce the negative behaviors. Others use their voices to discourage the bullying by doing things like “calling out” the behaviors, defending and supporting the victim, redirecting the situation or finding help. Still others – the vast majority of those around the circle – are passive onlookers who do nothing. Many experts believe that tapping the power of these passive bystanders is the key to making positive change in the settings where bullying takes place, and some stress the importance of exploring the social norms that support these behaviors.

There are many reasons why people of all ages find it hard to take action when they see bullying happening – whether the action is to step up and try to interrupt the hurtful behaviors or to find a way to support the person who’s being targeted. This can be particularly true during the developmental stage of early adolescence (usually defined as ages 11 to 14) when young people have a strong desire to fit in with their peers. When they witness a bullying situation, they may decide not to take any action at all because they expect that someone else will step in. And if no one else does intervene, they may see this as “social proof” from their peers (as well as from adults who may be present) that the situation isn’t serious, doesn’t matter isn’t their concern, or all of these.

Young people might also be afraid to take action if the bullying is being done by someone they see as popular and powerful – feeling that doing so could result in being targeted themselves and leading to their own loss of social status. Some studies have also shown that young people may even silently identify with the aggressor and blame the person being targeted (thinking that he or she “deserves it”), which can lead to a spiral of victimized kids becoming even more victimized over time.

Parents, educators and others who work with early adolescents should find opportunities to involve them in conversations about their own and their peers’ beliefs, actions, words and social norms that may be promoting harm to others. Examining these influences is an important first step in helping young people move from being passive bystanders to becoming active allies in addressing hurtful bullying behaviors.

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