6 Ways Bullying Impacts Bystanders

Kids Who Witness Bullying May Be as Affected as Victims

girl peeking around a corner

Watching another person being bullied can have a huge impact. After all, most people are bothered when they see someone injured or insulted. In fact, witnessing bullying creates a wide range of emotions and stresses that can take a toll on the bystander. From anxiety and uncertainty, to fear and guilt, bullying significantly impacts bystanders.

In fact, preliminary research suggests that kids who witness bullying may be as much at risk psychologically as the victims and the bullies. And much like victims of bullying, their physical health, mental health, and even academics can be affected.

Bystander Effect

Bystanders to bullying can be affected by what is known as the bystander effect, which happens when a group of people watch a bullying incident and no one responds. During a bullying incident, if there is only one witness, that one person is likely to help the victim. But in a group of three or more people, no one person feels like it is their responsibility to take action. So as a group, they are less likely to step forward and help the victim.

According to John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were the first to research this phenomenon in 1970, individuals are slow to respond because of what is known as diffusion of responsibility. When this occurs, bystanders feel like the responsibility to do something is shared by the entire group. So it slows their response. Or, they fail to respond at all.

Additionally, bystanders may be slow to respond because they are monitoring others in the group for their reactions. They are trying to determine if the situation is serious enough to do something, and they will watch to see if someone else will step forward. Sometimes when no one steps forward, bystanders feel justified in doing nothing. This inaction is often referred to as the bystander effect.


Some bystanders are plagued by uncertainty. They see the bullying and know in their heart that it is wrong, but they have no idea what to do. For this reason, parents and educators need to empower bystanders with appropriate ways to respond. There are a number of things that bystanders can do to help, but oftentimes they do not know what those things are. With a little guidance though, kids can learn how to respond when witnessing bullying.


Fear is another reason why bystanders fail to do anything when they witness bullying. Some bystanders are afraid to say anything because they fear embarrassment or ridicule. They also may worry that they will say or do the wrong thing and make the bullying worse. So instead, they remain silent. Meanwhile, other bystanders are afraid of being injured or becoming the next target if they come to the victim’s defense. And others are fearful of rejection. They worry that others in the group will turn on them, make fun or them, or ostracize them if they stand up for the victim.


After the bullying incident is over, many bystanders are weighed down with guilt. Not only do they feel bad for what happened to the victim, but they also experience overwhelming guilt for not intervening. They also can feel guilty for not knowing what to do, or for being too fearful to step in. What's more, this guilt can weigh on their minds long after the bullying has ended. For this reason, bystanders are often plagued by the same effects from bullying that the victim's experience.

Approach-Avoidance Conflict

When bystanders experience the combination of fear and guilt, this can lead to what is known as approach-avoidance conflict. This phenomenon occurs when there is a sincere desire to help with a situation, but an equally strong desire to avoid the situation. When it comes to bullying, kids can feel guilty for not helping, and yet too scared to help at the same time. It is like they are being pulled in two directions at once. Sometimes the urge to help is stronger and wins out. Sometimes the fear of consequences is higher. The result is indecisiveness, which leads to feeling out of control and produces high levels of stress and anxiety for the bystander.


Bystanders also can develop anxiety about bullying. After witnessing a bullying incident, some bystanders begin to worry that they will be the next targets especially if the bullying is severe or an ongoing issue at the school. This anxiety also can lead the bystander to worry about safety and security at school. These concerns then make concentration difficult. Bystanders sometimes are so overcome by anxiety that they avoid the areas where bullying occurs. They also may avoid social events and other activities due to anxiety about bullying. Sometimes, in an attempt to cope with anxiety and to avoid becoming targets, bystanders may join cliques or succumb to peer pressure. Bystanders may even become bullies just to avoid being bullied themselves.

A Word From Verywell

Watching another person suffer is never easy. But it can be difficult to know what to do. If your child frequently witnesses bullying at school, it is important that you equip them with the tools they need to report bullying. In fact, all teens should know what to do if they witnesses bullying at their school or in their community. By empowering your teen to help, instead of standing by and watching, you are helping put an end to the bullying. 

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rivers I, Poteat VP, Noret N, Ashurst N. Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. Sch Psychol Q. 2009;24(4):211-223. doi:10.1037/a0018164

  3. Latane B, Darley JM. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help?. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts; 1970.

  4. Thornberg R, Tenenbaum L, Varjas K, Meyers J, Jungert T, Vanegas G. Bystander motivation in bullying incidents: to intervene or not to intervene?West J Emerg Med. 2012;13(3):247-252. doi:10.5811/westjem.2012.3.11792

  5. Padgett S, Notar CE. Bystanders are the key to stopping bullying. Univ J Educ Res. 2013;1(2):33-41. doi:10.13189/ujer.2013.010201 

  6. Pouwelse M, Mulder R, Mikkelsen EG. The role of bystanders in workplace bullying: An overview of theories and empirical research. In: D'Cruz P. et al., eds., Pathways of Job-related Negative Behaviour. Handbooks of Workplace Bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment, vol 2. Singapore; Springer; 2018. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-6173-8_14-1

Additional Reading
  • "John Darley." Association of Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/25at25/john-darley.html

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.