We hear a lot about the harmful consequences to children of seeing their parents argue or watching violence on TV, but very little about the potential harm of witnessing school bullying. But now Ian Rivers and colleagues have published findings suggesting that being a bystander to bullying can often be just as psychologically harmful as being directly involved.
The researchers asked just over 2000, predominantly white, children aged 12-16 at 14 state schools in the north of England about how much they'd been bullied, been a bully or witnessed bullying, over the last school term. Bullying appeared to be part of the daily lives of most of the children, with 63 per cent saying they'd seen bullying going on; 20 per cent admitting that they'd bullied someone else and 34 per cent reporting they'd been bullied.
The pupils were also asked questions about their mental health and their use of cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. The findings showed that being a witness to bullying was associated with increased mental health problems and substance abuse, above and beyond the effects of being directly involved in bullying. In other words, witnessing bullying was still significantly associated with psychological measures like anxiety and depression, even after the potential influence of being a bullying victim or perpetrator was factored out. Pupils who'd witnessed bullying (but not been a victim or bully) also tended to report drinking more alcohol than victims or those not at all involved in bullying.
The researchers acknowledged that their study was not longitudinal so it only offered a snapshot of the relations between the various bullying roles and mental health measures. And there's also a need to treat pupils' self-report data with caution. Nonetheless, Rivers' team said their study suggests school psychologists should consider the effects of bullying on bystanders, not just on those directly involved.
Possible reasons why witnessing bullying could be psychologically harmful include being reminded of one's own past experiences of being bullied; being made to feel that one is at risk of being bullied; and also feeling guilty for not intervening to help the victim.
'It’s well documented that children and adolescents who are exposed to violence within their families or outside of school are at a greater risk for mental health problems ...' said Rivers. 'It should not be a surprise that violence at school will pose the same kind of risk.'
Rivers, I., Poteat, V., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (4), 211-223 DOI: 10.1037/a0018164
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.