Overcoming the Bystander Effect

Creating Safer Communities for Everyone

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Mike lies to stay safe AND protect somebody.

Mike lies to stay safe AND protect somebody.

The incident that brought me into this work included a classic case of the Bystander Effect. In 1985, I took a group of young children, including my own two, on a field trip to visit the city art museum downtown. We were in a public place with people standing all around when a man suddenly started charging towards us with his arms outstretched shouting, “I’m going to take one of these girls to be my bride!”

To this day, I have a vivid memory of the terrified faces of the children, the snarling face of the man, and the frozen faces of the bystanders. I put myself in between the man and the children, shouting at him to leave us alone. He kept shouting back that he could do anything he wanted. Finally, I ordered a man standing a few feet away, watching us with his mouth dropped open, to, “Get over here and help me! Can’t you see these kids are scared?”

When, with great reluctance, this bystander moved to stand next to me, the man threatening us ran away.

The Bystander Effect occurs when people notice an unsafe situation and react in ways that are useless or harmful. People of any age, culture, or income level sometimes freeze and do nothing or make things worse because:

  • They don’t understand the reality of what they are seeing.
  • They are curious about what is happening.
  • They are afraid to get involved.
  • They are in disbelief.
  • They don’t know what to do.
  • They think someone else is taking care of the problem.

Lack of helpful action or harmful behavior makes a problem worse. For example, emergency responders often have to discourage bystanders who stop to look from getting in their way when they are trying to rescue someone.

In one deeply upsetting example of the Bystander Effect, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped while over 20 other teens and adults nearby did nothing to get help. Some even laughed and called others over to watch. This girl had left her high school homecoming dance to walk across campus to call her father for a ride home. At the invitation of a friend, she stopped by a courtyard at the school that probably looked to her like a group of teens she knew hanging out, but was notorious as being a place for drinking, drugs, and violence. She was left unconscious after people in a house nearby heard what was happening and called the police.

In addition to what happened at the time, the Bystander Effect led up to this assault because:

  • Adults knew that the courtyard where the assault occurred was “notorious,” yet there was no supervision of the teens and young adults gathered there and no supervision of young people leaving the dance.
  • Even though girls were being sexually harassed at the high school on a regular basis, this behavior was being tolerated rather than being addressed in a forceful, effective, and sustained fashion.
  • Young people had not been taught the skills they needed to prevent and stop an assault, including how to break out of denial, overcome feelings of discomfort, and get help if they see an attack taking place.

These issues are common in most communities and schools, whether they are affluent or struggle financially. Instead of accepting that some places on or near a school campus are “notorious” for problems, parents, educators, and students must join together to make illegal, unsafe behavior unacceptable anywhere at or near their school – and to provide young people with skills for taking charge of their own safety and for taking action to protect the safety of others.

Stop Being a Bystander to Attitudes that Promote Sexual Assault

If school communities were to put as half as many resources into educating young people about the causes and prevention of sexual assault and other violence as they put into promoting recreational and social activities, students would gain the understanding and skills they need to take charge of the emotional and physical safety of themselves and others.

Teens are avid consumers of the media in all its forms, and many of their beliefs are shaped by what they see around them everywhere. Schools can prepare their students to become informed consumers. Young people can learn how the media perpetuates unrealistic body images, sexual assault, and other violence, so that they can make safer and more respectful choices about how they are going to behave.

Two powerful educational video resources are Jackson Katz’s Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity and Jean Killbourne’s Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Images of Women. In both cases, the Media Education Foundation provides free study guides to high schools and colleges to go along with the films.

Be Prepared to Take Charge Safely if You See a Safety Problem

Most of the time, even just one person taking leadership can overcome the Bystander Effect. A Red Cross video vividly shows how this works. In the film, a girl riding a bike has been hit by a car. As the girl lies in the street, the voices of different bystanders are saying aloud what people might be thinking: “She should have been more careful … I hope she’s not hurt too badly … Someone should really do something … Poor thing ….” As the girl lies bleeding, the different voices and faces of the people watching merge into a meaningless fog.

Suddenly in the film, one woman takes charge. She calls out in a clear compelling voice, “We need to HELP this girl! Who has a cell phone? YOU, call 911! YOU, direct traffic to go another way. WHO knows first aid?” Everyone is mobilized to help the fallen girl, who thankfully turns out not to have been too badly hurt.

People of any age can learn that they have choices about how to respond, instead of getting caught up with the group mentality or stuck in the drama of the moment. If they are peers of the attackers, they can learn to say, “Violence against women is not cool! Let’s find something else to do.” If they don’t feel safe calling attention to themselves, they might be able to leave quietly and get help. Instead of texting friends to watch, they can text a friend to call the police.

In workshops with older children and teens, we often practice overcoming the bystander effect in the context of an accident, where someone has been hurt. One person sits or lies on the floor as if hurt. Two “bystanders” stand nearby looking confused. The student practicing points at bystanders, waves them to come over or go to get help, and calls out specific commands until the bystanders respond, such as, “YOU IN THE GREEN PANTS, DO YOU HAVE A CELL PHONE? GOOD! CALL 911! YOU WITH THE WHITE HAT, DIRECT TRAFFIC AWAY FROM THE ACCIDENT! WATCH OUT FOR CARS! DOES ANYONE KNOW FIRST AID? YOU DO? GREAT! YOU, COME AND HELP ME!”

The students pretending to be bystanders don’t respond until they have been given clear orders in a forceful way at least three times. (To be on the safe side, we remind our students that, in a medical emergency, their job is to get help and to avoid letting anyone move the injured person until professional help arrives, unless there is no other choice.)

Teaching Skills to Help Prevent or Stop an Attack

Everyone deserves the opportunity to be successful in practicing different People Safety skills in a way that is appropriate for their age and abilities, so they are prepared to:

  • use their awareness;
  • set boundaries with people they know;
  • use target denial to avoid most trouble;
  • check and think first before they change their plan;
  • be persistent in getting help;
  • leave in a powerful and respectful way;
  • de-escalate conflict;
  • speak up to redirect dangerous behavior; and,
  • as a last resort, fight to protect themselves from harm and escape to safety.

To break through the fog of conflicting thoughts and feelings that can cause bystanders to become frozen or even join in, we also have our students practice giving clear, loud information and orders to the people who are nearby.

They practice moving away if they can, or holding their ground in Ready Position, while yelling at the person pretending to attack them, “STOP! LEAVE! HELP!” We show how they could yell out details about what is happening and a description of the attacker.

Giving specific orders to specific people is more likely to be effective than yelling for help in a general way to the world at large. For this reason, we have our teen and adult students practice pointing to bystanders and calling out clearly and compellingly, “YOU in the red shirt, come and help me!” Or, “YOU on the cell phone, hang up and call 911!”

Honor Those Harmed by Violence Instead of Blaming Them

The best way we can honor people who have been harmed by violence is to gather together to find ways to make our schools and communities safe, caring, respectful places for everyone.

Even if lack of judgment or skills leads to an assault, we must remember that no one deserves to be attacked. No matter what else happened, the fault of an attack lies with the person who committed the attack – not the fault of the person who was the target of the attack.

People who harm others either emotionally or physically must be stopped and face the consequences for their destructive behavior. If possible, they must learn how to use their power in positive ways instead of destructive ones.

We can all decide to Put Safety First by making decisions about providing sufficient supervision when organizing activities, by making teaching People Safety skills a priority, and by educating young people and adults about what they can do to stop sexual assault and other violence.

Additional Resources

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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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