Spotlight on: The Bystander

20 May 2022


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 20 May, 2022

The lives of our young people have changed. In the classroom, technology is everywhere and has opened up different modes of learning. In social arenas, smart phones and social media are changing the nature of conversations between family and friends. Yet, there are core themes of wellbeing that transcend time and remain important for every child. One of these is the role of the bystander and, whether your child is 8 or 18 years of age, it is more important now than ever.  

Sometimes we step in to act and sometimes we remain passive. What makes the difference? This question has been the subject of extensive psychological research since the 1960s. A range of factors seem to affect the probability of a bystander choosing to intervene. These include whether the situation appears to be emergency, how familiar they are with the surroundings, how connected they feel to the group and “diffusion of responsibility” – the idea that when there are multiple witnesses to an emergency, individuals felt less personal responsibility to intervene. In other words, if everyone can take responsibility, there is a heightened risk that no-one will do so.

All this has obvious practical relevance to our young people. Consider the following scenarios:

At the age of 7
Your daughter knows a friend is saying nasty things about another student, but she is worried about saying anything because she doesn’t want to be the next victim. She feels sorry for the other girl but what can she do?

At the age of 14
Your daughter receives an image on her phone from a gathering on Saturday night, and it isn’t ok. The photo continues to be shared by others but what can she do?

At the age of 17
Your daughter is at a party, she notices that another girl is in a compromising situation, but what can she do?

As a parent we hope that our child is never the victim, but there can be no guarantees. We also hope that another child might speak up, act or tell an adult but, sadly, I have too many stories of regret, “if only” an adult was told. If we want our young people to be “active bystanders”, they need a toolbox of skills to know how to disrupt a problematic situation, and conversations beforehand which help prime to the step up when there is a need.

A simple overview is provided by these resources from UNSW and could be used to prompt good conversations about the scenarios above – or perhaps others that you can draw on from your own experiences.

  • Notice the event:  be present, notice what is occurring around you
  • Identify if it is a problem: ask yourself the question – would this be okay if it was my friend or family member?
  • Take responsibility: Perhaps the hardest step. But if we all assume someone else will step in, nothing will happen.
  • Make a plan: assess and in the case of our children – think of a responsible adult
  • Act: if it’s appropriate speak up, talk to a responsible adult, show care

Girls always benefit from hearing about your experiences in life – the times when we stepped up and were glad we did so, or perhaps our regrets about the times we didn’t. If we can activate many of these conversations in Queenwood families, we will collectively build the capacity of our community to live out our values of TruthCourage and Service. Our children’s peers are often their most powerful role model and if we equip them to be their best selves, they will create a better world for each other.