On October first, the day that National Bullying Prevention Month began, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua College in Oregon and killed 9 students. Across the world, two parents were killed in front of their four young children while driving home . And every day, there are so many other stories and images of violence that either confront us daily, or run in a constant news crawl just beyond our active consciousness.
In a world with such big problems, it is easy to feel hopeless. It is also tempting to dismiss the seemingly less violent problem of bullying as a school yard ill, an annoying rite of passage. Bullying is far from a "small" problem, and is not only devastating to children and schools, but impacts the larger community. Certainly, we should apply significant effort to increase awareness, to address the problem and to ameliorate the pain and suffering of so many. But, as we consider the large scale geo-political challenges of violence, lessons learned from bully prevention offer an important perspective and directive for us, as individuals and communities.
From the seminal research of Dan Olweus in Norway in the 1970s to the current work of numerous school-based violence researchers and interventionists around the globe, we know that it is a dangerous error to consider bullying a simple, dyadic interaction. Bullying is about power, and it occurs in a complex social context. Not surprisingly, one of the important components of effective bully prevention has to do neither with the victim, nor the bully, but with bystanders, the social on-lookers. When they engage in a pro-social way, whether through direct prevention of bullies' hostility or by protecting victims, bullying is decreased. It should be obvious that when and if bystanders join in the violence, it escalates, with devastating consequences.
Working with students and schools on bully prevention I have discovered that students must learn and practice such pro-social responses to bullying if they are to use them in real life situations. The most straightforward approach -- simply telling a bully to stop -- is possibly the most unreasonable. Bullies co-opt power, so it requires a great deal of courage and might even be fool-hardy to directly confront them. One can, however, use distraction quite effectively. Derailing a bully's verbal taunt of a peer by asking a compelling question, or shifting the focus, not only can stop the bullying in the moment, but also provides immediate protection for the victim.
Since bullying often occurs away from the watchful eyes of authorities, telling someone who can help is also a pro-social option. It is so common for witnesses of bullying to spread the news, sharing the story of the bully's prowess, or the victim's pain. Refraining from such rumor spreading, however, is another pro-social option, making it clear that you will not serve as the bully's PR agent. One of the most powerful pro-social bully prevention techniques bystanders can employ is connecting with and including victims. We are so much more vulnerable when we are alone, and every time a victim is invited to join an activity, or is blessed with someone to sit next to them at lunch, the likelihood of he or she being tormented decreases.
What happens when bystanders neither act pro-socially, nor join in bullying in a negative way offers the most important lesson we have learned from bully prevention and social psychology research. When bystanders do nothing, when they present disengaged neutrality, bullying escalates. Passive bystanders send bullies the message that such behavior is acceptable and tolerated in their social sphere. Equally devastating, such neutrality tells victims that they are alone, no one cares enough to come to their aid. Doing nothing is doing something very dangerous.
Albert Einstein said "the world is a dangerous place to live not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." What we have learned about bullying should guide who we are and what we do as responsible citizens of the world. We cannot be disengaged or neutral.
Our voices, on social media and to our national and international leaders, matter. Our active engagement in the world when terrible things happen, when evil is perpetrated, is absolutely necessary. We may feel our voice is a tiny whisper amongst the global din of violence. We may not be rewarded with immediate results. But bully prevention research has taught us that the alternative is deadly. When we witness abuse, violence and evil, we must make our disavowal of such behavior loud and clear. Otherwise, our silence booms, sending all the wrong messages.