Against the turning away: Understanding the relationships of bystander motivation and behaviors to school bullying

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Research on school bullying has devoted a considerable amount of attention to investigating the roles of bystanders – the students who witness bullying or know that it is occurring – in bullying episodes. Numerous findings have shown that peer intervention is essential for reducing bullying behaviors; consequently, subsequent studies have examined which factors contribute to increasing the number of students who defend their peers. Although motivation is known to play a significant role in human behavior, it has been largely unexplored in bullying research, save for some promising findings that support its relevance for understanding and altering bystander behaviors in bullying episodes. The aim of this dissertation is to better understand students’ motivation to defend victims of bullying through three empirical studies. Studies I and II investigated the relationship between motivation and participant roles in bullying and cyberbullying to clarify which types of motivation to defend are most related to defending behaviors among students, and whether age, gender, or nationality plays a role in motivation to defend. Study I also examined how motivation profiles related to student–teacher relationships, to understand which profiles were associated with positive student–teacher relationships. Finally, study III examined the relationship between autonomy-supportive parenting practices and students’ motivation to defend victims, to understand whether specific parenting practices were associated with more favorable types of motivation. It also explored whether factors such as reactance, depression, anxiety, and stress mediate this interaction. Study I used a person-centered approach to identify four latent motivational profiles among respondents and found significant differences in victimization rates, participant roles, and student–teacher relationship quality among these profiles. Differences in age and nationality, but not gender, were also found among the profiles. Study II found a positive association between autonomous motivation to defend and defender behavior, and a negative association between autonomous motivation to defend and pro-bully and passive behavior in cyberbullying. The study also found a positive association between extrinsic motivation and pro-bully and passive behavior in cyberbullying; however, there was not a significant association between extrinsic motivation and defender behavior. Although older age was associated with increased passive and lower defender behavior in cyberbullying, no significant gender differences were found. Study III found a positive association between autonomy-supportive parenting and autonomous motivation to defend and a negative association between autonomy-supportive parenting and extrinsic motivation to defend, as well as partial mediation of these associations by reactance. Reactance was also positively associated with extrinsic motivation and negatively associated with autonomous motivation to defend. Autonomy-supportive parenting was negatively associated with reactance, depression, stress, and anxiety. However, no evidence was found of depression, stress, and anxiety mediating the association between autonomy-supportive parenting and motivation to defend. These variables were also not directly associated with motivation to defend, with the exception of anxiety, which was found to have a small positive association with autonomous motivation to defend. Study III also highlighted some gender differences in type of motivation and levels of anxiety, depression, stress. Overall, the findings of this dissertation corroborate that there is an association between autonomous motivation to defend and defending behaviors, and between controlled motivation and passive and pro-bully behaviors in bystanders of bullying and cyberbullying. The findings also confirm that autonomy-supportive parenting practices are related to greater autonomous prosocial motivation and lower controlled motivation, reactance, and mental health complaints among young people. Moreover, autonomous motivation was associated with positive student–teacher relationships and controlled motivation with negative student–teacher relationships, which supports self-determination theory’s postulation that only autonomy-supportive contexts and practices can support integrated self-regulation, promote wellbeing, and improve performance. The dissertation highlights potential differences in motivation to defend according to age, gender, and culture/nationality, with older age being related to lower autonomous prosocial motivation; girls displaying higher autonomous prosocial motivation and experiencing poorer mental health compared to boys; and Swedish students possessing greater controlled prosocial motivation than Italian students. This dissertation calls attention to the importance of investigating motivational factors for understanding why, when, and how students defend peers who are being bullied in person or online.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Psychology
  • Jungert, Tomas, Supervisor
  • Longobardi, Claudio, Supervisor, External person
Award date2024 Feb 9
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-8039-910-4
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-8039-911-1
Publication statusPublished - 2024 Jan

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2024-02-09
Time: 13:00
Place: Gamla Köket, Sh128, Allhelgona kyrkogata 8, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Smith, Peter
Title: Professor
Affiliation: University of London

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Psychology

Free keywords

  • Bullying
  • Bystander behavior
  • Bystander motivation
  • Self-determination theory
  • Student-teacher relationship
  • Parenting


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