Bystander motivation in bullying incidents: To intervene or not to intervene?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Introduction: This research sought to extend knowledge about bystanders in bullying situations with a focus on the motivations that lead them to different responses. The 2 primary goals of this study were to investigate the reasons for children's decisions to help or not to help a victim when witnessing bullying, and to generate a grounded theory (or conceptual framework) of bystander motivation in bullying situations. Methods: Thirty students ranging in age from 9 to 15 years (M =11.9; SD = 1.7) from an elementary and middle school in the southeastern United States participated in this study. Open- ended, semistructured interviews were used, and sessions ranged from 30 to 45 minutes. We conducted qualitative methodology and analyses to gain an in-depth understanding of children's perspectives and concerns when witnessing bullying. Results: A key finding was a conceptual framework of bystander motivation to intervene in bullying situations suggesting that deciding whether to help or not help the victim in a bullying situation depends on how bystanders define and evaluate the situation, the social context, and their own agency. Qualitative analysis revealed 5 themes related to bystander motives and included: interpretation of harm in the bullying situation, emotional reactions, social evaluating, moral evaluating, and intervention self-efficacy. Conclusion: Given the themes that emerged surrounding bystanders' motives to intervene or abstain from intervening, respondents reported 3 key elements that need to be confirmed in future research and that may have implications for future work on bullying prevention. These included: first, the potential importance of clear communication to children that adults expect bystanders to intervene when witnessing bullying; second, the potential of direct education about how bystanders can intervene to increase children's self-efficacy as defenders of those who are victims of bullying; and third, the assumption that it may be effective to encourage children's belief that bullying is morally wrong.


  • Robert Thornberg
  • Laura Tenenbaum
  • Kris Varjas
  • Joel Meyers
  • Tomas Jungert
  • Gina Vanegas
External organisations
  • Georgia State University
  • McGill University
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Psychology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-252
JournalWestern Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes