Overcoming the Bystander Effect
I shared at Senior Campus Assembly this week that over the years I have taken more phone calls than I would have liked from members of the public about student behaviour.
One phone call I will never forget was from the manager of a supermarket near a school where I was working at the time. The school was located in one of the busiest areas of Sydney and at lunch senior students were allowed to visit the supermarket.
When the call came through, for a moment, I prepared myself for the worst: had students been shoplifting; had they been rude to a customer or staff member?
Thankfully nothing of the kind had occurred. Instead, it turned out that at lunch that day a man had collapsed outside the store and amongst the sea of people standing around outside eating their lunch or walking past, only three had stopped to help.
Those three were students at the school where I was working and the paramedics who attended the emergency had asked the supermarket manager to call the school and ensure we knew what had transpired.
What surprised me most, was not that the students had stopped to help but that no one else had.
Discussing the incident later with a colleague who taught Psychology, he mentioned to me a range of studies on the bystander effect.
It turns out, many experiments have found that the more people there are around and able to help when someone is in need, the less likely people are to offer help.
Instead of the presence of others giving people courage to act, it all too often does the opposite. People think someone else will step in and going along with the crowd gets the better of them.
Dr Martin Luther King Junior once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
At Launceston Grammar, we believe each and every student matters. They matter to me. They matter to God. They matter to more people than they realise.
Despite this, I and other staff still take phone calls from parents who inform us that their child has been bullied. In most cases, there have been one or more bystanders.
In assembly, I asked students to each reflect on whether they had been one of those bystanders, whether over the last few weeks they had missed an opportunity to stand up for someone or were silent when they should not have been?
Tragically, in Australian schools somewhere between a third and a quarter of students report being bullied every few weeks. In most of these interactions, peers are present as onlookers or bystanders.
The good news is that when onlookers intervene, in almost 6 out of 10 incidents, the bullying stops in under 10 seconds. What that means is that if every onlooker became positively involved each time they witnessed bullying behaviour, more than half of the incidents of students being bullied would be stopped within moments of them starting.
If every student had the courage to step in and use their voice and influence for good, we could more than halve incidents of bullying overnight.
Who of us would not want that for our School? Who of us would not want that for our friends? Who of us would not want to be part of a community where this was the norm?
I asked students to consider the following options if they saw bullying behaviour:
- Question the behaviour;
- Shut down the behaviour;
- Change the subject;
- Be kind;
- Remind each other difference is good for our community;
- Report what is going on; and
- Look for ways to include.
Taking these types of actions are what it means to be courageous, to be a leader and to be a student at Launceston Grammar.
Each of our students matter and my hope and expectation is that none in our community remain silent about people who matter.
All those years ago, three young boys at lunch stepped up, overcame the bystander effect and became heroes when their actions saved a life.
Our world needs more everyday heroes and every week our students have the opportunity to change the lives of their peers and be heroes when they muster up the courage to overcome the bystander effect.
Sadly, in too many schools today, there is bullying behaviour evident in not only the student population, but also amongst the parents. This means the opportunity is there for all of us to step up and model to our children what it looks like to overcome the bystander effect.