THE BLOG
01/30/2015 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Bystander Effect: Why You Don't Stand Up When You Should

by Courtney Lindstrand, TEEN VOGUE

Expert tips on how to take a stand when you see someone being bullied.

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Art by Wesley Johnson

Bullying is an intimidating, deplorable problem, whether it's playing out in the high school cafeteria or around the internship water cooler. But when you're not the bullied party yourself, it can be tough to know exactly how to handle it -- which is one reason that people often don't step in. Another one? When you see someone being victimized, you tend to think someone else will intervene. Psychologists call this the "bystander effect," and it happens when your brain creates a rationale around why you shouldn't take a stand.

But the truth is that you can't count on anyone else to take the lead: Sometimes it has to be you. And since we know that's not always the easiest thing to do, we chatted with Julie Hertzog, the director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, to get her tips on what to do when you see a super uncool situation unfolding, and how to step in without getting caught in the crossfire.

First off: Recognize that yes, it is your problem.

This is not Switzerland, and you are not a neutral party: When bullying is happening at your school, it's everyone's problem. That kind of behavior was a tolerated part of social culture among teens and kids for a long time, "But now we're realizing that there are really serious not only short term consequences, but long term effects on our society as well," says Hertzog. Since it impacts everybody, it's also each individual's responsibility to stand up and stop it. Consider this: Do you really want your school -- a place where you spend nearly half your day -- to feel unsafe, or unwelcoming? We didn't think so.

Look for subtle ways to reach out to bullying victims.

Sure, it seems sort of shallow, but bystanders are often understandably afraid that speaking up on behalf of someone being bullied can negatively impact their social status (we've got two words for you: Regina George). But even if you don't say something in the moment, you can still help in subtle ways -- like reaching out to the victim directly. It's quick and easy to send a text to someone who just got an earful from your school's biggest jerk. Let them know you're on their side, allow a bud who's being picked on lean on you and stay supportive so they can build the necessary confidence to stop the abuse cycle.

Strike while the iron is cool.

It takes guts to stand up to a bully when they're actively harassing someone else, in no small part because situations like that can get heated fast. But you don't have to jump into the middle of an explosive situation to help, explains Hertzog, noting that you can still be effective while remaining more covert in your efforts to help -- and that there's no need to put yourself in harm's way. In not-so-safe situations, your best bet is to alert an authority figure and then wait until things calm down before becoming involved.

Remember that a safe, supportive environment is your right.

One last thing Hertzog thinks students should know? "Almost every state in our nation has a bullying prevention law that says students have the right to be safe at school." Being personally knowledgeable about these laws and what they entitle you to can help you tip off a victim to their options, or even talk to school officials about how they can take steps toward shutting down a bullying problem in your school (organizations like Hertzog's can help get you started -- head over to the site for more info). The bottom line? There's no reason to be a bullying bystander when you can be part of the solution instead.

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