Beating the Bystander Effect – An Open Letter to Teens

Dear Kid,

Bunk-200x300When I was in ninth grade, my school took us all to camp. The buses pulled up to camp, we all got off, and were told to break up into cabin groups of eight. You don’t need me telling you that was a crazy idea, but teachers don’t always make the best decisions. I looked to my group of friends who were quickly putting together an eight. Then I looked over and saw a group of cool kids taking shape. I saw a chance and jumped on it. Ignoring my friends, I asked if I could be in the cool cabin. To my surprise they said yes. Unfortunately the cool group ended up being a group of nine. A teacher solved this problem by putting a mattress onto the floor of the cabin. Naturally, I was the one designated to sleep on the mattress. I was fine with that – I would have slept on a bed of nails if it meant staying in the cool cabin for a week. This was my chance to become a cool kid – a dream come true.

That dream became a nightmare pretty quickly. The first night, when the lights went out, the coolest of the cool kids started calling me names. The others laughed. Some joined in. Then he started spitting on me. He was chewing up pieces of paper and spitting them down at me. I couldn’t believe it. Again, some of the others laughed. One joined in, launching his own spitballs. I asked them to stop. Then yelled. Then pleaded. Then I started to cry. At that point, one of the other guys told the cool guy to stop. He didn’t. I pulled my head into the sleeping bag so the spitballs would at least not get on my face and hair. And I cried myself to sleep.

Sorry to start on a downer, but I wanted to show you that I know about bullying. And I’m going to tell you something that you’ve probably never heard from an adult.

Bullying works.

It increases coolness. It provides power. If I asked everyone in your grade level to write down the three most popular people in the grade, the people who bully would show up over and over. However, if I asked you to write down the three people you liked the most, those who regularly bully wouldn’t show up. We don’t like it, but we don’t do anything about it. And so, we give the power. You see, the power comes from the audience. Bullying never happens in isolation.

It’s that audience that people remember. If you ask an adult what they remember about bullying, it’s not the person who was tormenting them that leaves a mark, it’s the people who did nothing to help. The audience. Victims of bullying feel alone and uncared for. So let’s talk about the audience – there are four types of audience members.

  • The Assistants help with the bullying. They join in with name calling, pushing, or whatever is going on.
  • The Reinforcers laugh and point. They encourage the bullying to continue.
  • The Bystanders just watch. Or they might walk away.
  • Then there’s The Heroes. Heroes do something to stop what’s going on.

I’m not here to talk about bullying though. Bullying is what gets me in the door. If I told teachers or principals that I wanted to talk to you about heroes, they’d say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” So, I tell them I want to talk to you about bullying and they invite me in with open arms. Adults don’t understand bullying. They don’t know how to fix it. So, if they think I’m an expert, they’re all about getting me in to speak. They’d do anything to get rid of bullying.

I’m here to talk about heroes. Why are some people Heroes, while others are Assistants, Reinforcers, or Bystanders? The simple answer is that there are various factors involved in keeping us from action. The opposite of a hero is not a villain; it’s a bystander. I’m here to tell you what those five factors are and eventually how to beat them.

1. Notice a Need

The first thing involved in any situation where someone needs help is to realize it.  This is not just about bullying – it’s any time someone needs help. It could be someone who is hurt, someone in trouble, or any kind of emergency. If we don’t notice it, we can’t help. A lot of the time we spend our days in our own little worlds. Our heads are down, looking at the ground. Maybe we’ve got headphones in. It’s difficult to see a problem if we’re not looking.

The second part of noticing a need is deciding whether something is serious or not. A lot of the time when you hear someone calling someone else names, you can’t tell if they’re playing or if it’s bullying. If you see someone lying on the ground with a group of ten people around them not doing anything to help, you might assume there’s nothing actually wrong. If you don’t think there’s anything wrong, why would you do anything to help?

2. Contradicting Voices

Once we see a need, there are often voices in our head pulling us in different directions. One of the most common is when doing the right thing might be against the rules. For example, what do you do if you see someone hurt in the hallway, but you know that if you’re late to class you’ll get into trouble? There’s a lot of power in rules – they can stop you from doing the right thing. Now, some rules shouldn’t be broken to help. Don’t punch someone who is calling someone a name, for example. Use your judgment.

Embarrassment is another contradicting voice. You know you need to help, but you worry that you might be embarrassed. What if you fail? Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a victim, so is there a chance you’ll be embarrassed when you try to help? Maybe.

There is also the ever-present risk involved in being a hero. If you help someone who’s getting bullied, will you be the next target? If you jump into a river to help someone who is drowning, you might start drowning yourself. That’s a powerful pressure to remain a bystander.

3. The Pecking Order

horsesI used to work at a horse ranch. One of my favorite things was watching how the horses interacted with each other. They had a pecking order with a couple of horses at the top, a few at the bottom, and a bunch all struggling to climb up. The pecking order was generally decided by looks, strength, and aggression.

Voyager was the king in our herd. He was big, beautiful, and strong. His queen was Lucy. They got all the food they wanted (Lucy was always fat), got to get under the shelter when it was raining, and basically did whatever they wanted. At the bottom was a little horse called Pony. He was always hanging out by himself, was the last one to get to eat whatever hay was left by the other horses, and spent most of his time nervous that someone was going to pick on him. In the middle, the other horses were always fighting, threatening, and posturing to try to make their way up the pecking order, closer to Voyager and Lucy. That was their life.

I imagine most of you have noticed the similarities between the horse pecking order and school. The pecking order at school can be a pressure that stops you from doing the right thing. You’re more likely to help someone who is hurt if they’re at the top of the pecking order than if they’re at the bottom. You’re also less likely to help a victim of bullying if they’re being attacked by someone at the top of the pecking order.

4. Tribes

tribeWe all belong to a number of tribes. The people in our chess club are a tribe. All of the fans of our favorite sports team are a tribe. Our group of friends at school are a tribe. We tend to be more interested in helping people in our own tribe.

This comes from the beginning of humanity. At first, every human had a driving passion to stay alive. Makes sense, right? Then we thought it probably made a lot of sense to protect our families. After a while we started living in larger groups like villages, or cities, or countries. We wanted the group to be successful so we would be okay risking our safety to keep the group safe. However, anyone outside of the group wasn’t worth the risk. That continues today. The people we have a strong connection with are worth helping. Strangers, not so much. If you see someone hurt on the street, you’re more likely to help if they’re your friend than if you’ve never seen them before.

5. Moving Responsibility

It is always tempting to put the responsibility for helping onto someone else. If there’s a group of people watching someone get bullied we say to ourselves, “Someone else will help.” If there’s a teacher in the room, we think they should be the one to help. We tell ourselves that someone else is better skilled to help. Sometimes we even put the responsibility on the victim. “They should toughen up.” How many times have you heard that?

That’s Depressing…

You might be thinking this is hopeless. How do people get past all of these things to be heroes? Heroes must be special, right? Wrong. Anyone can be a hero. We all have power. In fact, the students at a school have more power than any of the teachers. They (you) have more power than the principal. Watch this anti-bullying ad from Canada and then I’ll explain the power you have.

In the first scene we see all the usual characters. There’s a victim just minding his own business. There is a lead bullier. He has an Assistant and a couple of Reinforcers. And there are Bystanders. The next scene shows what power a single person can have. Power doesn’t mean violence or aggression. One person changed the situation by becoming a hero instead of a bystander. There are three types of power on display.

1. The Power of Symbols

The blonde boy dyes his hair red and shows solidarity with the young boy. That is a symbol. Symbols can speak louder than words, and often do.

ifpinkshirts3Travis Price and David Shepherd were seniors at a high school in Canada who used the power of symbols. They heard about a freshman boy who had been seen crying after some older kids had been teasing him about his pink polo shirt. They called him names and threatened to kill him if he ever came back to school in pink. Travis and David knew that wasn’t right and they decided to do something about it – after all, this was their school too. They decided to unleash a sea of pink on the school in support of this ninth grader. They got in touch with all of their friends and asked them to wear pink to school. Word spread via phone, computer, and word of mouth. The next day, hundreds of students turned up to school wearing pink. That kind of symbol makes it virtually impossible to fight against. David and Travis thought they might change their school. They ended up changing the world. There is now an International Pink Shirt Day for people around the world to use the power of symbols to fight against intolerance.

Maisie Kate Miller was walking in the hall at school when a popular girl behind her made a nasty comment about her pigtails. Maisie went to turn around but was told to “keep walking” in no uncertain terms. She didn’t quite make it to her classroom before the tears came. She texted her mother who suggested she just ignore it. But Maisie didn’t want to ignore it. She wanted things to change. She decided to use the power of symbols. A note on Facebook urged her friends to all wear pigtails to school the next day in support of a school without bullying. The post went viral and suddenly people from across the world were giving her support. That support started to turn into anger and people wanted to get back at the girl who had teased Maisie. She pointed out that going after that girl was against the spirit of her Pigtails 4 Peace movement. She chose not to go after revenge – an impressive choice. The next day, pigtails were all over the school. People she didn’t know were wearing them. Teachers were wearing them. A dog was even sporting pigtails!

2. The Power of Real Cool

The blonde boy in that video was clearly cool. The simple fact that he was against the bullying was enough to stop it. Real Cool is the kind of cool you can’t get from bullying. Real Cool is hard to define, but it has power. About 2% of your school’s population is Real Cool. A lot of the time they don’t even know bullying exists, which seems weird. Real Cool comes from being comfortable with who you are – it makes you immune to the pecking order (and usually puts you at the top).

I remember two people from my school who were Real Cool. Jodie and Julian didn’t have to try to be cool. They just were. They used to bring music to school that none of us had heard, but as soon as they did, everyone else liked it. They didn’t bully people because they didn’t need that kind of popularity. Remember that story about camp that I started with? I can’t remember any of those kids’ names, but I remember Jodie and Julian. That’s Real Cool.

Jeremiah Anthony is Real Cool. When he was a sophomore at high school, he watched an assembly on bullying with everyone else at school. The speaker told them that the secret to getting rid of bullying was to just to choose not to be a bully. It was ridiculous advice and everyone watching knew it. They mostly laughed at the speaker, but it got Jeremiah thinking. If this bullying expert (I told you they’re popular) didn’t know the solution, maybe he should work it out. He remembered a first grade teacher telling him that people bully when they have low self-esteem. So, Jeremiah decided the way to stop bullying was to raise everyone’s self-esteem. He created a Twitter account called @westhigbros and started sending compliments to everyone he could think of. Because he was Real Cool, the tweets were perceived as genuine. The account got so popular, he now has a team of ten people tweeting every day. The school has changed forever.

3. The Power of Action

When most people choose not to act, action has a lot of power. Those people feeling like nobody cares will be blown away when you actually do something. Anything. Action doesn’t have to be big. The key is to actually do something. Most of us see a problem and think we should do something. Heroes actually do it.

Ethan King was in Africa with his family when he was ten years old. He spent a lot of time playing soccer with the local kids. He loved it and they loved it. Most of the kids there had never seen a real soccer ball – they played with balls made of plastic bags bundled together with rubber bands. When it came time to leave, Ethan gave his ball to the kids. They acted like they’d just won the lottery. Their reaction stuck with Ethan on the plane ride home. Instead of just thinking about it, he decided to do something. He created his own non-profit company to provide soccer balls to kids around the world who wouldn’t normally ever see one. Through the power of action, Ethan is changing the world.

So, you have all this power, but those five factors are still there. They hold you back from heroism. However, the fact that we know what they are means we can do something about it. Developing the ability to break through the bystander barriers is not an overnight thing though. It’s going to take some practice. James Anthony Froude said,

“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”

The same goes for heroes. Here are five ways you can start that hammering and forging.

1. Stand Out

Heroes are used to standing out from the crowd. They are less likely to get embarrassed in front of a group. So, you need to start getting used to people pointing at you. Wear a silly hat for a day. Walk backwards down the hallway (carefully). Whenever I get up to speak at a school, I wear orange pants. That might not seem too extreme, but if I tell you the only colors in my wardrobe are grey, black, white, you might understand. People laugh at me. It makes me feel anxious. But every time I do it, it means I’ll be less likely to worry about stepping up to help someone who needs it.

2. Question the Rules

Question them, don’t break them. Talk to your teacher and ask them if it’s okay to help someone even if it’s going to make you late. Knowing for sure that they’re okay with it can make a big difference. If someone has asked you to follow a rule, they should be able to explain the reasons behind it. They should also be able to tell you if it’s okay for you to break it if you need to be a hero.

3. Find New Tribes

people,punk,grandma,woman,talking,to,man,aging,humor,couple,sitting-fc131a47d703e30fb7fc71746fdfb462_hEvery extra tribe you belong to means extra people willing to help you when you need it. It also means you’re more likely to help them. If you bond over your love of My LIttle Pony with some stranger at school, you’re going to remember that connection when you see him getting pushed around in the cafeteria. That connection could be the difference between you walking past or stopping to help. You could easily find more tribes if your teacher gives you ten minutes in class. I’ll give you an example. Assign an ice-cream flavor to each corner of the room. Ask everyone to go to the corner of their favorite and discuss why. Bam, you’ve got a new tribe. If I see a mint choc-chip lover in need of help, I’m going to swing into action. Do it three times and everyone in your class will have three new tribes.

4. Remove the Reward

Bullying happens because people want to climb the pecking order. They need an audience to do that. Don’t give it to them. You can straight up tell them you don’t approve. You can encourage people to walk away. Anything that removes the audience is going to stop the bullying. If you can stop making bullying cool, you can stop bullying. It used to be cool to smoke. People stopped giving smokers the social reward and now it isn’t cool.

5. Build a Team

Heroes need teams. Every hero you’ve ever heard of had a team. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a team. Rosa Parks was part of that team. And she had her own team. Jeremiah Anthony has a team. Ethan has a team. Maisie, David, and Travis had teams. If you want to start a movement at your school, find a team. You might not find people in your group of friends who want to get involved, or even support you. Look elsewhere. There is someone else who agrees with you and is ready to act. Find them and invite them. With a team, you can change the world.

This is hard.

I’m not going to lie, this is going to be tough. You’re going to fail. It’s going to be scary. It’s going to suck.

Do it anyway. Because you will succeed. You will change the world. You will be a hero. It just takes one person to start. Make it you.

Don’t take my word for it, watch this video. Here is a man who did what he believed in and was pointed at, laughed at, and ignored. Then everything changed.

Start something. Change everything.


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