Why We Don’t Protect The Bullied

Protect The Bullied

Why is it that children and teens are bullied while several and sometimes even hundreds of people stand by passively, observe the bullying, and do nothing? And, yes, in some cases bullied children and teens have used suicide as a way out of what is experienced as an unbearable set of experiences. Hopelessness and helplessness may be a result of feeling alone and unsupported. How, I have been asking myself recently, have we and our kids gotten to the point where we watch or hear about others getting tormented and simply stand by idly. This issue has been on my mind even more recently since the following event occurred weeks ago. This event has been referred to in the media as “The Twitter Rant.”

Eighteen-year-old Ashley Bilasano committed suicide after a series of tragic events. She reported that she had been molested by a family member and forced into prostitution. She is also reported to have sought out the help of authorities to no avail as there were no charges brought against those that she alleged were victimizing her. Child Protective Services (according to media reports) appears not to have been helpful in this case. The sad truth is that these child-welfare workers who are responsible for protecting these kids are often overwhelmed and understaffed and some kids suffer the consequences, even to the extreme. There is also the larger and startling question of why 500 of this young woman’s Twitter followers, who she reached out to neither called the police nor reached out to help her. She took matters into her own hands. She is dead and will never again see the sun rise and set.

So, how does psychology explain but not support this passivity in the face of cruelty? For the answers we must look to social psychology which studies the behavior of people in group situations. In a situations like the one described above, individuals experience  the “bystander effect.” The “bystander effect” refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely any one individual is to assist someone in distress. There are two possible explanations for the “bystander effect.” The first is that the presence of other people fosters a “diffusion of responsibility.” Since there are other observers present, individuals do not feel pressure to take action. The second reason is quite ironic. People have a tendency to want to behave in socially acceptable ways. In other words, if they don’t see others reacting they may then assume that a response would be socially inappropriate.

I am grateful to my professors for teaching me about why people behave the way they do. In light of recent tragic events like the one described above,  I believe that it is time not only to look for explanations of passivity but also time to re-educate our kids about how to behave in group situations when ANYONE is being hurt. It is everyone’s responsibility to take action and we should teach our kids to make no assumptions about what anyone else may be doing. And, the definition of “socially appropriate” or “socially responsible” needs to be clearly defined. It is “socially appropriate” to be kind, to assist others, and to be part of an active solution. And adults need to be role-modeling this sort of behavior.

During this season of goodwill parents must get on the same page and teach our kids about the dangers of passivity.

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