Paper Review: Bystanders’ Roles in School Bullying

Choi, S. & Il Cho Y. (2013). Influence of psychological and social factors on bystanders’ roles in school bullying among Korean-American students in the United StatesSchool Psychology International, 34(1), 67–81. 

This paper caught my eye via Twitter a little while ago, and as it’s right up my street in its subject area, and recently published, I thought it would be worthwhile writing a review of it – and why not blog the review, too?

The authors argue that their paper fills a gap in the literature: specifically, in a literature which has focused mainly on African-American or Hispanic students’ bystanding behavior in the face of bullying, this study focuses on bystanding in Asian American (i.e. Korean or Korean-American) USA students (who are more likely to be bullied than other ethnic groups). It also argues that it is one of the first studies that teases out psychological and social variables associated with different types of bystanding behaviour (namely assisting the bully, doing nothing, and actively defending the victim).

The first claim I take no issue with. The study does indeed focus on Asian-American students where other studies do not.  However, while the authors cite Gini et al. (2008) for a definition of bystander behaviour, and for age effects, Choi and Il Cho (2013) does not cite Gini et al. (2008) for its work on active versus passive bystanding (i.e. different  types of bystander behaviour) published five years before their paper went to print. Neither do they cite Pöyhönen, Juvonen, and  Salmivalli (2012) who disentangled those who were passive bystanders from those who reinforced the bullying or defended the victim (the three sub-groupings used by Choi and Il Cho) on outcome expectancy measures. One might argue that the aforementioned paper was published too recently to be included. But Choi and Il Cho (2013) also doesn’t cite  Salmivalli, Voeten and Poskiparta (2011) showing that the nature of reinforcing versus defending behaviour has an influence on the frequency of later bullying. Thus the literature review of this paper appears incomplete. 

The study reported in Choi and Il Cho (2013) involved 238 Korean or Korean American students, spanning Grades 3-12. The number of children in each grade is not given, though roughly a third attended each of elementary middle and high schools. Students self-reported on their “participant role” (see Salmivalli et al., 1996)  in bullying in their classroom, their empathy, their responsibility (acting on behalf of others or groups) and the support that they perceive they have from parents, teachers and classmates. This raises the question, as the authors acknowledge, of the influence of shared method variance, as all of the measures came from the same source. It would have been better if peers or teachers had provided ratings on at least one measure to overcome this issue.  The nature of this study is also cross-sectional – so we can’t tell whether psychological and social characteristics lead to, or are the result of experiences in bullying situations.

The above notwithstanding, the authors found that empathy and responsibility were associated with being a defender in a bullying situation. However, those variables were unrelated to being an assistant or an outsider. The nature of the relationship between these variables was interesting. As one might expect, being a defender was associated with higher levels of empathy. More defending of victims was also associated with lower levels of [group] responsibility and lower perceived teacher support. In other words, the more you feel teachers will support anti-bullying messages, and the more you feel that you act on behalf of a group, the less likely you are to act as a defender: it seems from these findings, that defending victims of bullying is about going against the grain and acting alone where other support is not forthcoming…. This could be explained within the frame of social appraisal theory  (Manstead & Fischer, 2001) , or the bystander effect (Darley & Latane, 1968)  and opens up numerous avenues for future research on what it is about people’s perceptions of others’ thoughts, emotions and behaviours that causes people in groups to act in line with the group, while others act alone in bullying incidents.

What seems important to this research, however, and was omitted, was the extent to which the participants were themselves bullied. The authors note that Korean American students are more likely to be bullied because of their ethnicity and potential language problems (citing Shin, D’Antonio, Son, Kim, & Park, 2011, as evidence of this), yet they do not appear to account for the experiences of their participants as victims (or indeed bullies). It would also have been interesting for the researchers to have accounted for the nature of the participants’ defending (were the participants defending Korean victims, or victims of bullying more generally…). One might also ask how non-Korean students act as bystanders in the bullying of Korean students (both among Korean students, and between Korean and non-Korean students), to determine more tightly the extent to which this finding depends on ethnicity per se. More questions for future research.

In conclusion then, while the authors’ review of the literature in this paper doesn’t cite important papers in the field, the study reported shows clear links between defending and the psychological variables of empathy, responsibility and perceived teacher support. The nature of the links between those variables and bullying roles, together with possible improvements to the research design, make the study reported in this paper ripe ground for future, theoretically-informed research.

Further Reading

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Manstead, A. S. R., & Fischer, A. H. (2001). Social appraisal: The social world as object of and influence on appraisal processes. In K. R. Scherer, A. Schorr, & T. Johnstone (Eds.), Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Research, Application (pp. 221-232). New York: Oxford University Press.


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