Bully Bystander – How Our Actions Contribute to the Bully Cycle

Bullying is about more than just the bully and their victim. It’s about everyone surrounding them as well, including the bully bystander. Think of bullying as a situation that has an expanding ripple effect. It involves more and more people until eventually it becomes a bullying cycle that affects an entire society.

This may seem like an exaggeration when you first think about it, but take a moment to think about your childhood. If you put aside whether or not you were a bully or the victim, do you remember a situation where you were a bully bystander and saw others being bullied? Have you ever tried to help a bully victim yourself? Or maybe you've ended up making friends with someone who bullied others? Now, think about whether or not that situation was ever resolved and why. It's quite likely that if it was resolved, the bully bystanders had something to do with it. 

Amanda Todd's story

Six years ago, Amanda Todd took her own life after falling into hopeless depression. She was the victim of uncontrollable bullying. And although there are many kids who commit suicide for this reason, Amanda’s case has stood out because she chose to share her painful story on YouTube shortly before her passing. In the video, the 16-year-old Canadian teenager explained how she made a big mistake in the 8th Grade that changed her life forever.


Amanda was young, naive and impressionable. This mistake really wasn’t her fault. As an aspiring singer who enjoyed sharing her music online and meeting new people in chat rooms, it was easy for a digital predator to track her down and get what he wanted. At the age of 14, Amanda was coaxed into flashing her chest to a stranger over her webcam. The man pursued her for over a year before he finally succeeded in getting her to show her body online. When he did, Amanda instantly became a victim to his abuse. 

The predator used a picture he took of Amanda’s bare chest as blackmail to manipulate her into doing more sexual acts for him. When she refused, he threatened to send the picture to everyone she knew. Amanda did stand her ground and before she could bat an eyelid, all her friends, her entire school, and family received the picture.

What was her breaking point

It should come as no surprise that Amanda started suffering from severe depression and anxiety after this. She changed school multiple times in order to try escape the bullying. She even moved cities. But nothing worked. This mistake continued to haunt her until she decided that her only way out would be death. The first time she attempted suicide, her schoolmates shared public messages on social media that said things like, “She should try a different bleach. I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid.” For Amanda, she felt her life was over.

One month after releasing her video where she tried to reach out for help, Amanda took her own life. It was only after her death that foreign officials realised the severity of the problem. They decided to follow through with legal action and find the man who did this to her. Bullying awareness was raised and every bully bystander stood united. But it was a little too little, and a little too late.

Now as a parent, think what you would do if you knew your child is being bullied. How involved you would be to prevent them from becoming a bully victim or a bully themselves? Have you ever had discussions and interactions with the school, other parents from the class, and the kids themselves to try and resolve any bullying issues?

So, what is the bullying cycle?

Without being the bully or victim, you have still had direct involvement within the bullying cycle as a bully bystander or mutual friend. At any given point you have to take into account a number of different people who would be part of the ripple effect. This includes:

  • The bully victim, 
  • The bully, 
  • The bully bystander, and 
  • Any defender who wants to assist with the problem.

Norwegian psychologist, Dan Olweus, is well-known for his work and research on bullying and developed the official bullying cycle we know today.

bully bystander (bully-cycle)

Picture interpretation of the bullying cycle

In it, you can see:

A: The bully or the bullies – choose the victims and initiate the bullying.

B: The bully’s henchmen – don’t initiate the bullying, but they’ll take part in the action once it’s begun.

C: The passive bullies – support bullying and you’ll often see them cheering on the behaviour while it’s busy happening.

D: The passive supporters – like the bullying but won’t show their interest or engagement when it happens.

E: The disengaged onlookers or bully bystanders – refuse to engage in and often ignore the problem.

F: The potential defenders – see the problem and acknowledge that something needs to be done but haven’t taken action yet.

G: The defenders – actively help the victim and protect them from the bullying.

H: The victim – the person who’s on the receiving end of the bullying.

The bully bystander plays a major part of the bullying cycle

Unless you put a proper defence system in place, the bullying cycle can keep getting worse until the victim feels more attacked than helped. The power scales continue to tip in the bully’s favour and the severity of the attacks can continue to get worse. Especially if you are still on the fence and do nothing. In essence, you become a bully bystander.

While a bully victim can develop depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and (more seriously) suicidal tendencies, the more they are submerged in the bullying cycle. A bully who is feeling powerful is more likely to get into frequent fights, become more aggressive towards others, and show signs of disrespect through vandalism or substance abuse. As for anyone around who witness these acts of violence, they can either become more tempted to participate, or feel guilty that they haven’t done anything to help the situation.

What effect does bullying have on society?

Bullying doesn’t stop within the barriers of a school’s walls, nor will it magically disappear after you leave. If we cannot resolve bullying problems at school, it can have serious consequences on how people interact within society.

In a situation like Amanda’s where the bullying cycle spiralled completely out of control, the ramifications are felt by the whole society. The video Amanda posted on YouTube has gotten over 12 million views from people all around the world since it was published. It’s safe to say Amanda’s message was heard and felt by many. Hopefully her story will stop the bully bystander mentality and get more people to step in and take action.

When bullying becomes overly powerful in any school environment, it will leave many innocent children feeling too scared to go to school, hating class, and having a preconception that none of the teachers are there to help them. Effectively, this cycle has a negative impact on their social skills and academic performance.

bully bystander (bullied-kid-walking-home)

Once this kind of damage has been done, you can bet that the bully will feel stronger, their victims will feel weaker, the bully bystander will feel more remorse, and the defenders will be distraught. 

How trauma affects your health

Such traumatic situations increase each child’s risk of developing adverse childhood experiences (ACE) that can influence their mental health and physiology for the rest of their lives. Some of the most common problems found in adults who’ve had four or more ACEs include:

  • Persistent depression; 
  • Anxiety; 
  • Suicidal tendencies; 
  • Substance abuse; 
  • Health risks and complications during pregnancy; and
  • Developed autoimmune and lifestyle diseases. 

Besides the repercussion​​​​s that childhood bullying can have; there’s no reason for any bully to stop their destructive behaviour as an adult unless they’re taught otherwise. And although their type of attacks may change in tone from childhood, their behaviour will not.

Like a child, an adult bully will still want to boost their own sense of self-worth and confidence by demeaning others – whether it’s by seeking revenge on the innocent or projecting their own insecurities onto the people close to them. There are various forms of aggressive behaviour a bully will engage in and get enjoyment from. And as a school environment can become more hostile and destructive due to bullying, so to can a work space, home, and marriage.

What does this mean?

Given the effects of bullying can last long after school and damage many people’s lives, it’s worth taking action as early as you can if you see any suspicious behaviour with your child.

the bully cycle | The Bully Shield

Start by taking a look at the bullying cycle mentioned above and see which roles you, your child, and their schoolmates fall into. By getting a good idea of what part everyone plays in the cycle, it will empower you to become the kind of defender your child needs or help you find someone else who can help.

Remember that by acknowledging the severity of the problem, doing substantial research on which bullying signs apply in your own child’s context, it will immediately help improve the way you communicate and work together to find a reasonable solution.

The first step is to build rapport with your child and an environment that promotes honesty and openness whereby you can create bully awareness. We have created a free Bully Awareness course that uses practical exercises that enhance the trust factor with your child and starts the process. If you have not yet enrolled in the course, you can do so now by clicking on the button below.


Dake, JA., Price, JH. and Telljohann, SK. (2009) The nature and extent of bullying at school. Journal of School Health. [online] Volume 73 (Issue 5). Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2003.tb03599.x [Accessed 1 August 2018]. 

Olweus, D. (2003) Bullying: A Research Project. 1st ed. [PDF] Colorado: Colorado State University. Available at: https://lhsela.weebly.com/uploads/7/9/0/8/7908073/_olweus_profile_of_bullying.pdf [Accessed 31 July 2018] 

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