Bystanders' Reactions to Witnessing Repetitive Abuse Experiences

Article excerpt

Concern over different forms of interpersonal violence in schools remains an increasing concern for millions of students, parents, educators, and communities not just in the United States, but worldwide (Carney, Hazler, & Higgins, 2002; Cole, Cornell, & Sheras, 2006; Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Smith, Nika, & Papasideri, 2004). The literature has well established that bullying is not the harmless, minor, developmentally appropriate behavior of popular belief, but it is one that puts many young people at considerable physical and psychological risk (Nishina, Juvonen, & Witkow, 2005; Rigby, 2002; Wolke, Woods, Bloomfield, & Karstadt, 2001). The vast majority of these studies on school bullying have focused on those who bully and their direct victims, whereas few have explored the impact of observing this form of repetitive abuse on the many times greater number of young people who witness it (Hazler, 1996; Janson & Hazier, 2004).

Recent research (Janson & Hazier, 2004) suggests that witnessing low-level repetitive abuse may affect bystanders and direct victims in similar physiological and psychological ways that can stay with them for years to come. Bullying appears to have the potential to create levels of psychological distress that approach, and in some cases exceed, the levels reported for groups in the literature who have suffered traumatic experiences widely recognized as severe. These findings lend support for the position of some researchers that the effects of repetitive psychological abuse may be as damaging and enduring as the effects of physical abuse (Janson & Hazler, 2004). Although this type of research on bystanders to bullying, harassment, and other common forms of everyday abuse is still uncommon, studies of other forms of abuse have demonstrated that differences in the impact on victim and bystander are often blurred (Boney-McCoy & Finkelhor, 1995). Characteristic responses seen in victims and shared by bystanders are physiological arousal (Hosch & Bothwell, 1990); repression of empathy (Gilligan, 1991); desensitization to negative school behaviors (Safran & Safran, 1985); dangerous, negative behaviors in general (Garbarino, 2001); and feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and ineffectiveness (Hazler, 1996). Recognition of the common risks shared by bystanders and direct victims can be seen in the literature in the use of alternate terms used to describe bystanders, such as covictims (Shakoor & Chalmers, 1991) or indirect victims (Morgan & Zedner, 1993).

Growing recognition of the potential harm to youthful witnesses of repetitive abuse (Janson & Hazler, 2004) has been accompanied by identification of their essential roles in programs aimed at decreasing such abuse among youth (Hazler & Carney, 2006). The fact that bystanders far outnumber the abusers and victims, who have been traditionally perceived as the targets of research, makes it all the more important that research be conducted on the situational and personal factors that influence bystanders' reactions to youthful repetitive abuse.

Situational Characteristics

The definition of bullying that has become standard in worldwide investigations into youthful repetitive abuse contains three defining components: a negative action that harms someone, an imbalance of power, and repetition over time (Monks & Smith, 2006; Olweus, 1996). These situational factors in combination appear to have a major influence on the degree of harm done by repetitive abuse.

Type of harm has recently been a focus of discussion in the literature (Carney & Hazler, 2001; Craig, Henderson, & Murphy, 2000; Hazler, Miller, Carney, & Green, 2001), with physical and emotional types getting much attention. Children subjected to physical harm are the most easily identified and generally get immediate attention because of visible signs of injury that may be evident (e. …


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