Bystander intervention is when someone who isn’t directly involved in a potentially harmful situation steps up to positively change what happens. Potentially harmful situations include sexual harassment or assault, bullying, or binge drinking. It’s easy to stand by and not help someone in a difficult situation, even if you know something isn’t right. But it’s up to those nearby to stand up for others who can’t or won’t stand up for themselves.

Although the person causing the harm is responsible, bystanders can play an important role in resolving a problem situation. An engaged bystander takes personal responsibility and action when harmful incidents come up. This action can interrupt conflicts or dangers and prevent them from becoming bigger or worse. 

By knowing what disrespect, harassment, bullying, and substance abuse look like and standing against them (or the circumstances leading to them), we can all show that hostility and coercion aren’t okay. We can also keep our communities safer by looking out for the wellness of others, including those who seem abused, depressed, or intoxicated.

Bystander Effect

The bystander effect is a phenomenon that happens when the presence of other people discourages an individual from intervening in a problem situation. Research shows that the larger the group of people, the less likely any single person is to intervene. 

Why Isn’t Anyone Helping?

When you’re in a group setting, it’s easier not to take action because you believe someone else will step in.

Bystanders who fear intervening may think:

  • I don’t know what to do.
  • It’s not my problem.
  • What if I’m misreading or overreacting to the situation?
  • I don’t want to cause a scene.
  • I don’t want my classmates or strangers to judge me.

Not taking action can set a standard for  the group. Others who might have stepped in take their cues from the group,  and based on the inaction of those around them, no one does anything to stop the issue. 

Being surrounded by people who could help but choose not to intervene can make a victim feel that  their community views their abuse or suffering as acceptable and normal. 

Strategies for Bystander Intervention

Often, before an incident occurs, there are comments and behaviors that lead up to an act of violence. The goal of bystander intervention is to de-escalate (or reduce the risk of) a potentially dangerous situation to prevent it before it gets worse 

Being an active bystander does not mean putting yourself in danger. If you’re worried for your safety or the safety of others, there are other ways to help besides putting yourself in harm’s way. For example, getting help or finding others who can intervene with you is a way to be an active bystander without putting yourself at risk, too. 

Strategies for bystander intervention include:

  • Distract – Interrupt the incident by drawing attention away. Here are some examples:
    • Ask for the time or directions 
    • Position yourself between a harasser and the target 
    • “Accidentally” spill a drink, which can cause a scene that allows a person to escape the situation 
  • Delegate – The safest way to intervene is to get the assistance of others. Recruit friends or others around you to notice and step up. It may be necessary to involve a person of authority, such as an RA, a teacher, an employee, or a security guard. You can reach emergency services by calling 9-1-1. 
  • Direct – Directly address the problematic behavior. For example, you can say something like “This makes me uncomfortable.” “That’s inappropriate.” Take care to be short and sweet when using direct intervention, since you don’t want to engage in a debate and escalate the situation. 

Sometimes, dangerous situations pass quickly, or you are unable to intervene due to safety reasons. Speak to the person who has been targeted. You can ask them if they are okay and if there are any support or resources you can help them with, such as accompanying them to a safe place or helping them file a report. 

Training for Bystander Intervention

Cultivate attitudes that change your community for the better. At 3rd Millennium Classrooms, we create online courses  that equip and empower students with positive bystander strategies. 

With effective, research-driven training, students can:

  • Shift their ideas and expectations on norms and risks
  • Determine their preferred intervention style
  • Develop action steps
  • Learn skills for resolving conflicts and resisting peer pressure and coercion 

We offer two courses which provide techniques for non-confrontational, semi-confrontational, and confrontational bystander intervention:

  • Our Consent & Respect course educates college students on consent and teaches them how to respond to sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. It teaches students how to develop confidence and healthy relationships and use strategies for confrontations. It also helps campuses meet Title IX and Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE Act) requirements. See the course overview.
  • Our Respect & Resolve course teaches middle and high school students how to give and receive respect and how to react in problem situations. See the course overview.

To review or sign up for our courses today, visit our website or call (888) 810-7990.

Get Involved

We all have the power to change the outcome of situations we witness. Notice what’s happening around you,  and respond to these situations instead of just letting them unfold. Don’t be afraid to be the first to speak up and act! 

Through bystander intervention, you can effect change in your community. Bystander intervention creates an environment where people feel valued and safe. Looking out for others and making yourself heard creates a space where we look out for each other’s safety.