Observing Bulling

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School Psychology Quarterly
2009, Vol. 24, No. 4, 211–223

© 2009 American Psychological Association
1045-3830/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0018164

Observing Bullying at School: The Mental Health Implications of Witness Status
Ian Rivers

V. Paul Poteat

Brunel University

Boston College

Nathalie Noret

Nigel Ashurst

York St. John University

Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care
Partnership Trust

This study explores the impact of bullying on the mental health of students who witness it. A representative sample of 2,002 students aged 12 to 16 years attending 14 schools in the United Kingdom were surveyed using a questionnaire that included measures of bullying at school, substance abuse, and mental health risk. The results suggest that observing bullying at school predicted risks to mental health over and above that predicted for those students who were directly involved in bullying behavior as either a perpetrator or a victim. Observing others was also found to predict higher risk irrespective of whether students were or were not victims themselves. The results are discussed with reference to past research on bystander and witness behavior. Keywords: bullying, observer, witness, mental health, school

port lower levels of school engagement and
belonging, as well higher rates of delinquent
behavior outside school (Haynie, Nansel, &
Eitel, 2001; Nansel et al., 2001). Among students who have the dual role of perpetrator in some situations and victim in others (“bully
victims”), higher rates of depression and reports
of somatic complaints are common, and there is
an increased probability of these students being
referred for psychiatric assessment above those
who are primarily perpetrators and victims
(Nansel et al., 2001; Swearer, Song, Cary,
Eagle, & Mickelson, 2001). Furthermore,
higher rates of substance use are associated with
both bullying and victimization (Shepherd,
Sutherland, & Newcombe, 2006; Swahn,
Bossarte, & Sullivent, 2008; Thompson, Sims,
Kingree, & Windle, 2008).
Although students who witness bullying have
a key role to play in challenging it, there remains a dearth of information on this particular subgroup (Craig & Pepler, 1997; Frey, Hirschstein, Snell, Edstrom, MacKenzie, & Broderick, 2005; Hawkins, Pepler, & Craig, 2001). Research by Salmivalli, Lagerspetz, Bjorkqvist,

O sterman, and Kaukiainen (1996) into the
group processes associated with bullying at
school identified a range of secondary roles

Previous studies of bullying behavior have
tended to focus on risk factors associated with
the primary roles of victim, perpetrator, and that
of the “bully victim” (Juvonen, Graham, &
Schuster, 2003; Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan,
Simons-Morton, & Scheidt, 2001). Among victims of bullying, higher rates of depression and anxiety coupled with psychosomatic complaints
are common (e.g., headaches and abdominal
pains; Fekkes, Pijpers, & Verloove-Vanhorick,
2004; Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpelae, & Rantanen,
2000; Srabstein, McCarter, Shao, & Huang,
2006) together with lower levels of academic
attainment, self-esteem, and social functioning
(Hawker & Boulton, 2000; Schwartz, Gorman,
Nakamoto, & Toblin, 2005). When compared
with their nonaggressive peers, perpetrators re-

Ian Rivers, School of Sport and Education, Brunel University, Uxbridge, United Kingdom; V. Paul Poteat, Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology Department,
Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts; Nathalie Noret, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, York St. John University, United Kingdom; Nigel Ashurst, Kent and Medway NHS and
Social Care Partnership Trust, Kent, United Kingdom.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ian Rivers, School of Sport and Education, Brunel University, Uxbridge UB8 3PH, United Kingdom.
E-mail: ian.rivers@brunel.ac.uk



beyond those of perpetrator and victim that incorporated a...
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