Children’s Physiological and Emotional Reactions to Witnessing Bullying Predict Bystander

Children’s Physiological and Emotional Reactions to Witnessing Bullying Predict Bystander



Actions that a person does intentionally and repeatedly with the aim of intimidating, harming or humiliating another person can be referred to as bullying. An action can be categorised as bullying when the victim is weaker than the perpetrator both socially and physically. In most schools, the issue of bullying is common with a different prevalence of those bullied verbally making up 37% while those bullied physically taking 13%.  The students who are harassed are at a higher risk of falling into unfavorable outcomes such as depression as compared to their peers who never get bullied. It is also possible for the bullied students to attempt self-harm if a remedy is not provided. Such children will always be anxious and may suffer from saver dizziness and headaches.

Additionally, they perform poorly in class, and as well, they have higher rates of class absenteeism as compared to their friends who are not bullied. Such children are also at the brink of developing suicidal behaviour as well as a school shooting. It is for such reasons that the issue has been classified as a matter of public health attention that requires immediate actions by schools to eradicate the behaviour.

Bystander’s Impact in Episodes of Bullying.

Bystanders are usually always available at any scene where bullying occurs. The bystanders are usually peers who observe what happens during the bullying. In most cases, bullying occurs in the absence of the school authority in the uncontrolled parts of the school.  Some of the peers who witness the bullying have the power to alter the outcome of the event. For instance, some may motivate the perpetrator by cheering or helping them hence encouraging the victimisation while others may stop the perpetrator by notifying an adult about the incidence or defending the victim physically.

Additionally, some peers may just ignore the incident and fail to support the perpetrator or defend the victim. Research has revealed that the presence of a bystander who actively defends the victim reduces the aggressiveness of the perpetrator by more than 50%. It is for that reason that interventions that recognise the impact of bystanders in the prevention of bullying should be considered.


Interventions: Bystander Aimed Components.

As a matter of fact, most intervention recognises the importance of bystanders in stopping the issue of bullying in schools. It involves having the parents and teachers encouraging the children on the importance of intervening when they see a friend being bullied. The focus is usually on the positive outcome of such interventions as well as the skills required for the intervention. Rewards should be offered to the children who successfully stop an incident of bullying either through direct intervention or by informing an adult.

1st Goal: Differing Reactions of Groups to Bullying Episodes

The study aims to investigate the different reactions of children after witnessing an incident of bullying in order to understand the relationship between interventions by bystanders and such reactions. The active intervention by a bystander by being motivated by the degree to which the bullying act angers the witness. Nevertheless, children will always react differently when they witness such incidences since their judgement is depended on many variable factors such as their relationship to the perpetrator or the victim. Some may be emotionally affected with concern and empathy for the victim causing them to take action. Other children may not be bothered by the incidents, and they would just carry on with their activities without regard for the victim. The primary goal of the research was to investigate the groups of children into those who are emotional and unemotional to the bullying episodes. The hypotheses state that children who are not emotional may not show any emotional or physiological reaction. The other hypotheses state that the emotional group would show physiological and emotional arousal and hence react differently to bullying episodes.

2nd Goal: Bystander Intervention Prediction

The second goal was to examine the likelihood of bystander intervention into episodes of bullying based on their emotional and physiological arousal to the videos they watched on bullying.


There were two phases of data collection which included the laboratory phase and the classroom phase. The data collected from the classroom was composed of children from the 5th and the 4th grades. The two grades were chosen because there are increased incidences of bullying within that age. Peer report data was collected during the classroom data phase as well as self-reports on effective empathy, emotional expressiveness, peer confrontation efficacy, and peer victimisation. In the laboratory data collection phase, a subsample of 79 children took part. The physiological reactions, as well as the emotional arousal of the children, was recorded as they watched videos with bullying episodes.

Letters requesting parental permission for their children to participate in the study were used as the bases for the recruitment of children. There were prizes for the children who returned letters from their parents and those who did not return in the first and second round were given fresh letters. In efforts to get high numbers of participants, classes which would return the highest number of letters regardless of parental consent were promised a party. 78% of the children were given consent by their parents to participate. The study involved 43 classrooms in the State of mid-Atlantic.

In the classroom data collection, the experimenter assisted by one undergraduate paid a one hour visiting the sampled classrooms to gather the peer and self-report assessment results. Paper and pencil measures were administered to the participating children. The undergraduate assistant was available throughout the process to ensure the smooth running of the exercise and to answer questions of the children.

On the other hand, the laboratory data collection phase also took one hour, and it involved the child alongside a parent. There was compensation for the children and parent of $20 per head. The physiological equipment was only placed on the child with the consent and permission of the parent and the child. The parent would also be available during the process to observe the results of the study. In order to get the child comfortable with the equipment, the experimenter would play games with them. The children then would watch a video and answer questions after which they would watch a relaxing video before watching another bullying episode.


There was a significant positive correlation between sad bullying, mad bulling and scared bullying. There was also a positive correlation between sad bullying and HR slope bullying. Efficacy in peer confrontation was had a negative correlation to scared bullying while emotional expressiveness had a significant correlation with scared bullying. Among the four characteristics of children, no significant relationship was observed, and as well there were no connections to the effects of stopping bullying incidences.

Latent profile analysis was used to investigate whether the participants grouped themselves into unemotional and emotional groups on the bases of their emotional and physiological  arousal by the videos they watched in the laboratory. Mplus 5.1 was used to conduct the analysis. The indicators show that there was group membership based on the emotional reaction of the participants from watching the videos. Consequently, the Mplus score shows that there was a high probability that each child would become a member of one of the groups. The highest conditional probability was used as the bases for assigned the children to their appropriate groups. It was also revealed that most of the members of the unemotional groups were the boys while girls mostly made up the emotional groups.   There were higher levels of peer victimisation in the emotional group as compared to the unemotional group. Likewise, emotional expressiveness was high in the emotional group. The outcome of the study also showed that the emotional cluster had higher probability to intervene and stop perpetrators from harming a victim as compared to the members of the unemotional group.


The primary aim of the study was to asses the emotional and physiological reactions of children to videos of bullying and connected such reactions to the probability of such children to intervene in incidences of bullying at school. The HR of the participants was observed as they watched videos in the laboratory, as well as reports,  were taken on self-level of negative emotions once they completed each video. The likelihood of intervention in episodes of bullying was rated based on the membership of children into emotional and unemotional groups.

The results showed that the children who were categorised as emotional were irritated by seeing the act of bullying. Consequently, it as also concluded that there was a connection between being upset by an episode of bullying and the probability of intervention. There were more children in the unemotional group as compared to those in the emotional cluster. This shows that most of the children in the study would not take any action if they saw their peers being bullied.

The article offers an insight to the reasons as to why children react differently to episodes of bullying, but in future, more physiological factors should be taken considered to achieve a more comprehensive conclusion on the issue of children intervention.




Barhight, L. R., Hubbard, J. A., & Hyde, C. T. (2013). Children’s physiological and emotional reactions to witnessing bullying predict bystander intervention. Child development, 84(1), 375-390.