Some moments stick with you forever. I will never forget the day a person on my bus stood up for me. I was a first grader at the time, but I still remember every detail. I walked past a couple of bus seats, the backs of the seats taller than I was. I stopped to take a seat at the second row when a group of older boys nudged each other and started talking about me, getting louder and louder. They started pointing at me, laughing, and called me all sorts of names. I tried ignoring them, my heart racing, and hoped they would leave me alone, but I worried it would only get worse. I already had one of my bottom teeth knocked out by an older, much taller student a few days earlier. I closed my eyes and braced myself for whatever would happen next. A high-pitched voice cut through the laughter, “Hey! Leave her alone-” followed by the classic line, “Pick on someone your own size.” Miraculously the boys silenced, rolling their eyes, and sat back in their seats as if nothing had happened. I opened my eyes, shocked. The kid sat next to me and stuck out her hand for me to shake, “I’m Lindsey.” I took her hand shakily and grinned so big, she could probably see where my tooth was missing. We are still friends to this day.
That moment lives vividly in my memory – the fear, the confusion, the laughter, but most importantly – the bravery she had to stand up for me – someone she barely knew. October is bullying awareness month – an important time to reflect on the impacts, causes, and effects of bullying. However, I want to highlight an often-overlooked factor in the fight against bullying: upstanders (people like Lindsey). Upstanders have the ability to stop bullying in its tracks, prevent it from happening, and reduce the short- and long-term impacts of bullying.
In 2016, two high schoolers from Watching Hills realized the importance of upstanders and campaigned to have the world “Upstander” added to the dictionary. These former students, Monica Mahal and Sarah Decker, explain it best:
“Students can easily recognize the bully, the ‘bad guy’ the one throwing the punches… and most can point out the bystanders, the individuals in the shadows, watching, and doing nothing… so who are the upstanders? A person who takes a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance is not a ‘positive bystander’ they are an Upstander.” They argue that this distinction is necessary: “The word [upstander] itself has the ability to empower students to make an active change in their schools, in an effort to build communities that support difference and unify against intolerance. The concept of an upstander is critical to the well-being of our society.”
Due to the efforts of these students, “upstander” was added to the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries. With growing movements like these, more children learn what they can do to help, are empowered to do so, and less children feel the harsh impacts of bullying.
Bullying has many negative effects, not only on the child bullied, but also on the bystanders, and even the bullies themselves. These effects follow kids into adulthood. Kids who are bullied are more likely to be later diagnosed with a depression or anxiety disorder, lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, have noticeable changes in eating and sleeping patterns, and even decreased academic achievement (such as lower GPA, lower standardized test scores, and are more likely to miss class or drop out). (Stopbullying.gov). Bullying is more common than we often realize. According to the National Center for Education statistics, 22% of students aged 12-18 report being bullied at school during the school year 2019. And based on a 2020 survey from Patchin and Hinduja, 49.8% of tweens (aged 9-12) said they experienced bullying at school. And these effects can last a lifetime. The National Library of Medicine reports that the long-term effects of bullying include higher risks of mood disorders, increased risk of psychotic experiences and suicidal ideation, poor general health (such as more body pain, headaches, and slower illness recovery), lower education qualifications, and worse financial management. Kids who are bullied earn less at their jobs than their peers even at age 50! They also have more trouble making and keeping friends and are less likely to live with a partner or and have social support. These are serious, long-lasting outcomes.
Kids who bully and bystanders are also affected by their own actions – or inaction. According to Stopbullying.gov, bullies are more likely to engage in violent and risky behaviors into adulthood and are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, get into fights, vandalize, and drop out of school. They are more likely to have criminal convictions and traffic citations and be abusive toward romantic partners, spouses, and their children. Kids who witness bullying and do nothing are more likely to have increased tobacco alcohol and drug use, increased mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and more likely to miss and skip school. Long-term, bullies are less educated, often unemployed, anti-social, and participate in serious crime such as burglary and illegal drug use.
When someone intervenes in bullying situations, bullying is interrupted, it softens the blow, and can even stop bullying in its tracks. The person bullied is likely to feel defended and supported rather than fearful and victimized. Upstanders can lessen the effects of bullying, such as reducing anxiety and depression and can prevent bullying from even occurring. When students learn how to be an upstander, they gain a sense of pride, bullied students feel less alone and harassed and instead are more hopeful. In my case, the “upstander” quality was paid forward – I have since stood up for others, the bravery of my friend at the back of my mind. Anyone can be an upstander and we can teach the next generation to stand up for one another, building upon this movement for widespread justice, integrity, and a happier, healthier world.
Lakes Center for Youth and Families