Adolescent Bystander Behavior in the Context of Bullying and Teen Dating Violence: Operationalizing An Integrated Theory
Bullying and teen dating violence (TDV) are related and serious social problems with long-term mental health and school achievement implications. Prevention interventions increasingly incorporate “bystander” components designed to reduce aggressive behavior by encouraging young people to challenge abusive or disrespectful behavior among peers. While college-based bystander programs have shown promise, less is known about theoretical models of bystander behavior most relevant to adolescents, or about the feasibility of bystander approaches with teens. The purpose of this study was to inform the tailoring of bystander interventions for youth by examining whether influences on teen bystander behavior are captured by two relevant theories, Bystander Theory (BT; Latane & Darley), and the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB; Fishbein & Ajzen). Specifically, we aimed to elicit adolescent-specific content of influences on bystander behavior within the BT and TPB, such as normative beliefs (adolescent perceptions of what others want them to do), outcome beliefs (perceived consequences of enacting intervening behavior) and self-efficacy beliefs (perceived supports and barriers to intervening behavior).
We conducted eight focus groups with 53 youth ages 14-18, from local urban high schools and from an agency serving GLBTQ youth. About 75% of participants were female, and 15% identified as African American, 6% as Asian American, 10% as Latino/a, 49% as White, and 20% as multi-racial or “other.” We used a semi-structured interview guide to elicit common bullying and TDV scenarios, and to help participants reflect on influences that would affect their decision-making and likelihood of intervening to reduce TDV. Elicitation questions consistent with the TPB (Ajzen, 2006) were also used to surface specific outcome beliefs and normative referents salient to bystander behavior. Data were examined using Dedoose software, and were analyzed deductively using content analysis to identify modal TPB belief responses, and inductively to determine themes that diverged from constructs within the TPB or BT theories.
Findings indicate that BT and the TPB capture important influences on bystander behavior, but are incomplete models for the range of factors affecting teen bystander decision making. Examples of BT and TPB-specific content from the focus groups included teens’ ambivalence regarding their responsibility for intervening; uncertainty regarding the best approach to intervening; outcome beliefs that intervening could result in being labeled untrustworthy by peers, in ruining others’ entertainment, or in being socially ostracized or targeted; and normative beliefs that other adolescents would not approve of intervening behaviors. However, these theories did not address key issues, such as nuanced social hierarchy in teens’ peer environments, or the roles of social media in promoting and inhibiting bystander intervention.
Intervening in peers’ conduct is difficult, especially for adolescents with strong developmental needs to maintain peer relationships. These analyses surfaced adolescent-specific attitudes, beliefs, peer influences and situational factors that support and hinder teens’ ability to take action against disrespectful peer conduct in a given moment. Information about these factors can be used both to better tailor bystander approaches to adolescent audiences, and to inform future research into the most potent influences on youth’s bystander-related decision making.