The overwhelmingly majority of teens witness dating aggression or sexual violence among their peers, but many choose not to intervene — sometimes because they want to avoid drama, sometimes because they want to fuel drama, and sometimes because they’re afraid of second-guessing a more popular kid.
Those are among new findings from researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, who conducted a study that — though small — offers an unusual glimpse of bystander intervention among high school teenagers. How often high school kids intervene and why they do (or don’t) are questions that haven’t gotten a lot of attention, despite plenty of research showing that high schoolers experience high rates of sexual assault and dating violence.
The new study is based on input from 218 students from three New Hampshire high schools, who were asked in surveys and focus groups to describe how often they had intervened in situations ranging from hearing sexist jokes or verbal aggression (“She deserves to be raped”) to witnessing a friend’s partner act controlling to seeing an intoxicated friend being taken upstairs at a party.
More than nine in 10 students said that they had had at least one opportunity within the last year to intervene in situations of dating or sexual violence. Most students had more than one opportunity: On average, students reported five episodes in which they could have intervened.
But in 37 percent of those cases, students said they chose not to step in.
Girls were more likely than boys to intervene, and students who had themselves been victims of sexual violence or dating aggression were more likely to intervene than students without that personal history.
Teens told the researchers that sometimes they didn’t step in because they wanted to avoid fanning the flames of teenage drama. Sometimes, they didn’t step in because they wanted to watch the drama unfold. “It’s like a movie,” one teen said. “Watching them, it’s funny.”
Students told the researchers that they sometimes post updates about a couple’s drama to social media to amplify the audience, along with a popcorn emoticon to show that they were sitting back and watching the show.
Students were more likely to step in if the victim was a friend, and less likely to step in if the aggressor was popular. “Nobody is going to approach them,” one teen told the researchers.
Teens were also more likely to intervene when they saw aggressive behavior in real life, as opposed to on social media. You can’t stop a fight on Facebook, one teen said, because it’s not like you’re going to drive to someone’s house and turn off the computer. “There’s nothing you can really do,” the teen said.
Teens also gave examples of how they had stepped in to shield friends from unwanted advances, or to show aggressive girls and boys that their interest was unrequited. Sometimes the intervention was direct: “Dude, you’re hitting on girls you have no chance with. What are you doing?” one teen said. And sometimes it was less direct, such as offering to dance with a girl to give her an escape hatch from a bothersome person.
Intervention can be uncomfortable and difficult for anyone. The survey shows that students need more training and practice, the researchers wrote, suggesting that high school health classes should include lessons on bystander intervention.
Here’s a breakdown of the situations that students witnessed and the frequency with which they intervened: