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Being a positive bystander

What is a bystander?

It is likely that we have all been a bystander at some point in our lives. A bystander is someone who sees or hears about something happening but does not take part in it.

In these moments we can choose whether to be a: 

  • Passive bystander. Someone who chooses to ignore what they see or hear or do nothing about it.


  • Positive bystander. Someone who chooses to do something to try and help or stop the situation. Other names for this are being an ‘active bystander’ or an ‘ally’.

In what situations can I be a positive bystander?

Knowing when to take action and be a positive bystander is often linked to our personal values. Our values tell help us to decide what is right and wrong, and what we feel strongly about.

Values are different for everyone but might include honesty, equality, kindness or freedom of expression.

They can lead us to take action in a range of situations, such as:

  • people being racist
  • online bullying
  • sexual harassment
  • bullying targeted at LGBT+ people
  • disability discrimination

Bullying or targeting someone because of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability could be considered a hate crime. If you see any of these things happening to someone, you can be a positive bystander by helping the person to seek help, support and report.

What does being a positive bystander look like?

  • There are usually lots of things we can do to be a positive bystander. There is no one ‘right way’. Deciding when and how to act will depend on the situation.

Being a positive bystander can be:

  • not joining in with unkind things being said
  • reporting and/or blocking someone on social media
  • saying that you disagree or think what is being said or done is wrong
  • stopping the situation by distracting, changing the subject or interrupting
  • supporting the person being targeted
  • going and getting help for the person being targeted
  • encouraging other people to be positive bystanders or to help (also called collective action)

Being a positive bystander doesn’t mean:

  • putting yourself or others at risk
  • only doing something in that moment
  • challenging someone directly
  • taking big or group action

Collective action

Collective action is when a group of people work together to achieve a shared goal, something they believe to be wrong or harmful. An example of collective action is environmental activists, like Greta Thunberg, working together to address issues such as climate change. 

Challenges to being a positive bystander

What if it’s ‘only banter’?

Whilst joking and banter can be fun between friends, if it makes a person feel sad, uncomfortable or if it’s one-sided, it’s not ok. We’ve all heard “it’s only a joke” before, but this can be a way of not having to apologise or admit we may have said or done something to hurt someone. When jokes become hurtful, it is a good time to be a positive bystander.

What if I had an opportunity to be a positive bystander and I didn’t do anything?

Most of us will experience being a passive bystander at some point. Not feeling able to challenge a situation doesn’t mean you are a bad person.

It may be that you didn’t feel safe to take any action. You may have been unsure what to do or say. It can be really hard to stand up to some people.

Think about if there is anything you can do after the incident. This might be offering your support to the person targeted, reporting bullying, or talking to a trusted adult.

Take time to reflect and think about what you could have done, what might have stopped you and if there’s anything you can do differently in the future.

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