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Witnessing Bullying at School: The Association Between Being a Bystander and Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms

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Abstract

It is well documented that bullying victimization and perpetration are associated with mental health problems, including anxiety and depressive symptoms. Although the majority of students report witnessing bullying as bystanders, very few studies have investigated whether negative consequences associated with bullying extend beyond targets and perpetrators to students who are bystanders. The present study examined the association between witnessing bullying and anxiety and depressive symptoms among middle school students. Middle school students (N = 130; grades 6th through 8th) completed questionnaires assessing experiences as a bystander, target, and perpetrator of bullying, as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms. Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to determine whether bystander status was associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms over and above the effects of victimization and perpetration and to examine bullying victimization and perpetration as moderators of these relationships. Analyses indicated being a bystander was associated with higher levels of anxiety (β = .40, p < .001) and depressive symptoms (β = .37, p < .001) even after controlling for frequency of being a target or perpetrator of bullying. Bystanders who were also targets of bullying reported the highest level of depressive symptoms; however, being a target of bullying did not moderate the relationship between being a bystander and anxiety. Furthermore, bullying perpetration did not moderate the relationship between being a bystander and anxiety or depressive symptoms. Findings indicate witnessing bullying uniquely contributes to anxiety and depressive symptoms for middle school students. For student bystanders who are also targets of bullying, depressive symptoms may be particularly high due to co-victimization or re-victimization experienced when witnessing bullying.

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Funding

Research reported in this manuscript was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number 1U54GM104944. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Aida Midgett.

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Midgett, A., Doumas, D.M. Witnessing Bullying at School: The Association Between Being a Bystander and Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms. School Mental Health 11, 454–463 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-019-09312-6

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