I was left with a question, though: what makes kids more or less willing to stand by someone who’s being attacked? Only in the last few years have researchers begun to answer that question. They’ve found that defending victims is linked to showing greater empathy, as you might expect. But it also has a lot to do with who your friends are, at least for boys.
That finding comes from an intriguing study by Dorothy Espelage, the research psychologist as the University of Illinois. In 2011, she created a map of the social networks of the sixth and seventh grades of an Illinois school. Espelage found that the boys who were in friendship groups with higher levels of bullying were less willing to intervene, even if they weren’t the bullies themselves. The upshot: prevention efforts won’t work well if they ignore the level of bullying within different social groups. “It’s blind adult hope to think that kids will just stand up for each other,” she told me. “You can try to instill in kids a sense of personal responsibility to help victims, but they’ll still look to what their peers are doing and ask, ‘Will they still be my friends?'”
– from Chapter Four, “Monique,” in Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon.