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February 2, 2021
by Patricia Tomasi

How Do Teens React When They See Their Immigrant Peers Being Bullied?

February 2, 2021 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in the Journal of Child Development looked at how non-immigrant children respond when immigrant children are bullied.

"This study examined how adolescents react to bias-based bullying of immigrant and non-immigrant peers," study author, Secil Gonultas told us. "We were interested in learning more about when and why adolescents are willing to intervene when they see others being bullied. As immigrant youth are especially likely to be victimized by bullies, we were also interested in understanding if adolescents are equally likely to want to help immigrant and non-immigrant victims."

Gonultas and fellow study author, Kelly Lynn Mulvey were hoping to identify new directions for interventions to stop bullying and empower bystanders to help victims. They focused on prejudice and discrimination, and theory of mind (being able to take others’ perspectives). They also hoped to learn if intergroup contact—spending time with peers who are immigrants—would help adolescents understand the importance of standing up for immigrant victims.

"We thought adolescents would be more likely to want to help victims who shared their background (immigrant or non-immigrant)," Mulvey told us. "We also thought that adolescents with better theory of mind would be more likely to say they would do something if they saw someone being bullied. We thought those who reported that they knew and spent time with more peers from immigrant backgrounds would be more likely to want to help as well."

Bullying is so pervasive in schools around the world explained Mulvey. Immigrant youth are often targets of bullying because of prejudice and discrimination. One of the ways to reduce bullying is how bystander peers who see bias-based bullying of immigrant youth respond to bullying. 

"We specifically wanted to understand bystander responses because we know that bystanders are so effective in reducing bullying if they actively intervene." Mulvey told us.

For the study, middle and high school students completed a survey. They read stories about bullying and indicated how they would respond and why. In general, adolescents said that bullying was wrong and that they wanted to help the victim. 

"This is exciting news and suggests that we can look to develop programs to help them learn how to support the victim," Gonultas told us. "But we also found that your background matters. Youth who were from immigrant backgrounds were more likely to say that bullying of immigrants was wrong and to say they would support the victim than those who did not have an immigrant background. We found that if adolescents have more contact with immigrants (for instance, going to school together or living in the same neighborhoods) and if they have less prejudice and discrimination towards immigrants, they were more likely to help victims who were immigrants. Lastly, we found that being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (theory of mind) really helped—youth with better theory of mind were more likely to want to help victims."

Gonultas said they were surprised and pleased that youth, in general, recognize how harmful bullying is. As bullying is still quite common, though, this suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done to help teens feel empowered to stand up to stop bullying.

"We think new school anti-bullying programs should consider the diversity in schools and should address improving intergroup attitudes and opportunities for intergroup contact between students from different backgrounds," Gonultas told us. "Further, another piece of the puzzle to encourage bystanders to be upstanders for bullying is to help youth take others’ perspectives. Overall, our study provides implications to develop future intervention programs to create welcoming and safe social environments for all children and adolescents."

The study also has implications for teachers, practitioners, and policymakers striving to promote harmonious intergroup relations across adolescence in social settings.

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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