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By Anne Collier

From infancy on up we learn what’s right and wrong, based on our families’ and, later, peers’ values. That’s important. It develops that inner guidance system – or “moral compass,” as it’s sometimes called – that makes for safer, smoother navigation through life. But that isn’t all kids need as they grow and find their own way online and offline. In order to be safe, keep peers safe and make things right when they see something very wrong happening, they need solid information.

In a magazine article out of Australia, Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller, authors of the new book Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, give two graphic examples – one in Boston, the other in Adelaide – of how important it is for young people (and all people) to have accurate information, especially about sexual harassment and assault, in order to help each other stay safe at school, in public, on the mobile platform, etc. They wonder if the reason why some bystanders witnessed but did not report or stop an alleged sexual assault in these incidents was because some didn’t recognize it for what it was. They hadn’t been supplied with the information they needed to take action.

What makes people intervene

So here’s some basic information for parents and educators who want to enable peer support and protection among young people: The authors write, “According to research, the main factors which determine whether or not a person is likely to intervene in a situation such as a sexual assault include:

  • “Noting the harm and interpreting it correctly
  • “Feeling personally responsible for the safety of others
  • “Feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action
  • “Having practical intervention skills and effective ‘scripts’ to follow and
  • “Feeling that other bystanders around them will support them.”

“In other words,” Funnell and Miller continue, “it’s not enough to simply teach ‘right from wrong.’ Students need targeted education on sexual assault and informed consent, combined with the explicit teaching of ethical bystander skills.” They also need to know what digital sexual harassment is and looks and feels like when it appears on a phone or in social media. It’s when sexting is coercive that trust gets violated and people get hurt (see this). Young people deserve to know the difference between coercion and consent and to be very clear on what constitutes consent.

‘Knowledge is power’ AND safety

That can’t be emphasized enough. How can we expect them to take action for what they know is right without knowing how to, and without having the confidence that comes from having that knowledge – especially in mainly user-driven environments online and offline, whether a party, a music venue or a digital environment.

Funnell and Miller add that “it’s also important that we praise the positive stories of ethical bystanders, such as the woman at the Keith Urban concert who took action.” She wasn’t sure that what she was seeing was rape, so she had the good sense to ask the victim “if she was consenting, to which she replied ‘no,'” after which “the alleged rapist was finally physically pulled away” (see their article for details).

Why is it so important to highlight positive action? The authors write that it not only validates the positive actors, makes their action an example. “It’s also an important strategy in normalising ethical behaviour.” This is what the research shows: Change perception by giving people the facts (that the vast majority of us don’t actually engage in violence or cruelty) and you up the good even more. Behavior conforms to perception – see my recent post on the social norms research. If we want to see good, we need to enable it and praise it (ideally model it too!), not just teach it.

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