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Strengthening student bystanders’ capacity to respond to covert bullying

Covert bullying includes social isolation, exclusionary behaviours, humiliation, spreading rumours, malicious gossip and damaging of reputation, as well as manipulation of the peer group, for instance by telling others to exclude someone from the group. The most comprehensive large-scale study on covert bullying to date has been conducted by the Child Health Promotion Research Centre (CHPRC), who was commissioned by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) to produce the Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS) report. The ACBPS represented the first national prevalence study of covert bullying in Australia, and involved the collection of data from over 20,000 students and 456 staff from schools across Australia. It was found that one in six students in Years 4-9 (16%) reported being bullied covertly on a regular basis (every few weeks or more often). Covert forms of bullying are more difficult for schools and parents to detect and likely to result in more social, psychological and mental health harms than more overt forms of bullying. In the ACBPS, schools expressed concern about their capacity to respond to this problem.

This formative research project aims to extend the ACBPS, by improving our understanding of bystander behaviour in the context of covert bullying. Peers are present as onlookers in a considerable proportion of bullying interactions, and as such, the peer group is central to the bullying process. These bystanders to bullying can play a crucial role in the active reinforcement or otherwise of this aggression. Given the importance of the wider peer group in the bullying process, involving bystanders and utilising ‘peer group power’ in a prosocial way in efforts to stop bullying is key to the future success of school-based anti-bullying interventions. The very nature of covert bullying (i.e. being ‘hidden) might imply that few students actually witness this form of bullying, however the available literature suggests otherwise: students may still be witness to these incidents or at least be aware of their occurrence.This project seeks to further examine this issue, by determining students’ experiences and perceptions as bystanders to covert bullying. The study will also examine students’ perceptions of the supports needed at the school level to encourage them to be effective, prosocial bystanders, and participate in school decision making processes. This research includes four key stages:

  • Stage 1: Consolidation and critical review of literature, and consultation with Western Australian (WA) stakeholders;
  • Stage 2: Consultation with students to investigate bystander behaviour in the context of covert bullying and strategies to promote positive bystander behaviour;
  • Stage 3: Data analysis and synthesis of findings; and
  • Stage 4: Linking evidence-based research findings to inform the development of recommendations for a comprehensive and sustainable whole school intervention to address covert bullying.

This project will build on the CHPRC’s Strong Schools, Safe Kids project (2010-2014, Healthway #18939): ‘Building school capacity to reduce social aggression among students’ (hereafter referred to as ‘Strong Schools’). The Strong Schools project employs a case-study design to collaboratively develop a capacity building framework and tailored interventions to support Western Australian schools’ implementation of strategies to prevent and manage student covert social aggression and bullying behaviours. Synthesis of data in the proposed formative research project will help inform policy and practice in the seven Strong Schools case study schools from a student perspective that has not been investigated before. The research will also inform the development of a bystander-focused component of a larger specialised intervention for Strong Schools case-study schools, designed to strengthen their capacity to reduce covert social aggression.

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Funding Body


For further information about this project please contact Helen Monks at


Ms Helen Monks
Ms Kate Hadwen
Dr Laura Thomas
Ms Sarah Falconer
Ms Narelle Alderman

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