To say that bullying has been at the forefront of public discourse over the past few years would be a bit of an understatement. Countless TV programs, documentaries, articles, and even high-profile trials have covered and re-covered every angle of the issue time and time again. The growing interest in bullying over the past decade hasn’t been without just cause, as a saddening number of school shootings, student suicides, and other tragic incidents have demonstrated the heartbreaking consequences of unchecked bullying. As a result, schools have been taking a hard line on students accused of bullying, parents are speaking out, and the issue has become the rallying point for a number new anti-bullying organizations.
Yet while bullying is doubtless a major problem and one that should be addressed with the utmost seriousness, the reality is that many who are speaking out against it and proposing legislation on it really know little about the psychological and sociological research that has been done on the subject. While some stereotypes about bullies and their victims have proven true, other studies demonstrate that a more measured approach to bullying may be more effective than current punishment-focused programs as student motivations and definitions of bullying don’t always fit neatly into adult ideas about the topic. Bullying is a highly emotional issue and always will be, but these studies only serve to further demonstrate the importance of taking the time to apply reason and solid research data to any decisions that may have long-term effects on America’s children rather than letting emotions, however valid, be the guide.
Bullying may be a sign that a child is having difficulty with other areas of life as well, not just relating to their peers. A study released in 2008 found that students who bully tend to have difficulties in relationships with teachers and parents as well. These difficulties were found to stem from generally aggressive behavior and a less well-defined moral compass. Students who bully, researchers found, may be lacking in social and problem-solving skills, which makes it difficult for them to form long-lasting, non-combative relationships with those around them. The findings led researchers to conclude that a real long-term solution to bullying may lie in helping children develop these skills, involving parents and their peers, and promoting healthy relationships early in life before more serious and potentially more dangerous social and emotional issues emerge later on.
While some students may simply have a more aggressive personality, studies are showing that many of the behaviors related to bullying are learned at home from interactions with parents. A review of international research in 2008 found that children raised by authoritarian parents — those who are demanding, directive, and unresponsive — are the most prone to bullying behavior, often modeling their behaviors at school on abusive, hostile, and aggressive experiences at home. On the flip side, children who were raised by nurturing, responsive parents were found to be less likely to bully. Another study in 2009 also connected bullying to home life, but in a different way. This study found that students who bullied their siblings at home were much more likely to bully other kids at school. If bullying is allowed at home, students simply continued the behavior in outside social relationships. These two studies have helped researchers to determine that the most pivotal figure in reducing and preventing bullying is a parent, and parents who are less angry and more talkative with their children report much fewer instances of bullying.
Those who want to reduce bullying often ignore a key factor: what makes kids want to bully others in the first place. Luckily, research hasn’t ignored this aspect of the behavior. A Dutch study found that bullies are most often driven by the desire to attain status and win the affections of their peers, desires nearly all students share. Yet what differentiates bullies from their peers is the use of dominance to attain these ends. Researchers found that bullying was a risky behavior, with a high chance of ending up on the outs with other classmates, which is why bullies so frequently focus their torments on children who are viewed as being weak or who are not well-liked by other classmates. Yet bullies are only half of the equation. Social desires also drive how victims respond to bullying. A 2011 study found that students who are motivated to form strong relationships with their peers were more likely to use proactive strategies to reduce harassment from a classmate. Those who wanted to be perceived as “cool” were more likely to lash out at bullies and those who wanted to avoid negative judgments of their peers were most likely to do nothing at all. Researchers say that these insights to bullying should help shape future interventions in schools, promoting conflict resolution and showing students the way to build healthy relationships with their peers.
While having social “norms” may be part of human nature, it also may help motivate many students to engage in bullying behavior. A study from Concordia University found that students who are loners or who are antisocial are more frequently bullied at school. Researchers believe this is a way to help control renegades, establish social order, and to keep a group’s members under control. It all may sound a bit Draconian for grade school, but researchers found that it was quite common for children to use aggressive behavior to gain social status and dominance over their peers, within the group and outside the group, deciding who and what was acceptable. William Bukowski, who led the study, says this information can help prevent victimization in the classroom. He recommends creating classroom environments that are egalitarian and encouraging more introverted students to speak up and assert themselves.
Anti-bullying activists should take note: researchers have found that poor problem solving skills are a key factor (if not the key factor) in much of the bullying that goes on in today’s schools. Research published by the American Psychological Association showed that children and adolescents who lack social problem-solving skills are at a higher risk of becoming bullies, victims, or both. For bullies, poor social skills often stem from conflict and poor parenting at home, negative attitudes about school, and poor self-image. For victims, risk factors and results were often very similar, a result that might be surprising to many. The authors of the study point out that successful anti-bullying strategies should be focused on more than just punishment, instead targeting risk factors and environments that may lead to bullying in the first place, both at home and at school.
Students and their parents may have divergent views on what bullying is and what causes it, according to some recent studies. A 2009 study at Indiana University found that researchers and students differed in a key way in how they defined bullies. Students tended to be more forgiving in their labels, believing that there was no strict dichotomy between bullies and non-bullies. This was especially true when evaluating themselves, as students who admitted to engaging in bullying behavior didn’t seem themselves as bullies because of other, more positive aspects of their social lives. This, researchers caution, is why many anti-bullying messages don’t get through to students, as those who don’t see themselves or their peers as bullies often disregard anti-bullying messages. A study in Sweden is even more enlightening, showing that teens believed that individual traits like self-esteem and insecurity, not outside society at large, are to blame for bullying; a view that contrasts with many adult perspectives on the topic. What’s more, the study revealed that 42% of students blamed the victim for the bullying, citing his or her difference from the norm as justification for the bully’s actions. These studies illuminate the importance of talking to students themselves when developing strategies for dealing with bullying, as adults and kids may approach the issue from a different perspective.
While bullying is more common among students who are on the fringes of social groups, popular students aren’t exempt from being picked on by bullies. A study in 2008 found that in cross-gender bullying, it was common for unpopular boys to harass and bully popular girls, especially as students move through elementary and middle school. Between fourth and sixth grade, researchers found that it wasn’t just the popular students that were doing the bullying; quite the opposite, in fact, when the bullying occurred across the genders. The research is telling, and those who conducted the study say it should be a wake-up call to teachers and administrators who often overlook claims of harassment by students who seem to be popular and well-adjusted.
It’s tempting to lump all bullying together, but researchers say that online bullying should truly be a separate category of bullying and dealt with differently than traditional bullying. University of British Columbia researchers compared the two and found that the dynamics of online bullying are unique, with students not seeing their actions online in the same light as their actions in real life. This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising as numerous incidents have shown that young people often don’t understand the real-life consequences that can accompany the things they say, do, and share online. Traditional power differentials, like size and popularity, don’t apply online, leaving all students as fair game to be bullied or to become bullies. As a result of this study, researchers believe that anti-bullying programs need to take a two-pronged approach to bullying that addresses cyberbullying as a separate and unique challenge.
9. Children begin bullying and being bullied as soon as they are old enough to engage in social interactions.
Parents, teachers, and activists need to take note: it’s never too early for bullying to occur. Researchers found that as soon as children are able to interact socially, many become entrenched in patterns of victimization or bullying. Victims are more likely to be those who were aggressive in infancy, subjected to harsh parenting styles, or from low-income homes. As children age, those who experienced bullying in their formative years are more likely to continue to be the victim, raising levels of depression, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, suicidal intention, and loneliness. Another study found that distinctions between bullies and victims become apparent as early as preschool, with aggressive children having a harder time building relationships with peers. These early problems could have long-term ramifications, which is why researchers stress it’s important to tackle them early on.
Sadly, while bullying remains a major problem in schools around the nation, most programs created to combat it are woefully ineffective, or so says much of the research on the subject. A study in 2004 found that 86% of victims of bullying reported negligible or negative results from reporting bullying. Other studies suggest even higher numbers. So what’s wrong with the current programs? Most focus on punishment and isolation, which have proven to be very ineffective ways to get students to modify their behavior. Far better results have been seen with programs that focus on teaching kids mediation, building social skills, and helping students learn to solve problems. Also, while students may learn positive behaviors at school, negative behaviors may be reinforced at home, making it hard to facilitate any real change in students. Of course, the real problem may be that it simply isn’t possible to get everyone to like each other all the time or even to treat each other with respect; a human problem that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.