Note: This is the first of several posts about bullying.
Bullying, that age-old enemy, is making headlines again, and the news isn’t good: Its nasty effects last. These reports back up our intuitions with hard research evidence for the very first time.
- A 20-year-long study, the most comprehensive to date, found that children wear the scars of bullying far into their adult lives. Kids who use bullying behavior have a high risk of antisocial personality disorder; those who are bullied are very prone to depression and anxiety; and “bully-victims,” who bully as well as being bullied, carry an even higher risk for anxiety and depressive disorders and suicidal thinking. The findings surprised lead researcher William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center, who calls these effects “as potent as the effects of abuse.”
- Boys who frequently bully their classmates are four times more likely to behave violently with their women partners when they become adults.
- Being bullied changes a child’s physiological response to stress, affecting the genes involved in regulating mood and depression and rendering targets more vulnerable to future stress and psychopathology.
- Many children who are bullied develop persistent clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bully-victims have even higher levels.
Can we stop bullying?
Research is booming, but have we learned how to prevent and stop bullying? Do we have any tools that work?
Bullying is an incredibly complex phenomenon, made even more complex since cyberbullying entered the picture. It has become increasingly apparent that there is no quick fix. Strategies such as zero tolerance, technology bans, and heavy punishment don’t work, and some programs that looked effective initially haven’t lived up to their promise.
But elements of some existing interventions have proven worth keeping, and new approaches are emerging.
School climate is key
When it comes to bullying, a lot depends on school climate, so anti-bullying efforts should involve the whole school as well as parents and the community. In schools with a positive climate, there is less bullying and students are more likely to report incidents to a trusted adult.
- Students feel safe, connected, and supported
- Students and teachers treat one another and their peers respectfully and fairly
- There are clear rules against bullying, and students trust that the adults in their lives will immediately, appropriately, and consistently intervene to stop it
- Social and emotional learning is included in the curriculum
- People value diversity and inclusion—because children who bully often choose targets who are different in some way
A school survey to identify bullying hot spots, a system for anonymous reporting, and close supervision of public spaces such as bathrooms, corridors, and playgrounds bolster safety and security.
Bystanders play an essential role
It is vital that students, teachers, and parents understand what bullying is and what they can do about it. Even the traditional definition—when a person with more power intentionally and repeatedly harms a weaker person—is currently stirring up controversy among experts and legislators and requires thorough discussion in class and at home.
Bullying is a group activity, with bystanders involved 85 percent of the time. Their assistance, comments, laughter, and even their inaction show that they condone and approve of bullying—and actually increase it.
Fortunately, about 20 percent of bystanders defend a child who’s targeted, and 57 percent of the time their efforts are successful within 10 seconds. Paradoxically, 80 to 85 percent of students say they admire the defenders and disapprove of bullying. But they don’t act on their beliefs.
Because children who bully successfully are powerful and popular (whether they are liked or not), bystanders bow to peer pressure and don’t speak up. But researchers believe that this same peer pressure can actually change bystander behavior.
In one study, schools surveyed student views on bullying and created posters that reflected the data, which confirmed that most students disapproved of bullying. The result? Bullying dropped by as much as 35 percent.
Another study demonstrated that even students with low social status—who are usually the least willing to intervene—will step in when they believe their classmates expect it of them.
While we wait
School climate obviously affects peer norms and behavior, and visa versa. While we wait for more research news, we can start focusing on creating a sense of community where all children feel they belong and have a contribution to make.
Next in the bullying series: Understanding bullying and how to intervene when it occurs