5 myths about bul­ly­ing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY SU­SAN M. SWEARER

Maybe I’m the only one in the coun­try that could look you right in the eye right now and tell you, ‘I was here when that baby was born.’ ”

— Hawaii Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie (D), who knew Pres­i­dent Obama’s par­ents

From school­yards to work­places and now in cy­berspace, it seems that bul­lies are ev­ery­where. New ef­forts to stop them and to help vic­tims cope— such as the It Gets Bet­ter cam­paign— are gain­ing at­ten­tion and pop­u­lar­ity, but are they the best ways to pro­tect kids and oth­ers from the worst forms of bul­ly­ing? For them to have a fight­ing chance, let’s first dis­pense with a few pop­u­lar fal­la­cies about get­ting picked on.

Most bul­ly­ing now hap­pens on­line.


Cy­ber-bul­ly­ing has re­ceived enor­mous at­ten­tion since the 2006 sui­cide ofMe­ganMeier, an eighth-grader who was bul­lied on MyS­pace. The sui­cide of Rut­gers fresh­man Tyler Cle­menti— who jumped off theGe­orgeWash­ing­ton Bridge nearMan­hat­tan in Septem­ber af­ter his room­mate streamed video of a sex­ual en­counter be­tween Cle­menti and an­other male stu­dent on­line— also grabbed head­lines.

As tragic as they are, these high­pro­file cases should not dis­tract from more tra­di­tional— and more preva­lent— forms of bul­ly­ing. Whether bat­tling ru­mors about their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, en­dur­ing crit­i­cism of their clothes or get­ting pushed around at re­cess, kids are bul­lied off­line all the time. While it’s hard to stereo­type bul­ly­ing be­hav­ior in ev­ery school in ev­ery town in Amer­ica, ex­perts agree that at least 25 per­cent of stu­dents across the nation are bul­lied in tra­di­tional ways: hit, shoved, kicked, gos­siped about, in­tim­i­dated or ex­cluded from so­cial groups.

In a re­cent sur­vey of more than 40,000U.S. high school stu­dents con­ducted by the Joseph­son In­sti­tute, which fo­cuses on ethics, 47 per­cent said they were bul­lied in the past year. But, ac­cord­ing to the 2007 book “Cy­ber Bul­ly­ing,” as fe­was 10 per­cent of bul­ly­ing vic­tims are cy­ber-bul­lied. Mean­while, a study of fifth, eighth and 11th graders in Colorado that same year found that they were more likely to be bul­lied ver­bally or phys­i­cally than on­line.

Of course, with in­creased ac­cess to com­put­ers, cell­phones and wire­less In­ter­net— not to men­tion the ex­plod­ing pop­u­lar­ity of so­cial me­dia sites— cy­ber-bul­ly­ing will be on the rise in the com­ing years. But for now, tra­di­tional forms of bul­ly­ing are more com­mon.

Bul­lies are bul­lies and vic­tims are vic­tims.


Ac­tu­ally, it is com­mon for kids who are bul­lied at home by an older sib­ling or abused by a par­ent to be­come bul­lies them­selves at school. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and bul­ly­ing feed each other. Re­searchers have found that ele­men­tary school bul­lies are more likely than non­bul­lies to have wit­nessed do­mes­tic vi­o­lence dur­ing their preschool years. Ac­cord­ing to a 2007 study of bul­ly­ing in Ja­pan, South Africa and theUnited States, 72 per­cent of chil­dren who were phys­i­cally abused by their par­ents be­came a bully, a vic­tim of a bully or both.

But tak­ing out their frus­tra­tions on kids at school doesn’t help bul­lies. Re­searchers have found that bul­lies who are bul­lied them­selves have higher rates of de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, anger and low self-es­teem than kids who are only bul­lies, only vic­tims or who are not in­volved in bul­ly­ing at all.

Bul­ly­ing ends when you grow up.


Bul­ly­ing is neg­a­tive, mean, repet­i­tive be­hav­ior that oc­curs in a re­la­tion­ship char­ac­ter­ized by an im­bal­ance of power. It can hap­pen in a mid­dle school— but it can also hap­pen in an of­fice. Ac­cord­ing to the Jour­nal ofMan­age­ment Stud­ies, nearly 50 per­cent of Amer­i­can work­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced or wit­nessed bul­ly­ing in the work­place, even if they did not rec­og­nize it as such.

In that study, more than 400 work­ers in theUnited States com­pleted an on­line sur­vey about neg­a­tive work­place be­hav­iors. They were told that bul­ly­ing oc­curs when an in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences “at least two neg­a­tive acts, weekly or more of­ten, for six or more months in sit­u­a­tions where tar­gets find it dif­fi­cult to de­fend against and stop abuse.” The work­ers re­ported ver­bal abuse (threat­en­ing, in­tim­i­dat­ing, crit­i­cal and hu­mil­i­at­ing com­ments), phys­i­cal abuse (throw­ing a pa­per­weight, shov­ing, push­ing, slap­ping) and sex­ual abuse (un­wanted sex­ual ad­vances and sex­ual as­sault).

Colum­nist Dan Sav­age’s It­Gets Bet­ter cam­paign is a wor­thy ef­fort to con­vince bul­lied ado­les­cents that their lives will im­prove. How­ever, an­tibul­ly­ing pro­grams and leg­is­la­tion fo­cused on schools should— and prob­a­bly will at some point— ex­tend to adults in the work­place. Ac­cord­ing to the spon­sors of theHealthy Work­place Bill, 80 per­cent of work­place bul­ly­ing is le­gal— and 72 per­cent of bul­lies out­rank their tar­gets.

Bul­ly­ing is a ma­jor cause of sui­cide.


Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, sui­cide is the third-lead­ing cause of death for 15-to 24-year-olds, be­hind traf­fic ac­ci­dents and homi­cide. And while in­di­vid­u­als who are bul­lied are at in­creased risk for self-harm, it’s too sim­plis­tic to blame the deaths of vic­tims solely on bul­ly­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the CDC, risk fac­tors for sui­cide in­clude a fam­ily his­tory of sui­cide, de­pres­sion or other mental ill­ness, al­co­hol or drug abuse, a per­sonal loss, easy ac­cess to firearms and med­i­ca­tion, ex­po­sure to the sui­ci­dal be­hav­ior of oth­ers, and iso­la­tion. Bul­ly­ing can be a trig­ger for sui­cide, but other un­der­ly­ing fac­tors are usu­ally in­volved. In­ter­pret­ing a teenager’s sui­cide as a re­ac­tion to bul­ly­ing ig­nores the com­plex emo­tional prob­lems that Amer­i­can youth face. To un­der­stand the com­plex­ity of sui­ci­dal be­hav­ior, we need to look be­yond one fac­tor.

We can end bul­ly­ing.


Can we? The de­bate rages on.

In 2008, a study of school bul­ly­ing-pre­ven­tion pro­grams over nearly 25 years found that they changed at­ti­tudes and per­cep­tions about bul­ly­ing, but not bul­ly­ing be­hav­ior. This isn’t great news. Vic­tims of bul­ly­ing don’t want to know more about bul­ly­ing— they want it to stop.

Nonethe­less, when schools col­lect data about bul­ly­ing and in­ter­vene when they ob­serve it, they can change the cul­ture that sup­ports the be­hav­ior. Pro­grams such as Steps to Re­spect, Sec­ond Step, Bully-Proof­ing Your School and the Ol­weus Bul­ly­ing Pre­ven­tion Pro­gram have proved par­tic­u­larly promis­ing. A 2009 study in the Jour­nal of Ed­u­ca­tional Psy­chol­ogy found that Steps to Re­spect— whoseWeb site says it “ teaches ele­men­tary stu­dents to rec­og­nize, refuse, and re­port bul­ly­ing, be as­sertive, and build friend­ships”— re­duced bul­ly­ing by 31 per­cent in some schools in­Wash­ing­ton state. Par­ent train­ing, in­creased play­ground su­per­vi­sion, ef­fec­tive dis­ci­plinary meth­ods, home-and-school com­mu­ni­ca­tion, class­room man­age­ment and the use of train­ing videos have also been as­so­ci­ated with re­duc­tions in bul­ly­ing.

No pro­gram can end bul­ly­ing in ev­ery com­mu­nity, and no pro­gram has elim­i­nated 100 per­cent of bul­ly­ing be­hav­iors. How­ever, when aware­ness of bul­ly­ing be­comes as much a part of school cul­ture as rev­er­ence for ath­let­ics or glee club, we’ll have a shot at fi­nally stop­ping it.

Su­sanM. Swearer, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of school psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska at Lin­coln, is the co-author of “Bul­ly­ing Pre­ven­tion and In­ter­ven­tion: Re­al­is­tic Strate­gies for Schools” and the co-di­rec­tor of the Bul­ly­ing Re­search Net­work.

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