Bullying: Transforming Headlines into Sustained Action
During the summer and fall of 2010 a number of national news stories highlighted the tragic consequences of bullying. Sadly, the stories that make the biggest headlines end with the victim of bullying committing suicide. The names of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers Univeristy, and Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old young woman in Massachusetts, both of whom committed suicide after being bullied, highlight the fact that bullying is far more than an unpleasant part of childhood and adolescence. Bullying is a known public health problem that is linked to mental health disorders like major depression or suicide, and health problems like obesity.
Whether we are parents, community members, or healthcare providers, taking steps to reduce bullying deserves our best professional and personal efforts. Effective programs for reducing bullying have been developed and are publically available. Books describing the extent of the problem, strategies for prevention and intervention, and outcomes of such efforts have been published over the past decade. But, the specific patterns of bullying, and the most effective means to stop it, vary among schools or communities. In order to stop bullying, each community or school will need to better understand its own bullying problem and then develop a solution targeted to their own environment.
The biggest danger is pretending that the problem doesn’t exist or that its impact is minimal. Research suggests that about one in five (17%) of school age children report being bullied sometimes or often. Nearly the same percentage of children acknowledge that they have bullied others. Other sobering statistics include an estimate that two-thirds of students who are responsible for school shooting incidents are victims of bullying. Or, recent surveys of non-heterosexual adolescents suggest that more than one in four of this group have been harassed or bullied in the last month.
There is no single profile of a bully, such as the stereotypical tough on the outside/insecure on the inside child. Many bullies are extremely popular with their peers and, surprisingly, popular among teachers and other adults. As with many mental health problems, the challenge is often to look closely at those things and people that are right before our eyes.
The frequency of bullying may or may not be on the rise, and definitive research on this question is difficult to conduct. However, it seems indisputable that the methods for bullying have grown by leaps and bounds. The explosion of anytime, anywhere communication technologies such as texting, cell phone messaging, Twitter, and Facebook offer endless opportunities for bullying to continue past the school day. Sadly, these forms of communication have become a readily available alternative for making personal slurs, starting rumors, and threatening physical or emotional harm.
Bullying feeds on group dynamics, which is part of what makes it so overwhelming to the victim and so difficult to stop. For example, when a group of people target a single person, no one person in the group has a sense of being personally responsible for the group’s actions. Most victims of bullying do little to defend themselves from the negative threats or comments when the bully is a single person. When the bullying occurs by a group, it is little wonder that victims typically respond with passivity.
A number of schools and communities have already taken strong steps to reduce bullying. Penobscot Community Theater, an outstanding local organization, recently collaborated with area schools to present the play “The Secret Life of Girls” which focuses on bullying among adolescents. Themes raised during the play, including bullying and intimidation by peers, were discussed with students as part of the event. It was evident from these discussions that bullying is a current, significant problem in many of our communities.
Bullying stories that end with suicide or school shootings often prompt immediate but short lived efforts to shine a spotlight on the problem. Yet, the long term struggle is to dispel the belief that bullying doesn’t need our attention because most people live through it. As recent headlines remind us, this simply is not the case. Prevention and intervention programs are available with strong evidence that they really work. Bullying merits the same attention and energy as other public health problems (both physical and mental) that lead to unnecessary psychological and physical harm.