Removing the Bully Factor
Not only are bullies everywhere, they come in more than one flavor. And, according to recent research, many kids like the taste of being a bully.
Psychologist Gary Goldetsky says it's important to understand that there are different types of bully behavior: "Many bullies have indeed been victims of abusive behavior," he says. "If an individual is born into a very chaotic family where there was very little nurturance or warmth and where they just observed and were the receivers of aggressive, abusive behavior, that's what they learn. This is their normal."
"On the other hand, sometimes it's just kids not knowing the ways that they need to interact peacefully in the environment," he explains. "They just lack an experience of sensitivity."
Kids who bully appear to have a big incentive: According to a 2004 KidsHealth survey, students said one of the most common reasons they bully is "to be popular." Another is "to get your way or push others around." KidsHealth surveyed 1,200 children, aged 9 to 13.
Removing the popularity ingredient is key, according to many experts. Findings from a recent University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) study called "Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak and the Troubled" indicate that adults should be most concerned about preventing the popularity of bullies and work on ways to change the peer culture that encourages bullying.
The study, part of a long-term examination of 1,900 sixth graders and their teachers, found that bullies are psychologically stronger than classmates not involved in bullying, and they enjoy high social status among their classmates; although their classmates tend to avoid their company. Victims suffer emotional distress, and in addition, their classmates tend to avoid them.
All of which calls into question the common perception that low self-esteem is what drives bullies. "Our data indicate that bullies do not need ego boosters," researcher Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA psychology professor, said in a press release. "Unfortunately, this myth is still guiding many programs conducted in schools."
Educators are starting to pay more and more attention to advice like Juvonen's, as lawmakers in many states begin requiring specific action to prevent bullying, rather than react to it.
Bullying tends to happen most often in school, specifically when there is little or no adult supervision on the playground. A 1998 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that 3.2 million children nationwide said they had been a victim of a bully in grades six through ten. Even more3.7 millionreported they were bullies themselves.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), bullying has three components:
- Harming another person or group on purpose (via verbal or physical abuse)
- Doing it more than once and over a period of time
- Feeling more powerful than the victim afterward
The NICHD study further found that youth from urban, suburban, and rural areas are all equally likely to be bullied, while suburban youths are slightly less likely and rural youths are slightly more likely than the national average to bully others.
Twenty-six percent of boys and 14 percent of girls were moderate to frequent bullies, according to the NICHD study. At the same time, 21 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls reported that they were moderate to frequent victims of bullies. Experts say that bullying by girls tends to be more subtle and, therefore, more difficult to pinpoint than bullying by boys.
Survey Central, an online community where one can respond to surveys on just about every topic imaginable, recently posed this question: What were the names of your childhood bullies? "Out them on the Internet," the Web site implored.
The responses quickly came rolling in: "Mandy and Suebee," said Wicksy. "Neal Fennessy," chimed Bill. "Mike, Wendell, Timmy," ElvisFan67 added to the list.
Then, ObsessedWithCSI, responded with a different view: "I [am] a bully... I only bully two people. I can't stand them. They follow me around, I can't get rid of the one. (the other moved after his house burnt down, and that I did not do)... so I bully him."
Meanwhile, "Troy" told Donna Smith of iParenting.com: "I bullied the smelly people, the 'weird' people, and the people who were different," "...I was a bully because it was the cool thing to do."
The Familial Role
Experts say it's important for family members to be watching out for the effects bullies have on their victims. Depression, social anxiety and loneliness are common among victims of bullies. Victims also tend to be disengaged in school.
Goldetsky recently wrote an article called "The ABCs to Bully Proof Your Child" that offers specific advice for parents to help children who may be victims of bullying.
"Parents today are challenged by many factorsof time, of workthat they just might not be spending as much time understanding the child's experience during the week as would be optimal," says Goldetsky. "Victims are ashamed of being bullied and this topic might not be brought up to a parent who is stressed and tired. It might be continually put on the back-burner..."
Experts say that it's especially important for the victims of bullies to be supported, validated and protected.
What to do if your child is a bully? Dr. Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a national expert on bullying prevention, recently told the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, "Don't put bullies together. They'll learn from each other."
Goldetsky says that bullies have their own set of problems that must be addressed, ideally through counseling and through involvement in school-wide prevention programs.
The National Conference of State Legislatures offers up-to-date state-specific information on bully laws.
There are lots of anti-bullying programs out there (see this list compiled by Connect for Kids). And since the deadly school shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, 15 states have adopted legislation to prevent school violence, including bullying.
Professor Russell Skiba, an Indiana University expert on school safety and discipline, has taken a close look at recent anti-bullying legislation in his state. He believes that zero-tolerance policiesschool discipline that sends a message that certain behavior will not be tolerated, by punishing both major and minor offenseshave little effect on bullying. In other words, it's better to prevent bullying before it begins, rather than reacting to it when it happens.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has launched a nationwide awareness campaign called "Stop Bullying Now!" The program's Web site explains what bullying is, offers advice for victims and bullies, and provides "Character Webisodes" that use cartoons to help kids understand why bullying behavior is harmful.
Recent studies by the federal government agree with that conclusion, finding that prevention programs that focus on changing the overall school cultureby taking such steps as having the entire student body involved in bully preventionare better at reducing school violence.
New approaches are being used in increasing numbers of schools throughout the country. In Arkansas, for example, school counseling centers are now required to add bullying prevention programs to routinely offered seminars. Georgia public schools have begun offering a "character education" program for all grade levels, which discourages bullying and violent acts against fellow students.
Some states, like Colorado and Connecticut, are working on preventing bullying through adult accountability. They now require school districts to keep track of bullying acts as well as how school officials responded to them, and to open this information to the public. The idea is that educators will be forced to deal openly with bully problems, rather than ignore them.
The End of Bullying?
Many state lawmakers continue to review school policies on bullying. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Congressman Jack Quinn (R-NY), for example, are now working together on legislation called "Bullying Prevention for School Safety and Crime Reduction," a bi-partisan bill that calls for the use of federal funds to incorporate anti-bullying programs in school districts.
If passed, the bill would amend the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act (SDFSCA) to allow states and localities to use SDFSCA funds for bullying prevention programs. The legislation would amend the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG) program to allow states and localities to use grant funds for bullying prevention programs. The Attorney General would also be able to recommend that states use JABG funds for bullying prevention programs.
Abigail Holt interned at Connect for Kids during summer 2004.
Rob Capriccioso is a staff writer for Connect for Kids.