In spite of national campaigns against bullying, including legislation in some states that punishes offenders and imposes strict reporting standards on schools, as many kids as ever report being victimized by their peers. The most recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on youth behavior showed no change in reports of bullying among high school kids, on school property, between 2009 and 2013. According to the US Department of Education, up to 22 percent of 12-18 year olds claim to having been bullied by their peers.
A clear understanding of the nature of bullying, including who does it and why, should guide a school’s response. But “most educators aren’t aware of the function bullying serves in school,” said James Dillon, a retired teacher and former principal who directs the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. Without a better sense of what drives heartless peer-on-peer behavior, Dillon said, schools’ anti-bullying campaigns will continue to wilt. “If you don’t understand it, you can’t treat it,” Dillon added.
School leaders who are eager to staunch online and in-person bullying might consider reviewing recent findings from social science as well as the opinions of scholars who study the problem. These findings, in some cases, upend the conventional wisdom about bullying and how to stop it.
Most kids don’t bully, don’t like bullying, and feel bad for the victims. The majority of kids don’t bully other kids and haven’t been victimized, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program reports. In a 2012-13 survey the organization conducted of 300,000 kids from 1,000 schools, 80 percent of students between third and twelfth grade reported never having been bullied or having targeted another for bullying. The Olweus study also found that most students disapprove of bullying and feel sympathy for the victim. “More than 90 percent of girls and 74 percent of boys across all grade levels feel sorry for bullied students,” the report says.
Kids bully to achieve dominance and to solidify their social standing. Kids pick on others as a way to secure their standing among their peers or to move up a notch. In the words of social scientists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, who authored a 2011 study on bullying in the context of social networks in schools, “aggression is intrinsic to status and escalates with increases in peer status until the pinnacle of the social hierarchy is attained.” Children from single-parent homes, and those with less educated parents, are no more apt to bully than kids with married and learned parents. African-Americans and other minorities show the same rates of bullying as their white counterparts. In short, Faris and Felmlee write, “the role of personal deficiencies is overstated and…concerns over status drive much aggressive behavior.” The popular notion of bullies as sullen social outcasts who come from broken homes is a myth.
What adults call bullying kids call drama. “I can’t think of a single bully at our school,” a popular high school senior told me about the climate at his medium-sized, and competitive public high school. This magical absence of aggression among his peers may have more to do with terminology than reality. “Students may not view the words and actions they witness as bullying,” Dillon writes. What the Olweus survey identifies as the top three types of bullying—verbal abuse, exclusion, and spreading rumors—kids can see as normal and essentially harmless behavior. The more the grown-up world frets about bullies, including adopting “zero-tolerance” policies and legal penalties, the less likely kids will be to see bullying amongst them. The very word bully is associated with “bad” kids committed dramatically aggressive acts, even though much social aggression is subtle and ambiguous—a raised eyebrow, a subtle smirk—and often carried out by successful kids against weaker peers.
Cyber-bullying is just an extension of what’s happening in the classrooms, halls, and cafeteria. Anonymous, online attacks against kids from their peers are just as emotionally devastating as being teased in the hallway or ostracized during gym. But experts believe that online cruelty merely makes visible what kids are doing in person behind the backs of adults. “If this is happening online, it’s absolutely happening in school,” says Nancy Willard, author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Aggression, Threats, and Distress. Thus, nasty posts on Yik Yak, Ask.fm, or Instagram, to name a few popular social media sites, are just another way for kids to express hostility towards targets they’ve already gone after—or are in retaliation against those who have attacked them in school. An unintended benefit of attacks on social media is the tangible evidence of bullying is provides.
Kids don’t intervene because doing so would jeopardize their own standing, they lack the tools to assist, and because they don’t think it will help anyway. Adolescents are fixated on their social standing, and anything that jeopardizes their fragile position will be avoided. Defending a relatively powerless kid against a more popular peer threatens that bystander’s own position. As well, a witness might prefer the child doing the bullying to the one being targeted; from a social perspective, it would make little sense for the bystander to help the school punish her friend. As well, students receive scant training on how to help in such a way that it won’t backfire. “Asking students to be empowered and responsible bystanders is tantamount to telling them to be good readers or safe drivers without giving them instructions, guidance, and opportunities to practice,” Dillon writes.
Bullied kids don’t “tell” on their perpetrators because they think it won’t make a difference. According to the Olweus foundation study, just ten percent of high school girls and 15 percent of boys who had been bullied reported telling a teacher or other adult at school. This may be explained in part by another finding in the report: slightly more than half of the high school kids surveyed reported that adults in their schools “did little or nothing,” or “fairly little” to cut down on bullying.
Apocalyptic messaging about an epidemic of bullying is misleading, alienating and potentially dangerous. When all students are bombarded with the idea that bullying is a widespread scourge that must be stamped out—even though most kids don’t abuse others—they take in a false message about how pervasive the problem is among their peers. Perversely, learning that bullying is common practice in school makes the behavior more attractive to kids who want most to fit in. When the majority of non-aggressive kids continue to get clobbered with lessons about the ills of bullying, they naturally feel misunderstood and alienated from the adults in charge. “Combined with everything else students are told to do or not do, the issue of bullying can become static or background noise,” Dillon writes. Even worse, says Willard, the message that bullying leads to suicide signals to targeted kids that harming themselves is an acceptable way to respond.
Harsh disciplinary measures backfire. When schools adopt punitive approaches to combat the problem, “they create the very behavior they are trying to control,” Dillon said. Effective anti-bullying strategies depend on student bystanders to help diffuse social aggression. But if the penalty for hostile acts is severe, those student observers will remain quiet when they witness abuse. Even if they want the behavior to stop, witnesses might not report on the abuser because they view the penalty as extreme; they also reason that resentment against the victim will be worse if they notify an adult. “Harsh consequences delivered by controlling adults also deepens the chasm between the adult world and the student world,” Dillon said. And the wider the chasm, the less likely students will be to call out their own tribe against controlling adults who don’t understand their world.
Kids retreat to social media in part to flee from prying adult eyes. Though worrisome to grown-ups, adolescents’ withdrawal into their private social world is developmentally appropriate. Unfortunately, because the part of the brain that governs rational thought isn’t fully developed until age 25, adolescents also are more likely to act impulsively and irrationally when they feel challenged. Much online bullying is done impulsively and in retaliation for perceived slights. Thus, a cruel post on Yik Yak can trigger an equally nasty response, which launches a cycle of hostility.
School climate has a lot to do with it. Authoritarian and hierarchical school environments where adults are the bosses and the students are expected to behave, no questions asked, make bullying among kids more likely. When grown-ups model this type of authority, they signal to kids that power is what matters rather than character or learning. Further, when schools value grades and individual achievement above all, kids infer that looking out for one another isn’t important. “Kids are much more likely to bully to gain dominance and status in environments that are hierarchical and have staff who mistreat kids while disciplining them,” Dillon said.