What is bullying?
In its most general sense, bullying is a form of aggressive behavior which is intended to negatively affect the person it targets. There are three main forms of bullying: verbal bullying, physical bullying, and cyberbullying. While our society gives bullying a childish connotation, often associating it with youth, bullying has no age limit. For instance, an adult may encounter bullying at their office, when one coworker is particularly aggressive or condescending towards them.
Verbal and Physical Bullying
As the name suggests, verbal bullying occurs when the harasser uses spoken words to intimidate the victim. Verbal bullying can include name-calling, spreading rumors, insulting, using homophobic or racial slurs, and threatening. Conversely, physical bullying occurs when the harasser uses physical force to affect the victim. Physical bullying can include hitting and kicking, or can be as extreme as shoving and punching. Defacing the victim’s property is also a form of physical bullying.
Although bullying can occur among adults, it is most common in children. According to StopBullying’s research from 2014, 28% of students in grades 6 through 12 had experienced bullying. Of the various forms of verbal and physical bullying, the most prevalent forms were teasing and name-calling, with 43.3% and 44.5% reporting each type respectively. Furthermore, almost all bullying seemed to occur at school, on the school bus, or at community events. In short, any place where students would be assembled in large groups. Even more specifically, from the bullying cases at school, the most popular locations for bullying were in the classroom and the hallway, each at approximately 29%.
Finally, the rise of the digital age brings the newest form of bullying into the scene: cyberbullying. Cyberbullying occurs when the harasser uses a digital platform to target the victim. Examples of cyberbullying include sending hurtful messages, posting embarrassing content, or imitating a person online.
Unfortunately, cyberbullying seems to show a gradual increasing trend since the mid-2000s. However, it did decrease in the past year; data collected in 2016 by the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) showed 33.8% students surveyed were cyberbullied compared to 34% in 2015. From those who reported having been cyberbullied in 2016, the most common form seemed to be mean comments online and spreading rumors, with 22.5% and 21% respectively. It is important to note that there was also a lot of overlap; 25.7% of those surveyed replied that they had experienced more than one form of cyberbullying on several occasions.
There also seems to be trends in cyberbullying based on gender and sexual orientation. In the CRC study, approximately 37% of girls reported having been cyberbullied, compared to 30.5% of boys. Furthermore, there was a distinction in the type of cyberbullying faced by both genders. Girls tended to be victims of rumor-spreading, while boys often faced online threats. In terms of sexual orientation, LGBTQ students were also more prone to bullying than their heterosexual counterparts. According to a research done by StopBullying, a website run by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 55.2% of LGBTQ students faced cyberbullying in 2014.
Besides sexual orientation and gender, there are also other factors that can make a minor more susceptible to bullying. For instance, if a child is underweight, overweight, wears glasses, dresses differently, or does not have many friends, these could be reasons that a bully would target them. Bullies also choose weak targets; if the victim emits an aura of insecurity or low self-esteem, they will fall easy prey. This targeting of people who are different and unique poses a problem. As a society, we should accept and encourage individualism rather than attack it.
On the other side, there are some key characteristics that make youth more likely to become bullies. If they are easily angered, have social power over their peers, or have a tendency to disobey rules, they will be more likely to pick on someone else. Family background also plays an important role. Children with family issues such as fighting parents will be more likely to channel their anger through bullying.
Effects of bullying on the victim
Bullying has both short-term and long-term negative consequences for victims and harassers. In the short-term, bullying can cause the victim to perform poorly at school, skip classes, sleep poorly, develop anxiety, and have suicidal thoughts. On the other side, bullies become more prone to poor academic performance, substance abuse, and violent behavior.
While the short-term effects are not to be overlooked, the long-term effects of bullying are ultimately what makes it so dangerous. To look into the long-term effects, William Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, analyzed data from a study where 1,420 children in their early teens were observed until the age of 16. Some of the children were victims, some were the bullies, some had been both, and some had never been involved in bullying. Copeland found that victims of bullying were four times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as adults than those who had not experienced bullying. Then, surprisingly, those who had been on both sides of bullying were even worse off; they were fifteen times more likely to develop a panic disorder than those who had no connection with bullying. Copeland was not surprised by the long-term effects; the fact that children spend so much time at school allows their educational environment to have lasting impacts.
Preventive measures and legislation
While there is no federal law prohibiting bullying, the US Department of Health and Human Services does run a website called StopBullying.gov which aims to provide information about bullying. There are also several government agencies that do work related to bullying (and contribute to StopBullying.gov accordingly) such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA). Furthermore, to make up for the lack of federal laws, individual states have their own anti-bullying legislature. Within these state laws, almost all include a detailed description of bullying, a requirement for local educational agencies to develop and implement anti-bullying policies of their own, and finally a method of educating school staff and children about bullying.
There have also been programs created to address bullying on a community-level scale. One such program is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, commonly known by its acronym OBPP. Created by psychology professor Dan Owleus of Norway, the OBPP is a comprehensive program targeted towards elementary, middle, and high school students that educational bodies can pay to implement. OBPP extends to include school-level, individual-level, class-level, and community-level components. The school-level component mainly includes establishing a Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee, the class-level component involves holding class meetings and parent meetings, the individual component requires developing intervention plans for students involved in bullying, and finally the community aspect deals with spreading out the anti-bullying initiative beyond school grounds. The OBPP is cited as being the most researched and successful anti-bullying program, and has been implemented both nationally and internationally.
Finally, bullying awareness also occurs through the media. In countless movies and TV shows, the stereotypical “big kid” is seen picking on the “small new kid”. But do those cliché depictions really discourage bullying? For while the protagonist triumphing against the bully sends a positive message, the mere existence of the scenes may inspire particularly young children to reenact similar scenes at their own schools. Evidence proving that media portrayal of bullying has negative effects comes from a study by social psychologist Sarah Coyne and her colleagues at Brigham Young University. In their study, Coyne et al. had study subjects watch a confrontational scene in Mean Girls, and found that they scored higher on aggression tests and had higher aggressive tendencies immediately after. This suggests that bullying in TV and movies may have a bigger impact on our behavior than we realize. In watching aggressive scenes, we may become prone to subconsciously imitating them.
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