It’s time to take a thoughtful approach to bullying

bully movie logoIn a post on her ‘Free Range Kids’ blog last week, Lenore Skenazy questions whether the US is in the midst of a ‘bullying crisis’. She quotes statistics from a piece in the Wall Street Journal that showed dramatic declines in both the fear of attack (down from 12% in 1995 to 4% in 2009) and actual victimisation (where rates have fallen fivefold). The figures, from the National Center for Education Statistics indicators of school crime and safety, are shown in the graphs below.

US fear of attack trends

Fear of attack or harm, students aged 12-18, USA

US victimisation trends graph

Victimisation against students aged 12-18, USA

The timing of the Wall Street Journal piece is significant, with a hard-hitting documentary on bullying about to open in cinemas across America. Anyone who watches the trailer cannot fail to be moved by the plight of the young people featured. Yet there is a danger that our well-meaning efforts to protect children from bullying may be wrong-headed, even counterproductive.

As Lenore says, “to pretend there’s an epidemic when in fact things are getting better is to both over-react AND sell our kids short.” She adds: “to lump together unbearable harassment with minor teasing is just a mistake.” I agree, and think this second point is crucial.

Let me be quite clear. Bullying – the repeated, systematic victimisation of the weaker by the stronger – damages lives. It needs to be tackled, not downplayed or ignored. Children’s online lives have created frightening new opportunities for bullying. Perpetrators can remain anonymous, while attacks can be permanently recorded and shared instantly around the world.

Yet if bullying is to be tackled effectively, we need to distinguish between it and more minor fallings-out amongst children. The problem is that this boundary is being blurred. Children, parents and professionals are all misdiagnosing minor incidents as bullying, as I show in my book No Fear.

What is more, some of those working in bullying are also blurring this distinction. For instance, one peer-reviewed research article defined bullying as “any form of victimization or harassment perpetrated by another child or young person.” [Sadly this quote, from the full text, is behind a paywall.]

The inevitable result, as I know from the reaction to my talks to educators, is that teachers and schools are being put under pressure to respond to many incidents as if they were more serious than they really are. Witness the school that banned best friends, as described here a couple of months ago. It is not always easy to decide whether a single event is part of a wider pattern of bullying or not. Sometimes though, the right thing to do is to hold back and see how situations unfold.

Bullying is an emotive topic that provokes polarised responses, as I learnt myself when No Fear was published. But surely there is one thing we can all agree on. We need to strike a balance between protecting children from threats, and giving them the freedom they need to learn how to look after themselves.

My fear is that talk of a ‘bullying crisis’ – which flies in the face of the statistics – makes it harder to strike that balance. That in turn may make it harder – not easier – for children to learn for themselves how to handle all kinds of challenging social situations as they grow up.

Postscript: I would really like to know the story behind those remarkable drops in levels of fear and victimisation, as shown in the graphs above. Does anyone have any ideas?

19 responses to “It’s time to take a thoughtful approach to bullying

  1. I am much more interested in the environment which nurtures a new facet of bullying than I am in the idea of individual acts of (or exaggerated concerns re) school yard bullying. It is statistically impossible to correlate the mentioned research studies with our contemporary environment which seems to encourage a reality tv approach to living – where sneering at and focusing on “losers” is more and more prevalent – both as entertainment and status symbol. As much as researchers can say that bullying is down, they cannot, it seems, explain how heroic victimhood has become a sought after status which feeds our obsessions with superficial self-esteem issues. How can we talk about a lower bullying level when a much more subtle negativity in our environment seems to be creating a newer and even more devastating victimization of children than any school yard bully ever has? But then, that would need a difficult to accept look in the mirrot would it not? The bullying of children is now possibly rarer when perpetrated by peers but it is eerilypresent inthe whole of our environment which fails to encourage excellence while promoting “fun and easy” as tools to success. Succesful discouragement and depresssion? Oddly, at times, we are our children’s worst enenies.

  2. Reblogged this on PleXity: Musings & Scraplog                                             by Arthur Battram and commented:
    Well said, Tim, very well said.

    Nice balance of calm consideration of the issues and the research.

    Steely words when needed.

    More please on what ‘ educators’ (including ASCII and playwork staff etc, are telling you. Yes, anonymise it as needed, but we need to hear those other voices, even if voiced by an actor.

    There must be many heartbroken teachers who have watched in horror as a small child who said he called me black’ saw his chum subjected to North Korean style reindoctrination. I exaggerate for satirical effect: I’ll leave it to you to provide BBC balance, please.

  3. If you read the survey questions and the key findings on the NCES website it seems like the fear and victimization findings were not related to bullying. The number of students who reported having been bullied was actually around 30%, and has been holding pretty steady for the past several years. Also, if you look at the specific questions about bullying in the survey, it is very clearly defined there. When almost a third of children report being bullied every year, there is a crisis. Whether or not is it growing or just remaning steadily at that rate, it IS a crisis.

  4. Bernard, Arthur, Vickie – thanks for your comments. Bernard – you may be right about the media, but we should not assume that such trends are reflected in real life. Surveys help us to make these reality checks. Vickie – the statistics are not my main point, but they do provide valuable context. From what I read on the NCES site, their definition of fear of attack/harm does not explicitly exclude bullying. The findings are clear: students are much less fearful of attack or harm than they used to be. Surely it is important to recognise this in any work on bullying, given that this is the biggest fear for many parents and institutions. The NCES stats on bullying only cover three time points (2005, 2007 and 2009) so no claims can be made about longer-term trends (unlike the stats on fear). Also, the NCES definition of bullying is broad and makes no mention of either repetition or a power imbalance. As I argue above, this is unhelpful as it conflates minor fallings-out, arguments and fights with more serious incidents and patterns of hurtful behaviour.

  5. Dear Tim, I am appreciating this discussion – its variety of perceptions and considerations are superb.. From my perspective, the very idea of diminishing self-worth, due to psychological rather than “bullying” style childhood intimidation, is based on observation over several years rather than assumption. As a member of a psychiatric team for 15 years it became apparent that as our forms of entertainment insisted on defining themselves as real, the more families – both adult and child members, reflected themselves in that form of entertainment. And this is where I noticed children increasingly feeling fearful.Thus, my interest in environmental bullying versus “traditional” bullying perceptions. Children don’t bully out of the blue. there has to bean accepting environment nurturing that bullying. I would appreciate comments in that reagrd.

  6. I dont believe the statistics. these are based on only a few years and a couple of agencies. how many people have taken their lives before 2005 and after 2009 due to intimidation and ongoing power trips. kids are bored and sit online for hours. they pile up friends who will agree with them and find others who they downgrade with rude or racist, gender, weight and size issues. even freckles, and they go for it. part of the problem is that there is not always a parent available to talk to because they are working. this leaves the kids home alone and vulnerable. this sort of thing even happens to adults and away from school. the focus should not only be on an “at school” problem but as a whole society.

    • Bullying is a society problem and not simply a school problem. When we associate bullying with school or child centered settings we avoid having to be recognized as part of the problem and most assuredly part of the efforts required to undertake a solution.

    • Gretchen – I agree that bullying is a wider problem, and it is irrefutable that some kids do horrible things to each other, and that sometimes, this ends in tragedy. But I don’t think you can reject the statistics so sweepingly. This is a Federal Government agency – the methods it uses look sound to me, and my guess is it takes some care with its research.

  7. Thank you. I recently heard a parent’s concern that his son’s school was labelling the young boy as a bully, because of his exuberant nature. For example he was sent to the principals office and told not to bully kids because he blurted out in class “Who farted?” Yes, it was inappropriate and distracting for the entire class and may have embarrassed the kid who had passed gas. But this is a normal childhood reaction and the teacher and principal reacted inappropriately to it. They missed an opportunity to teach empathy and ask the “bully” how his class mate might feel after being singled out, or to reflect on it disrupting the class. I hope this poor child does not internalize the label of bully.

  8. Sometimes we put too much effort into “internalization” situations. Kids get over our paranoid follies much more easily than we do. Let’s not get too fixated on our children’s inability to overcome stupidity in their environment. They are quite good at defining what is sane and what is not. It is when we repeatedly instill our fears in them that they become dysfunctional.

  9. Great post. Great site. I linked here from Free-Range Kids.

    As a former American public school teacher, I can identify with the reality that bullying, while a serious issue in itself, is getting far too much play in our society. I’m amazed at how quickly people throw around the word “bullying”, when, like you said, bullying is really an ongoing, systematic process of victimization. Nowadays, anything that is physical in nature (a push or a trip on the playground) or remotely uncomfortable or frustrating for kids, is tagged as bullying.

    I’m disappointed at the level of hyperbole we are willing to employ in defining things in modern society. When we throw around serious words willy-nilly, we’re only rendering those words meaningless. If bullying now equals anything that makes another child uncomfortable, then bullying no longer definable.

    • HI Michael, and thanks for the positive feedback on the post and site. Many teachers share your views (and mine) about the problem of the misdiagnosis of bullying. I just wish that more anti-bullying agencies would explore the issue. It would be in their interest to do so, as it would ensure that our efforts were better focused on tackling more serious incidents.

      • As a dandelion on a manicured lawn, bullying can occur at the best of times. But when it is perceived as rampant, something is seriously wrong with the lawn – not the dandelion. . . Bullying is a by-product of a diminished environment – one in which weeds seem more encouraged than healthy ground cover. It thrives because it is allowed to. And the longer the very idea of it is allowed to exist, the more a community’s strength is sapped. When this happens, nothing seems to be the only thing we can do about it. And bullying does grow exponentially when weakness, dependency and anxiety are the norm. And at that point, whether the bullying is virtual or actual is no longer relevant. Its very idea feeds on vulnerability and feelings of impotence. We can consider bullyiung to be thriving when we feel victimized by its existence and when look upon our children as potential if not real victims rather than strong and capable.
        Despite contemporary thinking, children do not need us to solve all of their problems or over-protect them in times of difficulty. They need us in the background – being watchful, supportive and encouraging. They need to feel that they are allowed to be curious and daring – to feel that we will not catch them at every fall but catch them when the fall is too great.
        But parents can’t do it all. A whole community must invest in its children. And children need to feel as safe as is necessary for them to be as daring as they need to be.
        That we call out the emotional and sensationalist troops, (including the media) rather than invest in fact and responsibility, confirms that we are not doing well as a society – over and above the bullying phenomena.
        Bullying, if bullying be, cannot be eradicated through amateur Big Brother style “secrets sharing sessions” (which recently, in an Ottawa Canada school, turned an invited “specialist’s” activity into a chaotic session of emotional mayhem). And what became of that event? The school applied a specialist’s so-called “restorative circle” to correct the damage done in the first activityby the so-called specialist. . . . . . . . . . I shudder to think that this is considered logical.
        The day that less feeling and more thinking is applied to bullying and more consideration is awarded the healthier aspects of community life, our environment will improve and bullying will loosen its hold and lose its allure.

        • Bernard – thanks for your latest comment. That story from the Ottawa school sent shivers down my spine – it sounds so wrong-headed. This quote from your comment eloquently captures much of what I am arguing for: “children do not need us to solve all of their problems or over-protect them in times of difficulty. They need us in the background – being watchful, supportive and encouraging. They need to feel that they are allowed to be curious and daring – to feel that we will not catch them at every fall but catch them when the fall is too great. But parents can’t do it all. A whole community must invest in its children.”

  10. Pingback: “Sort it out for yourself” – sound advice, or too much to ask? | Rethinking Childhood

  11. I think one of the problems with bullying is that the definition they give it is so overreaching. I was a weird, dorky teacher’s pet at school but I was never bullied. Some of the other girls would occasionally be mean, but no meaner than they were to other girls. I never dreaded going to school because of other kids. If I was a vulnerable 9-year-old sitting in a modern classroom, I would probably have thought I was victimized when nothing of the sort ever happened. I know it can be bad for some kids, but for most there is no harm, no foul. And, worse, it’s completely destroying the ability of kids to solve their own problems. Bullies always pick on those who project weakness. This is unfortunate, but true of both children AND adults. People who don’t project strength get plowed under by others in the real world. This the reason why low-confidence people end up in relationships with abusers.

    • I do so agree. Children do not need us to solve all of their problems or over-protect them in times of difficulty. They need us in the background – being watchful, supportive and encouraging. They need to feel that they are allowed to be curious and daring – to feel that we will not catch them at every fall but catch them when the fall is too great.

      But sadly, too many “protective agencies and individuals” have entrusted their livelihood to maintaining fear, children weak and encouraging self-esteem issues. Until our environments return to a community values system we will sustain the fallacy of who is actually bullying whom.

  12. Sorry. . . I’m being repetitive, aren’t I? BUT, I do believe in those words being (irritably?) repeated.

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