It’s More Pervasive and Complex Than You Think

October is National Prevent Bullying Month. With bullying capturing the headlines more frequently, awareness around it is certainly growing. But is our understanding? We know that it is dangerous, takes many forms and that many students experience it. We know that we’d like to put an end to it and its lasting effects.

It is what you don’t know that may shock you.

It seems straightforward on the surface. Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take many forms, such as physical contact, words, or more subtle actions. When the use of harassment, name-calling, rumor spreading, gossiping, threats and intimidation spread to the use of internet tools such as chat rooms, private messages, emails, blogs, Instagram photos or other social media, it is considered cyberbullying.

However, unlike simply being mean or aggressive, bullying involves an imbalance of power, with the bully using a social status to exert power over the victim. Because of this imbalance of power, secondary bullies often arise. In this situation, additional individuals become involved in bullying an individual in order to escape becoming that individual’s target themselves.

There are three categories for bullying

To stop and prevent bullying, we need to better understand it. There are three understood types of bullying which include verbal, social and physical.

Verbal bullying is defined as using words to cause pain or discomfort. It includes things like teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, commenting on one’s looks, taunting, and threatening to cause harm.

Social bullying is sometimes referred to as relational bullying and involves actions that hurt a person’s reputation or relationships. This includes actions such as leaving someone out of activities on purpose, telling others to exclude another individual, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public.

Lastly, physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Acts of physical bullying include things like hitting, biting, pinching, spitting, tripping, and pushing. It also includes breaking another person’s possessions and making mean or rude hand gestures.

Over 3.2 million students report being victims

Incidents of bullying are probably a lot more frequent than we realize. Over 3.2 million students report being victimized each year. An astonishing 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying. However, because bullying uses fear and intimidation to control others, there are likely many others who do not report being victimized. By age 14 less than 30% of boys and 40% of girls will talk to their peers about bullying. The problem is pervasive. Approximately 160,000 teens skip school each day to avoid being bullied and many never tell school officials or parents about the incidents. 1 in 10 students will drop out of school altogether. Even more concerning, victims of bullying are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.

Sadly, our response may drive the infrequency of reporting. Over 67% of students believe that schools respond poorly, if at all, to bullying and most believe that adult help and intervention is infrequent and ineffective.

Adult acts of bullying

When we think of bullying, we tend to think of youth. Workplace bullying is also a significant problem. In fact, it is so pervasive that it is being called a “culture of cruelty” that exists from the workplace to academia.

Workplace bullying is much more difficult to spot and is often completely overlooked because it is an environment where discussion, debate, and criticism are encouraged. The environment, however, also creates the perfect climate for bullying to flourish.

Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, father of workplace bullying research suggests that adults bully one another because of factors within the environment, such as the nature of the work and organizational climate.

He suggests that the characteristics of our jobs, such as low autonomy, boring tasks, unclear roles and high workload have all been implicated as possible causes of bullying. Employees working in uninspiring jobs may be tempted to enact destructive behavior as a source of stimulation, whereas individuals stressed out by heavy workloads may perpetuate bullying to cope with frustration or to assert personal control.

Acts of bullying in the workplace tend to be more verbal and social in nature and often include things like sabotaging another’s efforts and inhibiting another from achieving a higher professional status. Acts of belittling, gossip, and undermining are also very common practices.

Finding solutions

Stopping bullying will take efforts across many fronts, such as enacting better laws, providing better training, and engaging our students. It will require a shift in our culture across many fronts.

Currently, state laws have little consistency in their definition of bullying and how to deal with it when it does occur. With a more concrete definition of bullying, we can enact laws to better combat its practice.

Schools, too, need to have a very clear understanding of what constitutes bullying and clear punishments. Reports of bullying should always be taken very seriously. Ongoing education and awareness campaigns can keep the topic at the forefront and help students talk more openly about their experiences.

Training and education can also be helpful in the workplace. In Japan, for example, they are starting to offer “Power Harassment” education in the workplace. Power Harassment is harassing behavior by someone in authority. To stem the problem, many Japanese companies are offering an anonymous reporting system.

Organizations such as Stop Bullying recommend taking a public health approach to bullying, offering continuing education credits for prevention courses, organizing community events, and working with stakeholders.

The time is now to respond to bullying. Parents, educators, physicians and students can work together to create a safer and more positive environment. Visit stopbullying.gov to learn ways to stop bullying on the spot!


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