The True Meaning of “Bullying”
Lately, we have heard a lot in the news about the increase in bullying in schools. However, it is important for us parents to truly understand the meaning of the word ‘bullying’ and how it is different from just normal, typical childhood conflicts.
Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power. Behaviors used to assert such domination can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion, and such acts may be directed repeatedly towards particular targets. Justifications and rationalizations for such behavior sometimes include differences of class, race, religion, gender, sexuality, appearance, behavior, body language, personality, reputation, lineage, strength, size or ability. If bullying is done by a group, it is called mobbing. “Targets” of bullying are also sometimes referred to as “victims” of bullying.
Bullying can be defined in many different ways. The UK currently has no legal definition of bullying, while some U.S. states have laws against it. Bullying consists of four basic types of abuse – emotional (sometimes called relational), verbal, physical, and cyber. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as intimidation.
Bullying ranges from simple one-on-one bullying to more complex bullying in which the bully may have one or more “lieutenants” who may seem to be willing to assist the primary bully in his or her bullying activities. Bullying in school and the workplace is also referred to as peer abuse. Robert W. Fuller has analyzed bullying in the context ofrankism.
A bullying culture can develop in any context in which human beings interact with each other. This includes school, family, the workplace, home, and neighborhoods. In a 2012 study of male adolescent football players, “the strongest predictor was the perception of whether the most influential male in a player’s life would approve of the bullying behavior.”
Definitions and Etymology
Bullying may be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person, physically or mentally. Bullying is characterized by an individual behaving in a certain way to gain power over another person.
Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus says bullying occurs when a person is:
“exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons’. He says negative actions occur ‘when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways.”
The word “bully” was first used in the 1530s meaning “sweetheart”, applied to either sex, from the Dutch boel “lover, brother”, probably diminutive of Middle High German buole “brother,” of uncertain origin (compare with the German buhle “lover”). The meaning deteriorated through the 17th century through “fine fellow,” “blusterer,” to “harasser of the weak.” This may have been as a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” as in “protector of a prostitute”, which was one sense of “bully” (though not specifically attested until 1706). The verb “to bully” is first attested in 1710.
High-level forms of violence such as assault and murder usually receive most media attention, but lower-level forms of violence such as bullying have only by the 2000’s started to be addressed by researchers, parents and guardians, and authority figures. It is only in recent years that bullying has been recognised and recorded as a separate and distinct offence, but there have been well documented cases that have been recorded over the centuries. Virginia Woolf considered fascism to be a form of bullying, and wrote of Hitler and the Nazis in 1934 as “these brutal bullies.”
In the 2000s and 2010s, a cultural movement against bullying gained popularity in the English-speaking world. The first National Bullying Prevention Week was conceived of in Canada in 2000 by Canadian educator and anti-bullying activist Bill Belsey. The charity Act Against Bullying was formed in the UK in 2003. In 2006, National Bullying Prevention Month was declared in the United States. The Suicide of Phoebe Prince in 2010 brought attention to the issue in Massachusetts, and sparked reforms in state education. The It Gets Better Project was started in 2010 to combat gay teen suicides, and Lady Gaga announced the Born This Way Foundation in partnership with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society in 2011.
A 2012 paper from the Berkman Center, “An Overview of State Anti-Bullying Legislation and Other Related Laws,” notes that, as of January 2012, 48 U.S. states had anti-bullying laws, though there is wide variation in their strength and focus. Sixteen states acknowledge that bullies often select their targets based on “creed or religion, disability, gender or sex, nationality or national origin, race, and sexual orientation.” Each of the 16 employs a wide array of additional parameters, the paper notes, ranging from age and weight to socioeconomic status. Of the 38 states that have laws encompassing electronic or “cyberbullying” activity, 32 put such offenses under the broader category of bullying and six states define this type of offense separately, the authors report.
Characteristics – Of bullying in general
Bullying consists of three basic types of abuse – emotional, verbal, and physical. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as intimidation. Bullying behavior may include name calling, verbal or written abuse, exclusion from activities, exclusion from social situations, physical abuse, or coercion.
According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (2007), approximately 32% of U.S. school children reported being bullied at school; nearly 4% reported being cyber-bullied. The Center suggests (2001) that bullying can be classified into two categories:
Ross states that direct bullying involves a great deal of physical aggression, such as shoving and poking, throwing things, slapping, choking, punching and kicking, beating, stabbing, pulling hair, scratching, biting, scraping, and pinching.
He also suggests that social aggression or indirect bullying is characterized by attempting to socially isolate the target. This isolation is achieved through a wide variety of techniques, including spreading gossip, refusing to socialize with the target, bullying other people who wish to socialize with the target, and criticizing the target’s manner of dress and other socially-significant markers (including the target’s race, religion, disability, sex, or sexual preference, etc.). Ross outlines an array of nonviolent behavior which can be considered “indirect bullying”, at least in some instances, such as name calling, the silent treatment, arguing others into submission, manipulation, gossip/false gossip, lies, rumors/false rumors, staring, giggling, laughing at the target, saying certain words that trigger a reaction from a past event, and mocking. The UK based children’s charity, Act Against Bullying, was set up in 2003 to help children who were targets of this type of bullying by researching and publishing coping skills.
It has been noted that there tend to be differences in how bullying manifests itself between the sexes. Males tend to be more likely to be physically aggressive whereas females tend to favour exclusion and mockery, though it has been noticed that females are becoming more physical in their bullying. There can be a tendency in both sexes to opt for exclusion and mockery rather than physical aggression when the target is perceived to be too strong to attack without risk, or the use of violence would otherwise cause problems for the bullies such as criminal liability, or the bullies see physical aggression as immature (particularly when bullying occurs among adults).
Clayton R. Cook and co-authors examined 153 studies from the last 30 years. They found that boys bully more than girls, and bullies and targets both have poor social problem-solving skills. More than anything else, poor academic performance predicts those who will bully.
Of bullies and Bully Accomplices
Studies have shown that envy and resentment may be motives for bullying. Research on the self-esteem of bullies has produced equivocal results. While some bullies are arrogant and narcissistic, bullies can also use bullying as a tool to conceal shame or anxiety or to boost self-esteem: by demeaning others, the abuser feels empowered. Bullies may bully out of jealousyor because they themselves are bullied. Some have argued that a bully reflects the environment of his home, repeating the model he learned from his parents.
Researchers have identified other risk factors such as depression and personality disorders, as well as quickness to angerand use of force, addiction to aggressive behaviors, mistaking others’ actions as hostile, concern with preserving self image, and engaging in obsessive or rigid actions. A combination of these factors may also be causes of this behavior. In one recent study of youth, a combination of antisocial traits and depression was found to be the best predictor of youth violence, whereas video game violence and television violence exposure were not predictive of these behaviors.
According to some researchers, bullies may be inclined toward negativity and perform poorly academically. Dr. Cook says that “a typical bully has trouble resolving problems with others and also has trouble academically. He or she usually has negative attitudes and beliefs about others, feels negatively toward himself/herself, comes from a family environment characterized by conflict and poor parenting, perceives school as negative and is negatively influenced by peers.”
Contrarily, some researchers have suggested that some bullies are “psychologically strongest” and have “high social standing” among their peers, while their targets are “emotionally distressed” and “socially marginalized.” Other researchers also argued that a minority of the bullies, those who are not in turn bullied, “enjoy going to school, and are least likely to take days off sick.”
It is often suggested that bullying behavior has its origin in childhood. As a child who is inclined to act as a bully ages, his or her related behavior patterns may also become more sophisticated. Schoolyard pranks and “rough-housing” may develop into more subtle activities such as administrative end-runs, planned and orchestrated attempts at character assassination, or other less obvious, yet equally forceful forms of coercion.
Research indicates that adults who bully have authoritarian personalities, combined with a strong need to control or dominate. It has also been suggested that a prejudicial view of subordinates can be a particularly strong risk factor.
Of Typical Bystanders
Often bullying takes place in the presence of a large group of relatively uninvolved bystanders. In many cases, it is the bully’s ability to create the illusion that he or she has the support of the majority present that instills the fear of “speaking out” in protestation of the bullying activities being observed by the group. Unless the “bully mentality” is effectively challenged in any given group in its early stages, it often becomes an accepted, or supported, norm within the group.
In such groups where the “bully mentality” has been allowed to become a dominant factor in the group environment, injustice and abuse often become regular and predictable parts of the group experience. Bystanders to bullying activities are often unable or unwilling to recognize the true costs that silence regarding the bullying can have, both to the target or targets, and to the group. Bystanders often feel unwilling to empathize with the target, regardless of their feelings towards the bully. The reversal of a culture of bullying within a group is usually an effort which requires much time, energy, careful planning, coordination with others, and usually requires some undertaking of “risk” by group members.
It is the general unwillingness of bystanders to expend these types of energies and to undertake this type of risk that bullies often rely upon in order to maintain their power. Unless action is taken, a “culture of bullying” is often perpetuated within a group for months, years, or longer.
In addition to communication of clear expectations that bystanders should intervene and increasing individual self-efficacy, there is growing research that suggests interventions should build on the foundation that children’s belief that bullying is morally wrong.
Among adults, being a bystander to workplace bullying was linked to depressive symptoms, particularly for women.
Of Those Bullied
Dr. Cook says that “A typical victim is likely to be aggressive, lack social skills, think negative thoughts, experience difficulties in solving social problems, come from a negative family, school and community environments and be noticeably rejected and isolated by peers.”
The results of a metanalysis conducted by Cook and published by the American Psychological Association in 2010 concluded the main risk factors for children and adolescents being bullied, and also for becoming bullies, are the lack of social problem-solving skills.
Effects of bullying on those who are targeted
Mona O’Moore of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College in Dublin, has written, “There is a growing body of research which indicates that individuals, whether child or adult, who are persistently subjected to abusive behavior are at risk of stress related illness which can sometimes lead to suicide.” Those who have been the targets of bullying can suffer from long term emotional and behavioral problems. Bullying can cause loneliness, depression, anxiety, lead to low self-esteem and increased susceptibility to illness. Bullying has also been shown to cause maladjustment in young children, and targets of bullying who were also bullies themselves exhibit even greater social difficulties. In the long term it can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder and an inability to form relationships.
Suicide – Bullycide
There is evidence that bullying increases the risk of suicide. It is estimated that between 15 and 25 children commit suicide every year in the UK alone, because they are being bullied.
There have been cases of apparent bullying suicides that have been reported closely by the media. These include the deaths of Ryan Halligen, Phoebe Prince, Dawn-Marie Wesley, Kelly Yeomans, Jessica Haffer, Hamed Nastoh, April Himes, Cherice Moralez and Rebecca Ann Sedwick.
Serial killers were frequently bullied through direct and indirect methods as children or adolescents. Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer and diagnosed psychopath, said the ridicule and rejection he suffered as a child caused him to hate everyone. Kenneth Bianchi, a serial killer and member of the Hillside Stranglers, was teased as a child because he urinated in his pants and suffered twitching, and as a teenager was ignored by his peers.
Some have argued that bullying can teach life lessons and instill strength. Helene Guldberg, a child development academic, sparked controversy when she argued that being a target of bullying can teach a child “how to manage disputes and boost their ability to interact with others”, and that teachers should not intervene, but leave children to respond to the bullying themselves:
- “If boys or girls are able to stand up for themselves, being attacked by enemies can help their development. Studies have shown that children become more popular among, and respected by, teachers and fellow pupils if they repay hostility in kind. They remember such experiences more vividly than friendly episodes, helping them to develop healthy social and emotional skills.”
Bullying can also sometimes cause targets to adopt social or physical lifestyle changes that can result in greater mental or physical health over the long term. For example, weight-based victimization (WBV) has been shown to sometimes influence overweight individuals to lose weight.
Despite the fact that the majority of those who may find themselves to be the targets of bullying behavior may ultimately feel “harmed” by such targeting, a few studies have pointed up some potentially positive outcomes from bullying behavior. These studies have found that with some individuals, as a result of their having been targeted with bullying behavior, this certain minority of former bullying “targets” have actually experienced being “enabled” through their experiences with bullying to develop various coping strategies which included “standing up for themselves” in ways which acted to “re-balance” former imbalances of power. Such former bullying targets have reported such things as “becoming a better person” as a result of their former bullying ordeals. The teaching of such anti-bullying coping skills to “would-be-targets” and to others has been found to be an effective long term means of reducing bullying incidence rates and a valuable skill-set for individuals.
Despite the large number of individuals who do not approve of bullying, there are very few who will intervene on behalf of a target. Most people remain bystanders, and may accept the bullying or even support the bully. In 85% of bullying incidents, bystanders are involved in teasing the target or egging on the bully. When the bully encounters no negative response from observers, it encourages continuation of the behavior.
There are many reasons why individuals choose not to intervene. They may be relieved that the target of a normal and generally-present danger is someone else, they may take vicarious satisfaction in the bullying, or they may worry that they risk becoming the next target through intervention. An intuitive understanding that others will be similarly unwilling to assist them if they do become the next target likely strengthens the motivation to remain passive.
Researchers considered the just-world belief theory in order to explore a posited decline in anti-bullying attitudes. “This is the idea that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get”. The study determined that children do seek to understand, justify, and rectify the different injustices they come across in everyday life. However, further research is needed to link the two together.
The following has been found to be effective in school-based anti-bullying programs:
- training in emotional control,
- peer counseling,
- school policy on bullying.
US Federal Intervention
In 2010, under the leadership of then Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education held the first “Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit,” bringing together over 150 researchers, parents, students and executive leadership from both non-profit and corporate organizations involved in bullying prevention efforts. In October, 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a letter clarifying the overlap between bullying and harassment covered under several Federal Civil Rights Laws that require schools to adequately address the behavior. With increasing public attention in late 2010 and early 2011, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the first ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention on March 10, 2011 to “dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.” At that Conference, the U.S. Federal Government’s central repository on bullying prevention, StopBullying.gov officially launched. Together with the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Defense, Agriculture, the Interior, as well as the National Council on Disability, the FTC and the White House Initiative on AAPI, which made up the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, the Department of Education hosted two additional summits in 2011 and 2012, again bringing together the growing anti-bullying field. In April, 2012, StopBullying.gov was relaunched to include additional information as well as a map tracking state anti-bullying laws. In October, 2012 the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services launched a PSA campaign with the Ad Council and other partners targeted at parents to talk to their kids about being “more than a bystander.” After Secretary Jennings left the U.S. Department of Education in July, 2011, many of these efforts were spearheaded by Research and Policy Coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives, Deborah Temkin, who was recognized for her work with a nomination for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.
Anti-Bullying-Program Success Rates
Results from a Texas anti-bullying program “study” which were reported on by CBS News (Sept 2013) at first seemed to indicate that anti-bullying programs were actually counterproductive. However, these study results were later found to be inconclusive, because the Texas study did not actually compare pre-anti-bullying-program incident rates with post-anti-bullying-program incident rates within the same school districts, in other words: these results may have only highlighted the fact that school districts with pronounced bullying problems tend to be more likely to adopt anti-bullying programs, than school districts without pronounced bullying problems. Other more comprehensive studies which did review these rates within the same anti-bullying-program school districts have indeed found mixed results, with some school districts achieving up to 50% reductions in incident rates, while other districts even experienced slightly increased incident rates. In this study it was found that a higher level of participation by a school’s central administration generally resulted in a higher success level for the anti-bullying-program.
Chronic Bullying Cycle
While on the surface, chronic bullying may appear to be simply the actions of an “aggressor” (or aggressors) perpetrated upon an unwilling “targeted individual” (or individuals), on a certain deeper level, for it to succeed, the bullying-cycle must also be viewed as necessarily including a certain chronic inadequate response on the part of the target (or targets). That is, a response that is seen by both the bully and the target as insufficient to prevent the chronic bullying-cycle from repeating itself between the given individuals. A suitable response to any given attempt at bullying varies with the occasion, and can range from ignoring a bully to turning a prank around so that it makes a “pranksteree” out of the would be prankster, to even summoning legal intervention. In any case, the targeted individual must necessarily somehow demonstrate to the would-be bully that one will not allow one’s self to be daunted, intimidated, or otherwise “cowed” by the bully. Those individuals or groups who are capable of reacting to initial bullying attempts in ways that tend to sufficiently discourage potential bullies from repeated attempts are less likely to be drawn into this destructive cycle. Those individuals or groups who most readily react to stressful situations by perceiving themselves as “victims” tend to make the most suitable candidates for becoming the “targets” of chronic bullying.
Under some circumstances, targets may be chosen in what may be a completely random or arbitrary process, especially in groups in which the “bully mentality” may have already succeeded in achieving domination within the group. In such groups, the defense mechanisms of the entire group may have already been “broken down”, and therefore the targeting of individuals no longer requires the seeking out of “certain personality types” to become the “next target”. The reversal of such chronic and well entrenched bullying behavior in such groups sometimes requires a much more carefully planned, coordinated, determined, and multi-individual response from a would-be target than in a group in which either the “bully mentality” may not (yet) prevail, or ideally in a group that may have already taken a pro-active preventative approach towards bullying.
Typically, the bullying-cycle must include both an act of aggression on the part of a potential bully, and a response by a potential target that is perceived by both as a certain sign of submission. The cycle is only set in motion when both of these two essential elements are present. Once both of these two elements manifest themselves, the bullying cycle often proceeds to feed on itself over time, and may last for months, years, or even decades. The cycle is most easily broken at its initial onset; however, it can also be broken at any later point in its progression by simply removing either one of its two essential ingredients. While group involvement may seem to complicate bullying activities, the act is most often an implied agreement in principle between a chief bully or instigator and the target that the one has “submitted” to the other. In the act of bullying, the bully attempts to make a public statement to the effect of: “See me and fear me, I am so powerful that I have the ability to inflict pain upon the intended target at the time and manner of my choice without having to pay any consequences.” Should an intended target exhibit a “defeated attitude” in response to chronic bullying, then the bullying is likely to continue. In circumstances where a “bullying pattern” has not yet fully established itself, should the intended target respond with a clear attitude of self-confidence that somehow demonstrates that the bully’s attempt to dominate is futile, then the bullying attempt will often quickly diminish or end all-together. Established patterns of bullying may require greater and more persistent effort to reverse. Institutions and organs of society often reinforce bullying, often by implying to or telling targets of bullies that they are responsible for defending themselves, and then punishing targets if they fight back.
In different contexts – Cyberbullying
Cyber-bullying is any bullying done through the use of technology. This form of bullying can easily go undetected because of lack of parental/authoritative supervision. Because bullies can pose as someone else, it is the most anonymous form of bullying. Cyber bullying includes, but is not limited to, abuse using email, instant messaging, text messaging, websites, social networking sites, etc. Particular watch dog organizations have been designed to contain the spread of cyber-bullying.
It has been noted that disabled people are disproportionately affected by bullying and abuse, and such activity has been cited as a hate crime. The bullying is not limited to those who are visibly disabled such as wheelchair-users or physically deformed such as those with a cleft lip but also those with learning disabilities such as autism and developmental coordination disorder. In the latter case, this is linked to a poor ability in physical education, and this behaviour can be encouraged by the unthinking physical education teacher. Abuse of the disabled is not limited to schools. There are many known cases in which the disabled have been abused by staff of a “care institution”, such as the case revealed in a BBC Panorama programme on a Castlebeck care home (Winterbourne View) near Bristol which led to its closure and the suspension and sacking of some of the staff.
There is an additional problem that those with learning disabilities are often not as able to explain things to other people so are more likely to be disbelieved or ignored if they do complain.
Gay bullying and gay bashing are expressions used to designate verbal or physical actions that are direct or indirect in nature by a person or group against a person who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT), or of questionable sexual orientation, or one who is perceived to be so, because of rumors or fitting gay stereotypes. Gay and lesbian youth are more likely to report bullying.
Legal bullying is the bringing of a vexatious legal action to control and punish a person. Legal bullying can often take the form of frivolous, repetitive, or burdensome lawsuits brought to intimidate the defendant into submitting to the litigant’s request, not because of the legal merit of the litigant’s position, but principally due to the defendant’s inability to maintain the legal battle. This can also take the form of SLAPPs. It was partially concern about the potential for this kind of abuse that helped to fuel the protests against SOPA and PIPA in the United States in 2011 and 2012.
Some argue that this behaviour should be allowed, due to ways in which “soldiering” is different from other occupations. Soldiers expected to risk their lives should, according to them, develop strength of body and spirit to accept bullying.
Parents who may displace their anger, insecurity, or a persistent need to dominate and control, upon their children in excessive ways have been proven to increase the likelihood that their own children will in turn become overly aggressive or controlling towards their peers. The American Psychological Association advises on its website that parents who may suspect that their own children may be engaging in bullying activities amongst their peers, should carefully consider the examples which they themselves may be setting for their own children, regarding how they typically interact with their own peers, colleagues, and children. Do the parents typically motivate their peers and their children with positive and self-confidence building incentives, or do they most often attempt to motivate their peers and children with certain “threats” of one form of “punishment” or “reprisal” or another (emotional or physical blackmail)?
Prison Bullying – Prisoner abuse
Another environment known for bullying is a country’s prison service. This is almost inevitable when many of the people incarcerated are there for aggressive crimes and many were bullies at school. An additional complication is the staff and their relationships with the inmates. Thus the following possible bullying scenarios are possible:
- Inmate bullies inmate (echoing school bullying);
- Staff bullies inmate;
- Staff bullies staff (a manifestation of workplace bullying);
- Inmate bullies staff.
Bullying can occur in nearly any part in or around the school building, though it may occur more frequently in physical education classes and activities, recess, hallways, bathrooms, on school buses and while waiting for buses, and in classes that require group work and/or after school activities. Bullying in school sometimes consists of a group of students taking advantage of or isolating one student in particular and gaining the loyalty of bystanders who want to avoid becoming the next target. These bullies may taunt and tease their target before physically bullying the target. Bystanders may participate or watch, sometimes out of fear of becoming the next target.
Bullying can also be perpetrated by teachers and the school system itself: There is an inherent power differential in the system that can easily predispose to subtle or covert abuse (relational aggression or passive aggression), humiliation, or exclusion — even while maintaining overt commitments to anti-bullying policies.
Sexual Bullying – Slut Shaming
Sexual bullying is “any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality or gender is used as a weapon by boys or girls towards other boys or girls – although it is more commonly directed at girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or through the use of technology.”
The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or some combination of the three.” Statistics show that bullying is 3 times as prevalent as illegal discrimination and at least 1,600 times as prevalent as workplace violence. Statistics also show that while only one employee in every 10,000 becomes a target of workplace violence, one in six experiences bullying at work. Bullying is a little more common than sexual harassment but not verbal abuse which occurs more than bullying.
Unlike the more physical form of school bullying, workplace bullying often takes place within the established rules and policies of the organization and society. Such actions are not necessarily illegal and may not even be against a firm’s regulations; however, the damage to the targeted employee and to workplace morale is obvious.