Why do we love to pick on each other? This has been a hot topic over the last couple of years. We’ve seen in the news children that have even committed suicide from being bullied at school and on social media. Bullying doesn’t stop at the steps of high school, though. Hollywood bullying has been exposed from Weinstein to Spacey. Washington DC has president Trump and Nancy Pelosi. Papers like the Washington Post and New Times have unapologetically bullied people for years. CNN, MSNBC and Fox news seem to be in a race to see who can be the biggest bully on cable TV. The negativity abounds!
Bullying can come in many forms, verbal attacks, rumors, cyber-bullying and physical abuse. About 40% of our children report being bullied in this country at one time or another. A Forbes article from 2016 reported as much as 75% of workers report being bullied. Cyber-bullying has been getting more attention in the news lately but only accounts for 10% of bullying in school ages. Boys are more likely to be involved in physical bullying than girls. 30% of students who reported being bullied went on to bully other students. Over 70% of students report witnessing bullying at school. Verbal and social bullying are the most frequent types of bullying. Most bullying takes place on school or work grounds but with the invention of the internet bullying can now take place anywhere at anytime by anyone and can be done almost completely anonymously.
What is bullying? Is there a definition we can all agree on? Isn’t bullying just kids messing with other kids as part of the normal growing up process? Is bullying illegal? Isn’t bullying just another way of saying harassment? But isn’t harassment illegal? If I punch someone is that ‘bullying’ or did I just ‘assault’ them? Laws have been slow to develop in the area of bullying. Most states, however, now have adopted some kind of ‘anti-bullying’ law. Here in Texas we have David’s Law, which was passed in 2017and makes certain aspects of bullying, like cyber-bullying a crime. It treats ‘bullying’ more like ‘harassment’ is treated under the law. There is still a 1st amendment protection of speech, though. You can legally be ‘mean’ to someone in what you say to them or about them and you are protected by the 1st amendment. There is a grey area here, though, that is open to interpretation on when bullying goes beyond just teasing to becoming illegal. Punching someone was already illegal, if you didn’t already know that.
Research on bullying is an emerging field. What we know for sure is bullying has detrimental effects on the people who get bullied. They suffer from lowered self- esteem, higher rates of depression and anxiety, feelings of loneliness and increased school absenteeism. While suicides in victims of bullying have made national headlines the rates of suicide directly related to bullying are actually quite low. The groups most at risk for suicide from bullying are gays, transsexuals and children with disabilities. Victims of bullying also struggle with forming relationships with others. These effects can be short term but often go into adulthood.
The bullies are affected too. They are at higher risk of anti-social behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, fighting, drug and alcohol use, and dropping out of school. Research shows there is no single cause of bullying. Rather it is a combination of factors from the individual, their family, friends, and school environment. So it makes it difficult to predict who is at risk for becoming a bully.
The good news is, overall, aggression among teens is down. Aggressive behavior in adults is also down since the 90’s. Anti-bullying measures are effective. Some studies by psychologists show a reduction of 50% in schools that adopt anti-bullying programs. Workplace programs have also been very effective at reducing bullying. Prevention is the goal here. Education about bullying and its effects. Changing perceptions about bullying. Anonymous reporting of bullying. Open lines of communication especially between students and adults. Creating a culture of respect. Encouraging bystanders to intervene when they witness bullying. Having consistently applied consequences for those who engage in bullying behavior. These kinds of measures seem to be effective at reducing bullying. Zero tolerance and expulsion techniques have not been effective, however.
Bullying is nothing new. Schoolyard bullying has been around as long as there have been schools. ‘Picking’ on each other is an innate behavior and like most behaviors it lies on a spectrum. It can be harmless fun among friends on one end of the spectrum to terrifying, life threatening fear on the other. It is our job to raise a society that believes in mutual respect. You can’t be so self-centered that you have no regard for the feelings of others but you also can’t be too ‘thinned skin’ so that every little criticism is taken as bullying.
One last thought on cyber-bullying. As I mentioned earlier it is a special case. This is a particularly troubling type of bullying because it allows you to conduct it at a distance. You can be a coward and bully someone from the safety of your computer or cell phone. You can post horrible lies or comments about someone on the internet for all to see. Often you can recruit others to do the same. You can create a crippling campaign of smear and hate on the Internet with little to no repercussions. Girls who like to send naked ‘selfies’ to their boyfriends have had their lives ruined when those pictures were uploaded to the Internet. Businesses have been ruined by people’s angry posts on places like Google or Yelp. Your ability to get into college or get hired in a new career can be impacted by what is said about you or by you on the Internet. So please think before you post things on the Internet. Be engaged with your legislators regarding new laws needed regulating the Internet. Intervene when you witness bullying. Society’s mental health is counting on us.
John Turner MD
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