5 Myths about Bullying (You Know, for Bullying Prevention Month)

5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression and in some cases, deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not mean bullies are always loners, bereft of social skills. In fact, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, when you look at relational bullying, for instance, certain social skills actually increase a bully’s capacity for harm. “Spreading rumors, excluding someone—these require that you know how to hurt someone without actually physically attacking them.” In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But even pure bullies, who tend to suffer relatively few consequences compared to their victims, are also at increased risk for some mental health issues, such as psychotic experiences and even antisocial personality disorder—a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

It can be difficult to parse out the effects of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. As much as 90 percent of those who are cyberbullied are also bullied face-to-face: digital communication is simply one more tool in the bully’s arsenal. In some cases, says Wolke, cyberbullying offers the victim a chance to fight back that they may not have when face-to-face. But cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in other circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?'” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

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