“When certain things are said to you over and over again as you’re growing up, it stays with you and you wonder if they’re true.”
This is how the pop singer Lady Gaga described the effects of the bullying she experienced in school. Today, Lady Gaga runs a foundation to combat bullying (the Born This Way Foundation), but her quote demonstrates the lasting effects that bullying can have. In this post, I’ll review some recent research findings about bullying, talk about some of its consequences, and discuss some ways psychologists have found of reducing bullying in schools.
What is bullying, and how common is it? Researchers have defined bullying as any repeated, negative, and intentionally hurtful behavior. Bullying can involve a variety of behaviors, such as physical bullying, name-calling, purposely excluding someone, or harassing someone via social media (cyberbullying). It can occur in a variety of settings (such as schools and workplaces), but in today’s article I’ll focus on bullying in school-age children and youth. Both boys and girls can be either bullies or victims, though researchers have found that boys are more likely to be victims of physical bullying and girls are more likely to be victims of social bullying (such as spreading rumors or making inappropriate comments). Researchers have also found that LGBT youth and youth with disabilities are are greater risk of being bullied.
One nationally representative study of U.S. students in grades 6-10 found that about 11% of students were bullied at least sometimes, 13% were bullies, and about 6% were both bullies and victims. The exact numbers vary from study to study, but the research on bullying suggests that it’s a common problem, and that some kids are involved in both sides of bullying.
Who are bullies? Despite the common belief that bullies engage in their behavior as a way of covering up their own insecurities, research has not supported the idea that bullies are themselves insecure. Instead, the psychologist Dan Olweus has suggested that certain family environments may contribute to bullying: bullies are likely to come from families where parents were relatively uninvolved, failed to set limits on aggressive behavior, and used physical punishment. Bullies also seem to be impulsive and many have a tendency to misinterpret others’ neutral behavior as hostile or aggressive. Additionally, bullying seems to be associated with an increased likelihood of committing crimes as a young adult, which suggests that developing interventions to change the behavior of bullies at an early age is especially important.
What are the consequences of bullying? Being bullied is associated with lower self-esteem, increased depression and anxiety, loneliness, missing school, and suicidal thoughts. It is also associated with symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, and sleep problems. Additionally, some of the effects of bullying persist into young adulthood. People who were bullied in the past had increased depression and lower self-esteem at age 23.
What can be done about bullying? In recent years, researchers have begun to develop a variety of interventions to address bullying. Here are some of the ways that psychologists have found that we can reduce bullying and its negative effects:
- Involve students. Students should be actively involved in any anti-bullying program that is being implemented, since they can offer insight into the types of bullying that occur at their school and provide information about new technologies (which is especially useful in fighting cyberbullying).
- Be observant. Students don’t always report bullying to teachers and parents, so if you’re a parent, be observant for signs that your child might be being bullied (signs are varied, but can include depression, anxiety, or not wanting to go to school). If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to start a conversation with your child to figure out what might be the cause.
- Help your child come up with a strategy to cope with bullying. If your child is being bullied at school, help them to come up with strategies to cope with bullying. It’s important to report the bullying to your child’s school, but there are also steps you can take if the school hasn’t done anything yet. For example, your child may find it useful to practice scenarios at home where they ignore a bully, or to identify teachers and students who can support them at school. And if your child’s school is reluctant to address the bullying, you may want to find out your state’s laws against bullying, since your child’s school may be legally required to address bullying.
- Develop interventions for bullies. Psychologists have developed interventions to change the behavior of bullies, by working to improve emotion regulation skills and to change bullies’ tendency to see even benign behaviors as hostile.
- Encourage bystanders to do something. Often, bullying happens in front of other children, so it’s important to help children to come up with strategies for how to intervene if they see bullying happening (or how to report the behavior and provide support to the victim if more direct interventions would be unsafe).
- Change the school culture. The psychologist Dan Olweus has developed a comprehensive bullying intervention program, known as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP). Research on the effectiveness of the program has found that it leads to reductions in bullying, and students say that they are happier with school life after the program is implemented. The program has four key components:
- 1.) Adults should be involved in what is happening at school.
- 2.) There should be clear rules about what types of behaviors are unacceptable.
- 3.) Sanctions for bullying should be applied consistently, and should not involve physical or hostile punishment.
- 4.) Adults should be authorities and positive role models.
- Remember that no one can tell you how to feel about yourself besides you. Although bullying is something that we need to address as a society, it’s also important to remember that, at the individual level, there are resources available to help those who are the victims of bullying. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an important way to overcome bullying. CBT helps people to develop positive coping strategies and to combat the negative self-thoughts that people sometimes internalize after being bullied. If you or someone you know has faced bullying at school, it’s important to remember that even if your school is unwilling or unable to stop the bullying, there are ways to change how bullying affects you.
It Gets Better. Bullying can have detrimental consequences, but it’s important to remember that it is possible to stop bullying and overcome its detrimental effects. As the contributors to the It Gets Better project testify, many of the things that we are teased for as adolescents become the things we are most proud of as adults. If you’re interested in learning more about the It Gets Better project, go to http://www.itgetsbetter.org/ or watch President Obama’s It Gets Better video below: