State of the Union: School Bullying
Kyle Ferlic, MA, LPCA Counselor, Center for Family Transformation
With the 2018 holiday season recently behind us, classic movies like A Christmas Story still reverberate in our minds. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the iconic bullying debacle between Ralphie and Scut Farkus. Scut is a portrayed as the ubiquitous tyrant of the story. He is bigger in stature than Ralphie, and he goes out of his way to make Ralphie’s friends feel belittled, fearful, and anxious. After several demeaning encounters, Ralphie tackles Scut to the ground and begins his reckoning, leaving Scut bloodied and crying. The movie portrays this climactic moment with Ralphie as an unlikely warrior conquering his oppressor.
I think many of us identify with Ralphie, feeling disparaged at some point in lives by power-abusive individuals or institutions. Although bullying is real, the phenomenon, nor its resolution, are as simple as A Christmas Story paints it to be. At one time, bullying was considered a “rite of passage” and even a mechanism for character growth in our children1. However, with better research and internet access, the general public is gaining a fuller understanding of bullying at large. Or so we believe. What do we really know bullying, its impact, and its prevalence on youth today? Is it possible that our Hollywood view holds us back from making progress in light of 21st century problems?
Commonness and Definition
A recent report by the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund2, or UNICEF, stated that bullying has disrupted the health of 150 million children between ages 13 and 16 worldwide. The World Health Organization3 outlined that global bullying varies between 10 and 12 percent of youth. In other words, it is a pandemic. Categorically, bullying was only recently consolidated into a uniform definition (which is important, because how we define it determines how we measure and report it). The U.S. Department of Education4 concluded bullying is, “any unwanted aggressive behavior or behaviors by another youth, or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners. It involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”
More simply, bullying includes aggressive behaviors repeated over time with a power imbalance in favor of the aggressor. It is also helpful to briefly discuss bullying’s impact across the board. Experts like Espelage5 realize that bullying is rarely between one aggressor and one victim. Instead, bullying can be seen across a spectrum. Everybody involved is negatively influenced within physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and social spheres. Bullying (including cyberbullying) can cause trauma leading to academic problems, anger, anxiety, depression, drug use, isolation, mental illness, misconduct, physical issues, poor self-esteem, and even suicide1, 5, 6, 7.
The poorest overall health outcomes are reported by those who both experience bullying as a victim and then perpetrate bullying as an aggressor, known as bully-victims4, 7. It seems there is a cycle to bullying. Not all bullies are victims per se, but it begs an answer to one intriguing question. What is happening to children that precedes future bullying behaviors? Studies show correlates like anger, delinquency, domestic violence, emotional dysregulation, lack of positive role models, low social skills, physical abuse, poor parenting, sexual abuse, and more all lead to an increased likelihood of bullying8, 9, 10, 11, 12.
What You Can Do
What can you do to help? UNICEF’s13 #ENDviolence campaign provides expert research on this topic. Also, the USDHH’s7 Stop Bullying website is a wonderful resource. It provides every day, pragmatic ways to squash bullying. For parents, this might include joining parent-teacher associations or participating in safety planning committees. Staying connected to your children’s needs and using positive parenting skills are very effective. For teachers, creating a safe place for both bullies and victims to resolve problems is key. Establishing clear expectations around violence and following through with them is also important. For children, speaking up when bullying occurs could reduce traumatic effects. This is best done by finding trusted adults in which to confide.
In summary, although we love A Christmas Story and its cinematic adventure, it might be time for us to give up outdated notions of bullying. If we collaboratively join hands to reduce the trauma experienced by our children, we might correct and even prevent bullying. It could create a more wonderful tomorrow for all!
- Fritz, G. K. (2017). Progress in the fight against bullying. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 33(8), 8. doi: 10.1002/cbl.30234
- Brink, S. (2018, September 6). A staggering number of young teens face bullies and violence in school. org. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/09/06/645210397/a-staggering-number-of-young-teens-face-bullies-and-violence-in-school
- Inchley, J., Currie, D., Young, T., Oddrun, S., Torsheim, T., Augustson, L., Mathison, F., Aleman-Diaz, A., Molcho, M., Weber, M., & Barnekow, V., (2016). Growing up unequal: Gender and socioeconomic differences in young people’s health and well-being. Copenhagen: Denmark: World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe.
- Gladden, R. M., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Hamburger, M. E., & Lumpkin, C. D. (2014). Bullying surveillance among youths: Uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements (version 1). Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Education.
- Espelage, D. L. (2016). Leveraging school-based research to inform bullying prevention and policy. American Psychologist, 71(8), 768-775. doi: 10.1037/amp0000095
- Chi En Kwan, G., & Skoric, M. M. (2012). Facebook bullying: An extension of battles in schools. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 16-25. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.07.014
- United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHH). (2017, September 8) Facts for kids about bullying. gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/kids/facts/index.html
- Bosworth, K., Espelage, D. L., & Simon, T. R. (1999). Factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 19, 341–362. doi:10.1177/0272431699019003003
- Espelage, D. L., & Asidao, C. S. (2001). Conversations with middle school students about bullying and victimization: Should we be concerned? Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2, 49 – 62. doi: 10.1300/J135v02n02_04
- Espelage, D. L., Bosworth, K., & Simon, T. R. (2000). Examining the social context of bullying behaviors in early adolescence. Journal of Counseling and Development, 78, 326–333. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb01914.x
- Espelage, D. L., Low, S., & De La Rue, L. (2012). Relations between peer victimization subtypes, family violence, and psychological outcomes during adolescence. Psychology of Violence, 2, 313–324. doi:10.1037/a0027386
- Espelage, D. L., Low, S., Rao, M. A., Hong, J. S., & Little, T. D. (2014). Family violence, bullying, fighting, and substance use among adolescents: A longitudinal mediational model. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24, 337–349. doi: 10.1111/jora.12060
- United Nation International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). (n.d.). #ENDViolence. org. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/end-violence