Headlines and news shows are focused again on bullying, a term whose popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade. We hear it used when an adolescent or young adult is pushed to the limit (suicide, school shooting) by harassment, ostracism or rumors. But we also hear it used when Congress can’t agree on a budget resolution. And we’re hearing it a lot this week in a story involving two Miami Dolphins players. How does the use of this one word span so many behaviors? Depending on your age, you might picture a social networking site dedicated to disrespecting someone in your school, or perhaps that one girl in your circle of “friends” that has the power to tear you down with a look or get your friends to stop talking to you. Maybe you think of the boss at work, who thinks his crass jokes are funny and makes his co-workers feel uncomfortable. The definitions, beliefs and associations our society has with the word bullying run the gamut. Some are accurate, most are not and all are formed by our own life experiences. And so is our response to bullying.
This is where we need to pay attention. We can help or hurt — all of us, each of us. What we do matters, not only in the lives of the targets of bullying, but for each of us individually — young, old, rich, poor, supervisor, laborer, popular or introverted — all of us. It matters because schools should be safe and healthy for students, workplaces should be safe and healthy for workers and communities should be safe and healthy for the people who live in them. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2009 encouraging the development of the pediatricians’ role in addressing bullying because bullying is not healthy.
Bullying doesn’t build character. It doesn’t toughen you up. Bullying is distracting at the very least and dangerous at the very worst, with a continuum of damage in between. If you were being bullied, you wouldn’t like it. If someone was bullying your mother, you would be furious. If you heard about it happening at your child’s school, you’d pay attention to who’s involved. When I hear people say things like, “It’s just kids being kids,” or, “That’s just how locker rooms are,” or, “Aren’t these school programs just creating weaker kids, who are going to be ill-prepared for ‘real’ life?” I cannot help but wonder how that person operates in daily life. Where do they work? How do they raise their children if it is excusable to make other human beings feel hurt or degraded or helpless?
Bullying is also illegal. Almost every state has laws that address bullying. And although there is no current federal law pertaining to bullying, harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability or religion in schools or workplaces is illegal. We should all know and understand the accepted definition of bullying: unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
Even so, we can get lost in definitions, but we’re usually pretty clear about our feelings. Bullying doesn’t feel good, to anyone, even the bully, for very long. In fact, research suggests that those who bully fare the worst over time, with an increased propensity toward drug and alcohol abuse, an increased dependency on social welfare systems and an increased rate of incarceration — all of which cost society millions of dollars over the lifetime of these individuals. So, if the moral and legal arguments aren’t enough, there is even a financial cost to bullying.
It’s likely the behavior involved in the case against Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito is more complex than the bullying we usually think of when we hear the word used. It’s been reported that the behavior he directed towards his teammate included hate speech, harassment and terroristic threats, perhaps with the collusion of team leadership. So many people knew, so few did anything to stop it. We need to turn the tide against inaction. It can be done. We no longer accept spousal abuse or child abuse. They do still occur, but there are laws against them and appropriate societal responses, including counseling, shelters and funding. Peer abuse is the next logical place to focus our concern. It is a real and harmful epidemic facing youth. It’s facing all of us, but if we concentrate on helping our young people I believe we all learn and benefit. For true social change we need to promote understanding early. We need to seek understanding ourselves.
In this spirit, more than 800 experts are getting together in Nashville this week to help promote the critical understanding and response to peer abuse. From school administrators to doctors and lawyers, those gathered at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s (IBPA) annual conference will discuss strategies, network and hear about the latest research being used to inform best practices for addressing bullying. To learn more about their organization and about bullying, please visit www.stopbullyingworld.com
Shiryl Barto (teacher, advocate and happy mom) can be contacted at the Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention @ the Windber Research Institute where she coordinates school-based public health activities.