The social phenomenon of bullying has recently caught the attention of the media (again) in light of the teen suicides related to victims of bullying as well as the television news anchor who had been receiving emails about her weight. Bullying is characterized as a form of aggressive behavior that is intentional, hurtful (physical or psychological) and/or threatening and persistent. It has been a pervasive problem throughout society, though it occurs in more serious and intense forms today due to social media. Bullying has become more open to the public and more people jump in, creating a more catastrophic emotional impact for the victim.
Victims of bullying are prone to emotional, physiological, and behavioral problems. They are more likely to experience depression, loneliness, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and eating, a sense of shame and worthlessness, a lack of control, or posttraumatic stress disorder. In terms of physical health, they have greater likelihood of having colds, a suppressed immune system, headaches, and stomachaches. Certain behavioral responses to bullying include greater refusal to attend school, school absenteeism, and dropping out of school. Teen victims who engage in self-cutting and other suicidal behaviors, use drugs and alcohol, become promiscuous, or join gang-related activity are looking for acceptance from their peers, stemming from a feeling of desperation and emotional heartache.
How do we as a society tackle bullying behavior? First, we need to teach our children about bullying and what it looks like at an early age; that bullies force people to do things that they don’t want to do or that which makes them feel uncomfortable. We need to implement a climate of accountability such that the bullies receive consequences for the detrimental behavior (such behaviors ranging from name-calling and put-downs, hitting, threatening with intimidation tactics, and harassment). It is important that parents do not get sucked into the bully’s excuses and emotions as to the reasons for their behavior. There should not only be a discussion about their wrongdoing even if they become angry or throw a temper tantrum. Parents need to learn how to not be afraid of their children’s anger and remain consistent with implementing consequences, such as taking away electronics, phone, time with friends, etc. School personnel need to implement a zero-tolerance policy and follow through with sequential discipline tactics for such behavior. For example, a first bullying offense would lead to detention; a second offense to in-school suspension; a third offense to out-of-school suspension, and so on.
Another integral component to managing bullying behavior is to teach healthy social problem-solving skills to kids. They need to learn how to deal with their emotions without acting out behaviorally and without using control and intimidation tactics to get with they want (which has been reinforced either by getting away with such negative behavior or through social modeling from watching influential adults). Children and teens need to learn how to resolve conflicts by accepting compromise, sacrifice, sharing, and dealing with injustice — even when such values are emotionally challenging. Equally as important is that we need to encourage children to do activities in which they are successful (such as sports, band, drama, art) apart from their focus of social acceptance. These successes will lead to enhanced self-confidence, in fact for both bullies and victims, which in turn will decrease their desire to hurt others’ feelings.
Overall, bullies need to learn to accept responsibility for their behavior and that their shortcomings are not someone else’s fault. Similarly, adults should be mindful of taking to heart what their children/students tell them about being bullied and not downplay these social scenarios as “just being kids.” As a society, we can combat the frequency of bullying behaviors by modeling positive social behaviors for our children and by practicing what we preach.