Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
March 31 2010 2:50 PM

Bullies

They can be stopped, but it takes a village.

Authorities brought a series of charges Monday  against nine teenagers accused of incessantly bullying 15-year-old South Hadley high school student Phoebe Prince for months before she killed herself. Last year, Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella cautioned against common but ineffective responses to bullying and outlined some solutions that actually work. The article is reprinted below.

Let's say you find out that your child is being bullied by a schoolmate. Naturally, you want to do something right now to make it stop. Depending on your temperament and experience, one or more of four widely attempted common-sense solutions will occur to you: telling your child to stand up to the bully, telling your child to try to ignore and avoid the bully, taking matters into your own hands by calling the bully's parents or confronting the bully yourself, or asking your child's teacher to put a stop to it.

These responses share three features:

1) They all express genuine caring, concern, and good intentions.

2) You will feel better for taking action.

3) They are likely to be ineffective.

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In order to understand why, let's focus on two aspects of bullying: It arises from a differential in power, and it's heavily contextual.

Bullying is not just two children arguing or even hitting each other. Rather, one exploits a power differential—in strength or audacity—to repeatedly intimidate the other. Usually that takes the form of repeated attacks that can range from physical assault to verbal insults, threats, social aggression (like excluding the victim from activities), and the newer-order variants grouped under the heading "cyber bullying": offensive and threatening text messages or messages posted on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Bullying is fairly common: In one large-scale national study of elementary and middle school students, 17 percent reported having been bullied, 19 percent said they bullied others, and 6 percent reported bullying and being bullied.

We know a few things about bullies as a group. They often have an impulsive temperament, don't get enough parental supervision, and have had significant exposure to models of aggressive behavior in the home (harsh punishment, domestic violence) and media (TV and video games that model bullying). Most bullies are boys, and male bullies use physical violence more often than female ones, but girls do it, too. Bullies are often more confident, fearless, and socially astute than we tend to assume (the old notion of a bully as a cowardly cretin with low self-esteem seems to be inaccurate), and they are often quite popular in the lower grades. But they tend to lose popularity as school progresses, become socially isolated, and have poor academic outcomes. They are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol as they enter adolescence and to engage in criminal behavior in later years. But knowing all that has not helped much in coming up with ways to reduce or eliminate bullying.

Context, not the individual attributes of bullies or their victims, is the key to prevention. Bullying between children happens in places where adults cannot easily detect it—in the halls, at recess, at the bus stop, waiting in lines. Adults typically do not know about such bullying unless there are flagrant and very frequent episodes or they happen to see it with their own eyes, which is relatively rare (teachers detect only about 4 percent of all incidents), since a competent bully chooses opportunities precisely to exploit a lack of adult supervision.

When students see bullying, they tend not to report it. Surveys indicate that they usually believe nothing would be done if they did tell about what they saw. Bear in mind that about 85 percent of bullying happens in front of others, usually peers. The event is institutionally invisible, but there are typically witnesses. These peers intervene only about 10 percent to 20 percent of the time, but when they do, they can stop bullying. Even when the child who steps in is considered weak in the group's hierarchy of power, the bullying stops within 10 seconds in more than half the instances of intervention by peers. The extensive body of research on bullying has led to a new appreciation of the power of bystanders to enable or disable bullying.