Monday, October 22, 2012

Top Five Bullying Myths: What You Don't Know About Bullying

by Stephanie Hanes, Christian Science Monitor Correspondent

We all know that bullying is wrong but you may know even less about bullying than you originally thought. Monitor correspondent Stephanie Hanes debunks five popular misconceptions.

1. Bullies lash out because they have low self-esteem.
You’ve heard this theory before: The classroom bully acts aggressively toward others as a way to compensate for the fact that, deep down, he really doesn’t like himself. This may be a satisfying explanation for bad behavior, but numerous studies show it to be untrue. Indeed, research shows bullies feel just fine about themselves; some studies suggest that they have excess self esteem and feel better than others. (Some researchers speculate that this is one of the ways they rationalize their behavior.) This doesn’t always mean that bullies lead a blithely carefree life, however. The Centers for Disease Control has found that bullies are more likely than other students to experience violence at home.

2. Zero-tolerance policies against bullying decrease bullying
“Zero tolerance” policies became popular in the 1990s to deal with a host of school – and, for that matter, criminal justice – challenges, from drug use to violence to sexual harassment.

Usually a zero tolerance policy includes an automatic penalty for a given infraction, regardless of who is involved or what the extenuating circumstances may be. The concept is that if kids know they’re going to get kicked out of school for bullying, they just won’t do it. This approach is still favored by many anti-bullying groups and websites.

But researchers say there’s no evidence that zero-tolerance policies lower the incidence of bullying. There are, however, a number of studies that show a correlation between zero tolerance and increased aggression and harassment at school. Why? The American Psychological Association’s task force on zero tolerance said in 2008 that these policies did little to standardize punishment and did not take into account the best developmental approach for teenagers. Other researchers have said that zero tolerance does little to build needed compassion.

The other side of the anti-bullying spectrum is not necessarily always better, however. A comprehensive international review of anti-bullying initiatives by The Campbell Collaboration research network found that peer-based, or peer mentoring, anti-bullying programs often increased rates of victimhood, as well.

3. Technology is the problem. Cyberbullying is the main form of bullying these days.
Social media, the Internet and cell phones have certainly changed the bullying landscape. Children today have a far harder time finding respite from bullying; what might have once taken place only at school can now follow kids home on their cell phones, Facebook pages, and e-mail accounts. The Internet also provides a slew of opportunities for people to be mean, from slam boards (no-holds-barred college gossip sites), to fake Facebook accounts. Add to that some scary statistics – such as the National Crime Prevention Council’s finding that more than 43 percent of teenagers have been the victims of cyberbullying – and it would be easy to focus anti-bullying attention on-line.

But many researchers say that the vast majority of bullying still takes place in person – in the classroom, the schoolyard, and the cafeteria. Much of the on-line bullying, they say, is an extension of what starts face to face; studies also show that students report in-person bullying to be more damaging.

Many of the high cyberbullying statistics may come from the way different studies define “bullying,” which in some surveys is described as anything from a mean text message to an unauthorized forward to another teen blocking the victim from his or her Facebook page. (Academic and legal definitions tend to require more components for behavior to qualify as bullying.) A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 15 percent of teens who use social networking sites say they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior there; 69 percent say their peers are mostly kind to one another.

4. Everyone is equally at risk of falling victim to bullying.
While there is no single profile of a bullying victim, there are characteristics that make a child more likely, on average, to become victimized. Researchers say that socially marginalized children, whether because of sexual orientation or disability, are more likely to be bullied. Bullying also “plays out differently across gender and age, ethnicity and race,” professors Danah Boyd and John Palfrey wrote for “The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series,” a 2012 synthesis of research on bullying published by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. 

There are also situations that cause a child to become a more likely target for bullies, some researchers say. Children who are new to school or who do not have friends are more likely to be bullied than those with a more secure social network. 

None of this is to say that bullying won’t happen to anyone; many researchers simply urge schools and policy makers to recognize these risk factors.

5. Bullying is a major cause of suicide and school violence.
There have been a number of high-profile, tragic, incidents of bullied children committing suicide. School violence – most recently the shooting at Maryland’s Perry Hall High School  – has also been regularly linked to bullying, usually with the explanation of a bullying victim seeking revenge. But researchers say the connection between both school shootings and suicide is far more tenuous than popular media reports would have us believe. The media coverage of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings put the idea of the loner, bullied students taking out their anger through violence; author Dave Cullen, who was one of the reporters covering the story, spent the next decade researching his book “Columbine,” untangling the myths of trench coats and outsiders he says his media colleagues created.

“We all knew what happened there, right?” he wrote about Columbine in a New York Times soon after this summer’s mass shooting in  Aurora, Colorado. “Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them. “Not one bit of that turned out to be true."

As far as suicide: While research has found that victims of bullying do face serious psychological challenges and is associated with an increased risk of self harm, there are typically other mental and situational factors also underlying suicides. The Centers for Disease Control found that suicide was the third leading cause of death for youth between ages of 10 and 24; it lists a number of risk factors, including depression, alcohol abuse to easy access to firearms.  

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