USA TODAY’s “Back to School” magazine
Middle school can be tough: switching classes, learning locker combinations, more challenging coursework. It’s also where the most bullying begins. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 49 percent of children in grades four to 12 reported being bullied by other students at least once a month, and 31 percent of children reported being the ones who bullied.
Those numbers suggest that it’s more likely than not that your child will either be the target of bullying or the instigator.
We think we know what a bully looks like. Pop culture paints an image of an alpha male or female who is either the star football player or head cheerleader. However, it’s not always that easy to identify the problem child, especially if their misdeeds occur primarily online. More male students may be physically bullied than female (6 percent versus 4 percent), according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Jennifer Knack, an associate professor of psychology at Clarkson University who has researched bullying for 15 years, points out that girls are typically socialized out of physical bullying and, instead, start using bullying tactics like ostracism or spreading rumors. However, cyberbullying affects both genders.
A 2018 Pew survey found that 59 percent of U.S. teens experienced some form of abusive online behavior and, unfortunately, it doesn’t stay within the confines of school property.
Before social media, students who were bullied at school, on the school bus or in the neighborhood, could escape to the safety of their homes in the evenings. Now, with the ability to always be connected, kids are continually targeted on social networks sites.
Cyberbullying also allows students to pick on multiple children at once without leaving their couches, adds Eric Schiff, a guidance counselor at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. “There’s the anonymity of some of the online stuff, too.”
Whether or not parents are aware of how prevalent bullying is, it seems that students are — 90 percent of teens believe that online harassment is a problem affecting their generation and 63 percent say it’s a major one, according to the Pew survey. For most, it can become an endless cycle of re-reading and feeling upset about the hurtful comments posted and re-shared. While 57 percent of parents also expressed concern, Knack cautions that simply cutting a teen off from social media isn’t the answer because positive support can also come from the same places.
Many schools have turned to bullying prevention programs and policies as a solution; however, they aren’t usually that effective, Knack suggests. Adults may look at these initiatives as a positive step, but Knack says that depends on the specific programs and how they’re implemented. “I always worry about this one week we care about this issue,” she says, in reference to annual bullying awareness events nationwide. “Kids can see right through that.”
Schiff, whose school hosts a Kindness Week — “I think it’s a box-checking exercise” — says resources would be better spent by hiring more counselors or social workers who can make connections with students so those students have someone at school they can trust.
Some other programs can teach kids how to interact without aggression or hostility by giving them tools to help build positive social behaviors. Programs that look at what the school or community values show youth what to do and how to support each other rather than only telling them what not to do. Yet, Knack warns, the bully-bullied dynamic is often not clearly defined.
Regardless of whether schools have these types of tools and programs at their disposal, the bullying dynamic depends on where kids fall within the social hierarchy of the school.
Who’s a bully?
The distinction between bully and bullied isn’t always clear. In a school environment, social hierarchy often determines these two positions, which isn’t always a good thing.
“Bullies who are on the higher end of the social hierarchy are often liked by teachers, liked by administrators and so they often get a pass even though they’re harming other children in terms of their social relationships,” says Knack.
Schiff says it can also be difficult to decipher the truth from multiple versions of an incident. Did a student trip another on purpose or was it truly an accident?
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“The question of intent can also be hard to judge, depending on the situation,” says Schiff. Kids can pretend they’re joking or teasing was misinterpreted and, based on their social status and whether or not they’re already viewed as troublemakers, they can often maintain their social standing because they are so well-liked within the school environment.
While the conscious awareness may not fully be there, Knack believes that those who bully understand that their behaviors reward them with social privilege, whether they’re fully conscious of it or not. “They definitely are trying to figure out how to maintain that power,” she says.
Kids who are bullied often withdraw from activities, go from being talkative to quiet, experience fluctuations in grades — all red flags that parents need to be aware of — but what about the kids who are doing the bullying? If you notice that your child is suddenly getting a lot of extra attention from classmates, that could be a different sort of red flag, especially if that attention comes out of left field.
“Some kids who are engaging in bullying behavior may react with more confidence,” says Knack. “Kids have a hard time knowing what to do with that extra attention. It can be hard because some of these (behaviors) we expect because they’re hitting puberty … but it’s important for parents to pay attention.”
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