Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It's Just Bullying - What's the Big Deal?

It's just bullying! We all went through it, so what?

This is a question that gets tossed around by older generations when people talk about bullying. Up until the 1996 Columbine Shooting, bullying was touted as a rite of passage - something kids all went through and were made better for. Bullying was considered necessary, as it builds character and prepares kids for the rough world of adulthood. I have heard some from older generations complain that what is "wrong" with the world today is that kids are weak and whine about every little thing, expecting to never have their feelings hurt or suffer at all.

But bullying today is different than it was 30 years ago. The world has changed and for reasons that many psychologists and sociologists frequently explore, kids today seem to have a heartier appetite for cruelty and push the boundaries of bullying behavior farther than their parents ever would have dared. According to SuEllen Fried1, one of the reasons is that television, video games, and movies desensitize children to cruelty. I admit, I believe that has a lot to do with it. I also feel that a great number children today are being forced to early detachment2 which impares their ability to empathize or form attached bonds with their peers.

As Fried1 explores the five types of bullying, they take it further and explore how these types of bullying differ from 30 years ago.

Physical: Whereas a few decades ago, physical bullying usually meant pushing, hitting, kicking, spitting, biting, pulling hair, wedgies and swirlies etc., today's youth now have to contend with a wider array of physical abuse by their peers, as well as more frequent incidents. The old physical dominance tactics still apply, and we add to that: stabbing, cutting, choking, even shooting.

While in some communities, physical violence is on a decline, it is becoming more brutal when it does occur. Studies in the late nineties showed an alarming jump in girls physical aggression, and that increase continues to this day.

Verbal: As children today are being raised in increasingly hostile environments and exposed to near constant rudeness, it's no wonder they treat each other with so little respect. Compared to the last century, many people recognize a dramatic reduction in manners and common courtesy. Aside from t.v. that promotes violence and hostility, parents who often explode on strangers and berate them for minor infractions and the overall disposition that we treat others like they are constantly in our way and are a nuisance all contribute to the escalated verbal abuse that children inflict on each other.

Emotional: Frieds book asserts that there are two types of emotional bullying - the nonverbal communication such as hand gestures and body language, and exclusionary tactics. At a seminar I recently attended with SuEllen Fried as the guest speaker, she discussed her work in the Kansas Penitentiary System. She stated that once a person is in prison and breaks a rule, there aren't many options to punish them further. But the one tool left, the one that even hardened criminals fear and therefore obey to avoid, is isolation of solitary confinement. While exclusion has always been a way for children to punish other children, it goes further today with all of the venues of connectivity available to us. Not only are children isolated in school and social settings, but in electronic means as well. Being ignored on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets; defriended, kept out of group emails etc. are just more ways kids have to tell each other that they don't belong.

** I also want to add that frequently schools use isolation as a way to punish children, sending them to so called Safe Spots. This isolation from their peer obviously works as a deterrent, and in my experience, increases bullying towards that child when used on the same child on a repeated basis. Specifically, when a child is consistently removed from the class by the teacher, the other children will grow detached from them and begin to target them. They seem to sense that the authority figure has singled out the child and deemed them unfit for the group, however, I do not imply in any way that teachers intend to do this. It is only an unspoken twist in the hierarchy that children read and do not comprehend.

Sexual: Sexual harassment has always included inappropriate jokes, touching, insinuations made in regards to a persons sexual behavior or lack thereof, this now encompasses a wider platform. Gays and lesbians have always been targets of bullies and have always existed. But since many more are now "out" in the public eye, and many children and teenagers are openly expressive of their right to be gay, the backlash is more intense than before.

Cyber: This is a type of bullying that just plain did not exist 30 years ago. It used to be that if a kid was picked on at school, it stayed at school (for the most part) and they could get a reprieve once they stepped off of the school bus. Not so in this day and age. Kids use cellphones to taunt over texts messages. The video teasing and physical abuse to upload onto the Internet and force targets to relive their humiliating experiences again and again - in a far more public way than we ever had to imagine when we were there age. They torment each other through twitter, facebook, myspace, and many other social media places that I'm too old to be aware of.

As we can clearly see a difference in manner and intensity of bullying from a few decades ago, I think it's obvious that bullying is not at all something to necessitate. Many of the claims made before that bullying is a way to build character and grow self-confidence can be achieved simply by instilling confidence in our children from the start. By building our children up through validation, rather than allowing them to be stripped down by their peers, we help them become self-assured, peaceable people who can handle the rough world of adulthood because they have been taught methods of coping with stress and how to handle peer relationships that aren't pleasant. Positive reinforcement does so much more than negative destructuring.

1 - SuEllen Fried is a noted expert in the field of bullying, having written books, including Banishing Bully Behavior, co-authored with Blanche Sosland, and runs the website

2 - Many children today are "trained" to develop emotional independence as infants, left to "cry it out" and expected to teach themselves to "self-soothe", which can damage their ability to form peer attachments later in childhood and into adulthood. They are taught not to need anybody, which creates an overinflated sense of self, and others lack importance to consider.

What are your opinions on why children today are more agressive than they were 30 years ago? What role do authority figures play in escalating bullying behavior? Do you think teachers, parents and school officials have the proper tools and understanding to handle bullying?


  1. I think it is mainly exposure, like you mentioned. Desensitization via media made me a much more vicious bully, I know. It's why I won't allow the same cartoons I grew up with, despite the nostalgia factor--they are basically just 'funny violence' and I don't want my kids thinking violence in any form is funny.

  2. I agree that has much to do with it. Particularly video games.

    I wouldn't say that today's children's television is a contributor, however, the stuff we watched as kids was way more violent. You ever watch an old episode of Charlie Brown when they come on at during the Holidays? Oh boy, those kids were all sorts of messed up lol! Each one of them has some kind a mental/emotional/personality disorder and the way they talk to each other - yikes. But the movies and shows that aren't meant for kids that parents let them watch do have a lot of violence in them. It's hard to know what will impact and what won't. Desensitizing to violence is one thing - most of the bullying that goes on is of the nonviolent variety, kwim? The majority of kids who bully do so with threats, taunts, name-calling, exclusion, public humiliation, etc. Where's that coming from - that lack of empathy, sympathy, repsect, etc. towards their peers?