Bullying is a serious issue with far-reaching, long-term consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.
In recent years, schools, workplaces, and government institutions began taking bullying more seriously, recognizing its dangers and implications. The days of authority figures dismissing bullying as a normal part of childhood are gone, replaced by the knowledge that everyone deserves to feel safe and secure, whether at school, at university, or at work.
Types of Bullying
Bullying takes on many forms, though in all cases it is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior” that happens repeatedly and includes an imbalance of power.
The repetitive requirement means that standard, common disagreements among classmates or coworkers do not qualify as bullying behavior. The power factor means that the bully has greater perceived power than the victim does. This may take the form of physical strength, knowledge of a secret, someone in a position of authority, or even someone with greater social popularity.
In physical bullying, the perpetrator employs violence, or threats of violence, in his or her attempt to demonstrate power over another. Though bullying knows no age limits, physical bullying occurs more commonly among children.
Common examples of physical bullying include:
- Destroying someone’s property
- Hitting, such as punching or slapping
- Sexual assault or harassment
Physical bullying is probably the most easily recognized form of bullying.
Cyberbullying occurs online and is an insidious form of bullying, as it can spread far beyond the realms of the schoolyard or workplace.
One of the challenges of cyberbullying is that it may occur anywhere, at any time. This means the victim is never fully safe, as the Internet is open and available 24/7. In addition, the bully may retain his or her anonymity. The ease with which messages spread throughout the Internet – from social media sites, email, and comment sections on web pages – means that damage may continue far beyond the initial posting.
The far-reaching impact of these attacks has serious consequences for the victim, and some high profile cases ended in suicide. One of the earliest examples occurred in 2006, when an adult woman created a MySpace account, creating the profile of a teenage boy to lure her 13-year-old neighbor into an online romance and then humiliated her. The teenage girl killed herself.
Adults are also victims of cyberbullying, especially women. Gamergate is a well-known example. It began in 2014, when a female video game designer broke up with her boyfriend. He retaliated by posting an obscene message against her, enlisting other people who are prejudiced against women within the gaming community to spread the attack. The woman received death and rape threats, as did her family and friends.
Covert bullying works at a psychological level, destroying the victim’s social standing, self-esteem, and/or relationships and is very difficult to detect.
Examples of covert bullying include:
- Spreading gossip and rumors
- Threatening hand gestures
- Threatening looks
- Other attempts to make someone a social pariah
Covert bullying happens at every age level, from elementary school to the workplace and even within adult social circles and families.
In reactive bullying, the bully and the victim change roles. It typically occurs after the victim has undergone prolonged mistreatment at the hands of his or her bully until finally reaching a breaking point and lashing out at the tormentor.
When the victim becomes the bully, he or she may continue the behaviors of the bully, or practice a different type of bullying.
Similar to covert bullying, relational bullying’s goal is meant to destroy the victim’s social life and ostracize him or her. Examples include:
- Intentional exclusion
Another similarity with covert bullying is the breadth of age groups vulnerable to relational bullying.
Similar to sexual harassment, sexual bullying uses gestures and statements that are sexual in nature in the bully’s attempt to hurt and intimidate someone. Common examples include:
- Harassment based on the victim’s sexual activities
- Ridiculing someone’s sexual orientation
- Statements, ridiculing, and teasing about the person’s body
Occasionally, sexual bullying escalates to sexual assault. This type of harassment occurs as young as grade school and extends into adulthood.
Verbal bullies use language to intimidate others and exercise power over their victims. This may take the form of teasing and insults, and typically focuses on a perceived difference. The language used may be racist, homophobic, sexist, or focus on the person’s religion or disability status.
The Effects of Bullying
Long- and short-term consequences of bullying are many and include:
- Academic performance: Bullied students often miss more school. Combined with the stress of being bullied, this often leads to lower GPAs and even dropping out of school. Bullies also have higher drop-out rates, while bystanders have higher rates of absenteeism.
- Mental health: Depression and suicidal thoughts follow bullying victims through school years and into adulthood, though risk of suicide drops as age rises. However, anger and bitterness, in addition to low self-esteem, continue. Bystanders also demonstrate heightened risk of depression, in addition to feelings of powerlessness and guilt.
- Physical health: The stress and anxiety of being bullied lead to a variety of health issues, including stomach aches, headaches and migraines, and sleep problems.
- Relationships: Victims tend to have lifelong difficulty trusting others and becoming emotionally close to other people. Bullies also have relationship issues, engaging in unsafe sexual activity at a young age. In adulthood, they are more likely to abuse their partners and children.
- Substance abuse: Bullying victims are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as children, while bullies themselves are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as adults. Bystanders also have a greater risk of addiction.
Strategies to Prevent Bullying
The most effective means of preventing bullying is to create a safe environment that promotes a culture of inclusion and enlists everyone in preventing bullying.
Regardless of age, people tend to respond better and more quickly to rewards than they do punishments. In fact, positivity works best when creating the rules in your environment, as well. This means building guidelines around what to do, rather than what not to do.
Leadership, whether in school or the workplace, must model behaviors and show respect for others. In addition, creating an environment that supports and encourages students and workers helps demonstrate those values.
When the time comes to enforce the rules, do so on a one-on-one basis, and be specific. Make sure the bully understands the violation, as well as the consequences. Express encouragement and confidence that he or she has the ability to make these changes.
Reward good behaviors, such as pointing out when you notice how a student or employee acts to make sure everyone feels included, or stands up for another person.
Offer your team bully prevention training, so they know how to recognize the signs of bullying and understand how to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
Monitor your facility to ensure every student and employee has the safe environment they deserve. This means paying attention to “hot spots” where authority figures may be difficult to find. This includes restrooms and school buses, as well as cafeterias and break rooms. School administrators should be encouraged to survey students and employees about potential hot spots and place authority figures in those locations. Bullying tends to decrease significantly when bullies believe they are being watched.
Consider holding regular meetings to discuss bullying as a group. Without using names, discuss bullying incidents, but also positive incidents and examples of the type of behavior you hope to encourage (with positive examples, you may name specific people). Finally, make sure your team or students understand that the duty of creating a safe, supportive environment belongs to everyone.
Strategies to Cope with Bullying
For those victimized by bullies, there are resources and options for help. There are also strategies to help parents, bystanders, and coworkers.
Children being bullied should talk to a trusted adult at their school, such as a teacher, counselor, or principal. If a crime was committed, report it to the police. If you feel helpless, or are plagued by thoughts of suicide, please call a suicide hotline immediately. You are not alone, and they can help.
There are also strategies to deal with stress, as well as options such as therapy to help manage the negative effects of bullying, including improving your self-image and confidence.
Parents can help their children by recognizing the signs of bullying, as well as the signs that your child may be bullying others. Have an open, honest talk with your child, making sure he or she feels comfortable and safe talking to you. Use open-ended questions and speak in a calm voice to encourage an open dialogue and to prevent defensiveness. Talk to your child’s school, not only to report the bullying, but also to learn the school’s policies on bullying.
If you witness someone bullying, report the behavior to someone in an authority position. Speak up if you feel safe doing so, and make an effort to connect with the victim. Sometimes, just talking with a peer helps, as bullying victims often feel isolated and alone in their struggle.
Teachers should intervene, speaking to both the bully and the victim, but separately and in private. If your school has a guidance counselor, refer each child to work with the counselor.
Education and Prevention
In the end, the most effective way to deal with bullying is to educate yourself on the reality and severity of the problem, as well as how to recognize the signs. At the same time, create an environment that takes bullying seriously and encourages others to do the same. Everyone in this equation – the victim, the bully, and the bystanders – experiences the negative effects of bullying. By promoting a respectful and supportive environment, you protect them all.