Bullying in the 21st century


Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about the topic of bullying among youth. This article discusses bullying as a state and national problem, to be followed in parts two and three about local instances and what teachers and administrators are doing to stop them.

By Angelique LaCour / Special to The Malibu Times

Recently released national bullying statistics show that bullying remains a problem among children and teens in America, but it is taking on a different approach. Cyberbullying (using the Internet) is becoming more rampant in school and after school.

Social networking has provided an entirely new environment for bullying to take place. Recent studies indicate there are about 2.7 million students being bullied each year. More than 25 percent of adolescents and teens report being bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the Internet. Well over half of young people do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs.

If unchecked, bullying can have tragic consequences. Recently there has been an unfortunate rise in teen suicides nationwide. In most of the cases, the ones committing suicide faced severe bullying due to their sexual orientation or rumored sexual orientation.

In 2010, 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, Calif., hung himself after years of being bullied because he was gay. In response, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in Oct. 2011 creating Seth’s Law. The new law requires school districts to implement policies and procedures that prohibit discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying, and a system for reporting and addressing complaints of such instances.

But suicides resulting from bullying are not always about sexual orientation. That same year, nine Massachusetts teens, including three juveniles, were charged in connection with the death of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. Prince, a new student from Ireland, reportedly suffered months of nearly constant stalking and harassment, and committed suicide after weeks of bullying on Facebook and at her high school.

“Here’s the reality: over 85% of bullying incidents happen when peers are together and adults are not around. Most bullies will stop the aggression within 10 seconds if peers intervene,” says anti-bullying advocate Bill Belsey. “But kids need to be taught how to do that.”

Belsey, a teacher for 30 years, created a website called Bullying.org that went online in 2000 after another tragic incident related to bullying shocked his native Canada.

On April 28, 1999, eight days after two students went on a deadly rampage at a high school in Littleton, Colo., a similar copycat attack struck the community of Taber, in the Canadian province of Alberta. A 14-year-old boy opened fire inside W. R. Myers High school, killing one student and injuring another. The small community was shocked to learn that the shooter had been the victim of relentless bullying for many years, and chose this tragic way to retaliate for it.

Bullying.org offers “a safe place for kids around the world to post drawings, multimedia, poems, stories and music about their experiences with bullying. Every submission is read and posted, and replies to submissions are moderated,” Belsey said.

Visitors to the web site can reply to the submissions to offer the poster support, encouragement and reassurance that it is not their fault they have been bullied. The web site logged 3.5 million visitors last year, many of them teachers who use the site as a learning resource to help students develop empathy for others.

In recent years, a sister site, Cyberbullying.com, started up to combat the increasing danger of bullying online. A third site, BullyingCourse.com, is available to teachers for a fee to educate themselves about the epidemic. Belsey says many teachers never receive research-based training in college about bullying as part of their education degree requirements.

Studies also indicate that the psychological impact can be as harmful to those who witness bullying incidents as it is to the victim of the bullying.

Bullying experts Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig recently conducted 1,000 hours of video surveillance of kids interacting in the school environment. The evidence showed that the bullying dynamic is a very fluid one. A child can go from being a bystander to a bully or co-bully fairly quickly. The silence of the majority of bystanders gives the bully power.

Pepler and Craig concluded that as the aggressor, children learn how effective it can be to use their power to control others. Victims of that aggression then become trapped in a disrespectful relationship in which they become increasingly powerless and unable to defend themselves. Bystanders also learn about the use of power and aggression in relationships. Without educational interventions to teach them differently, they will more typically align with the power of the bully.

The good news is bullying is a learned behavior, and can be counteracted through education.

“Kids need to be taught the psychology of how human relationships work,” said Belsey. “They need to understand that their initial psychological reaction when witnessing a bullying incidence is silence.”

With practice and support from the adult community, kids can learn to speak up and stop the bully by simply saying, “Stop it. What you are doing is wrong.”

Next week: Part 2, What are Malibu schools doing to educate kids about bullying?