Cambridge Authors on Bullying: Answering Your Questions
Bullying: What you need to know
Last month, in light of the release of the documentary Bully, we asked you for your questions about how bullying is transforming adolescence, education, and parenting. Today, our expert authors answer your questions.
Robert Crosnoe is a professor of sociology and psychology at the University of Texas-Austin and author of Fitting in, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education. Peter K. Smith is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Unit for Schooland Family Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and author of several books including Rethinking School Bullying: Towards an Integrated Model.
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Question: When I was young, all we were taught about bullying was to develop a thick skin. Why does bullying now seem to have much more of an impact?
Robert Crosnoe: Bullying is certainly not new in any way. It has been around for a long time, and I am not sure that is necessarily more frequent or worse today than it was in the past but rather that we talk about it and recognize it so much more. Having said that, I also want to point out that bullying has taken on some seriously worrisome new dimensions in recent years. Internet and other new media give anonymity to social aggression. They are also very public, exposing teenagers to a much broader audience in a way that leaves a permanent record—to quote The Social Network, the internet is written in ink. Yet, the work of social and behavioral scientists (including me) also suggest that, even today, most forms of bullying are in the traditional face-to-face manner. Bullies do not need the internet to bully.
Overall, I would say that there has long been a tendency for adults to dismiss all of the social turbulence that goes on in high school as a part of growing up, a rite of passage—“Yeah, it’s hard but everyone goes through it—you’ll live and maybe even be a better person for it.” My parents were that way, and it bothered me a lot at the time. But now that I am a parent, I find myself thinking and doing the same things. This way of thinking is understandable and human, but it is still the wrong way to approach the issue. Bullying, aggression, peer victimization—all of that stuff has been around for years, but it is also changing in ways that serve notice to adults. Fortunately, I think that adults are starting to take notice, and they are beginning to demand action.
Question: To respond to the bullying of LGBT students, some charter schools that are specifically gay-friendly have been formed. Is this a helpful strategy, or does it just defer the problem?
Peter K. Smith: If ‘gay-friendly’ means awareness of differing sexual orientations and tolerance of this, and an explicit condemnation of any homophobic bullying, then all schools should have this. The situation is improving, although from surveys of school anti-bullying policies that we have done, still only about a half of secondary schools mention homophobic bullying explicitly.
Question: How does experience with bullying affect students after high school and college?
Robert Crosnoe: When people think about or discuss the long-term effects of bullying and other kinds of peer victimization, they tend do so in terms of psychological and social dimensions—how early bullying might lead a kid to grow up into a fearful, untrusting adult prone to depression and anxiety and other issues that might affect the relationships they have. Certainly, I think that this kind of residue of early experiences is important, but I also believe that there are many other kinds of legacies that need to be discussed more, including implications for future socioeconomic attainment.
The extensive research that I conducted for my book, Fitting In, Standing Out, was about teenagers who feel as though they do not fit in socially at school, including those who are bullied and victimized. What I found is that they are less likely to go to college after high school than peers who have the same race, social class, academic background, and many other characteristics. Basically, teenagers spend so much time working through what is happening to them at school and what it means for them and so much time doing things to make themselves feel better that they are distracted from school work and are much less likely to get the grades and class credits they need for college.
College-going, of course, is then related to many socioeconomic factors (e.g., the jobs you get, the money you earn), but it is also related to many other non-economic factors, such as health, mortality, and marital stability. This phenomenon is one way that all of the social challenges of high school life, including experiences of bullying, can filter into the academic side of schooling and, in the process, disrupt teenagers’ trajectories into adulthood.
Question: Adult bullying is quite prevalent, especially in the workplace. How can a victim assert himself or herself in a way that is not crossing any social boundaries, especially since much of such bullying occurs in the workplace?
Robert Crosnoe: This is a very interesting (and timely) question. As a researcher who focuses on children and adolescents, I do not know much about the topic of adult bullying. Yet, I do want to point out that thinking about adult bullying remedies in terms of what the victim should do is similar to thinking about childhood bullying remedies in terms of getting kids to develop a thick skin (to go back to an earlier question that was posed to me on this panel). The answer is not to change the victims but to do something about the victimization. Just as the appropriate response to bullying of children in school is from school administrators—controlling bullying behavior, protecting victims, even teaching sensitivity—the appropriate response to bullying of adults in the workplace is from employers. What should they be doing? I think that looking to the steps that schools are taking now would be a good start on this new frontier.
Question: Many responses to bullying are reactive rather than proactive. What can parents with young children do to instil a resistance to bullying before it becomes a problem?
Peter K. Smith: Part of this is just having a loving (not over-protective) and respectful relationship with your child. Children growing up in a warm and loving family atmosphere and who feel secure in relationships are less likely to get involved in bully-victim roles generally.
Another aspect is to encourage assertiveness – standing up for your rights, but not aggressively. This is related to the point about respect in relationships, above. There are specific assertiveness skills that children can learn, and booklets about this, and some schools do run assertiveness training classes. Related to this, children should be encouraged to tell an adult they trust, e.g. parent or teacher, if something unpleasant is happening to them, such as being bullied, that they cannot easily cope with.
There are also more general strategies to learn, for example the value of friendships – being with friends that you can trust reduces the likelihood of being bullied.