An Evidence-Based Approach Can Put An End To Bullying

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The Roman playwright Terence once said, “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”

If everyone shared and behaved according to this empathetic belief, bullying certainly wouldn’t be as prevalent as it is. With 14 per cent of U.S. students (PDF) reporting being bullied and five per cent bullying others in 2014, bullying is a regular affair both inside and outside schools.

It is the intent to gain power over another person that defines bullying behavior. Though children may use the word “bully” to describe certain interactions with their peers, it is the perception of power imbalance that distinguishes bullying from conflict. Conflict can be healthy, bullying can’t.

Recognizing bullying can be difficult, however, especially in the digital landscape we find ourselves. While more overt forms of bullying that are physical (hitting, punching and kicking) and verbal (name-calling and taunting) in nature do still occur at school, bullying can now be much more covert.

In fact, relational bullying, undermining peer acceptance and friendships, and cyber-bullying (using electronic communication technology to harm others) may be more discrete, more common and just as harmful.

With the advent of young people having access to devices that allow them to connect with each other on a 24/7 basis, there is potential for victims to be susceptible to bullying round-the-clock. Because bullying is a habitual behaviour, it becomes more comfortable for the bully and repeated if there isn’t an intervention (PDF).

Much of the responsibility to prevent cyber bullying and cyber victimization should be placed on parents. The devices are only the tools — education starts at home.

To add, how much easier is it to be hateful using typed words and emojis than spoken words in face-to-face situations? It becomes inescapable for the victim– research points to youth who experience bullying while at school during the day being the same ones subject to bullying (PDF) while online at night.

Not surprisingly, the effects of bullying are negative for both the bully and the victim. In a longitudinal study (PDF), online bullying was a predictor of substance use and online victimization predicted decreased sense of well-being and belonging. Students that are cyber bullied often report feeling sad, anxious, afraid and unable to concentrate in school. In contrast to research on traditional bullying, females may be more likely than males to be bullying victims in a virtual environment.

Bullying may be a precursor of abuse in adulthood, too. A study from 2011 found that men who said they frequently bullied other students were more than five times more likely to abuse their female partners.

Although cyber bullying may be relatively new, the reason for it may be a remnant of our evolutionary past. Humans are social beings; we are simply ill-equipped to survive without the help of others. In evolutionary terms, tribalism was likely advantageous for our species as it afforded us protection from predators and enemies in a hostile world.

Tribalism and social bonding helped keep individuals committed to the group and thus less likely to abandon and join other groups. Unfortunately, it also leads to bullying when a member is resistant to conforming to the politics of the collective.

Even now our evolved instincts sometimes seem more easily motivated by hatred and fear than by empathy and camaraderie. The imbalance of social and physical power in our society plays out in many difference ways. Whether it is oppression based on class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, outward appearance or for other reasons, of one person or of a group, someone suffers. Bullying is no exception.

As Alice Walton, a doctor of biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience, puts it, overcoming bullying means we need to “tap into our ‘higher’ brain regions, calling on the moral and reasonable parts of the brain to override the ‘lower,’ more primitive parts of the brain that govern behaviors we no longer need around.”

For that reason, lessening bullying requires a societal effort. No single institution can prevent the circumstances that lead to a young person fearing hateful comments online. Humanity has proven we have the capacity to improve the well being of others — we should plan to make giant strides in minimizing bullying, too.

One of the best ways for schools to decrease bullying behavior is to implement evidence-based prevention programs. One potentially powerful strategy may involve promoting the positive character traits of bullies, such as assertiveness and leadership, in classroom activities.

This can get bullies to recognize both the personal and group benefits involved when they participate in a positive manner. However, to be effective, in-service training for teachers to resolve classroom management issues and prevent bullying should be combined with follow-up consultation.

An emerging tactic against bullying may use technology that is similar to spam filters for email. These new natural language processing techniques may eventually be part of the solution by helping to recognize and report online bullying.

Still, much of the responsibility to prevent cyber bullying and cyber victimization should be placed on parents. The devices are only the tools — education starts at home. By guiding children on correct use of the Internet through open dialogue, the online experience for youth can be more thoughtful and positive.

I encourage you to speak with your children about bullying from an empathetic perspective, and regularly. Ensure your child can recognize bullying behaviour, feels comfortable reporting bullying and values all of the good being kind can do.

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