Distinguishing Bullying from Other Hurtful Behaviors
In my last post on this blog I wrote about the difficulty in determining when mean behavior crosses the line and becomes bullying behavior. I also discussed the challenge for researchers in trying to quantify the difference. In this post, I’d like to talk about why it is important to establish such a line.
As academics, we love to debate how best to define bullying. Or, at least to call out the limitations in the ways that others do it. I’ve never been one to get too caught up in the definitional debate because I feel that whether a behavior meets someone’s artificially-created criteria for being bullying or not really doesn’t matter all that much. Admittedly, as a researcher I am frustrated by the myriad ways bullying (and especially cyberbullying) is defined, primarily because these discrepancies make comparisons across different studies difficult. But just because something satisfies one scholar’s standards for being classified as bullying is beside the point. We should focus instead on addressing the behavior for what it is. If one student called another student a mean name, or posted an embarrassing picture of another online, or pushed someone in the hallway, it should be addressed. Maybe these incidents are bullying, maybe not. Either way, they need to be dealt with immediately and appropriately.
I’ve begun to shift my thinking a bit when it comes to deliberations about the definition of bullying. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that educators, parents, and other adults who work with youth need to deal with all forms of interpersonal harm when confronted with it. But for a number of reasons, we do need to draw a line in the sand for when a behavior (or series of behaviors) reaches the level of being accurately characterized as bullying. Below I discuss some of these and offer what I believe to be the most important distinguishing features of bullying.
Not All Interpersonal Adolescent Hurtful Behaviors Are Bullying
Many kids say or do mean things to others, but the vast majority of them do not bully. Calling all harmful behaviors bullying discounts the experiences of those who are bullied. As Emily Bazelon (author of Sticks and Stones) has argued, “…when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.” Under most definitions, bullying is much worse than simply being mistreated, pushed, or generally made fun of. To be sure, the difference might simply be in the frequency with which one is targeted. Being pushed in a one-time altercation with a former friend might not be bullying, whereas being pushed by this same person several times over several days, weeks, or months is. Frequency does matter. For example, we were contacted a while back by an adult who recalled his experience of being bullied from over a half century earlier. He wasn’t physically harmed at all, but the names he was incessantly called created psychological scars that never fully healed. Without a doubt, being targeted over and over again, even with relatively mild forms of mistreatment, eventually takes a toll.
Likewise, calling all harmful behaviors bullying may also diminish the seriousness of incidents that are much worse than the term conveys. For example, if a student is attacked on the playground in a one-time incident, this is not bullying. Even if the student is physically beaten so severely that she ends up in the hospital for a week, it’s still not bullying. It is an assault, and should be identified and treated as such. If the assault is linked to other behaviors previously or subsequently perpetrated by the aggressor toward the target, then perhaps it is accurate to define the trajectory of events as bullying. In isolation, a one-time act–no matter how serious–is not bullying.
Implications for Schools
Using bullying to describe all variations of student-on-student harm also has consequences for schools. Recently-passed laws in some states require educators to take certain steps once a behavior is classified as bullying. Well-intentioned or not, these laws force schools into following specific and time-consuming procedures. For example, school administrators in New Jersey are required to initiate a formal investigation within one school day of receiving any report of bullying. The school superintendent must be briefed within two school days. The investigation must be completed within ten school days and include a written report of the incident. The results of the investigation must be reported to the school board at its next meeting. All of this is well and good, and schools would love to direct this much attention to any problems as they arise. The challenge is that they simply have not been given adequate resources to accomplish any of this effectively. It would take an army of administrators to follow through on all of these procedures if every rude, annoying, or even hurtful incident were classified as bullying.
Moreover, schools are increasingly being judged by the number of bullying reports received each year. All reports of bullying in New Jersey schools, for example, must be submitted to the state Department of Education who will then “grade each school for the purpose of assessing its effort” to address these problems. As a result, some school administrators might be encouraged to dismiss actual incidents of bullying–if their numbers start to get too high–for fear of being labeled a “bad school.” My question is, if a school shows a high number of bullying reports/interventions, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, it’s nice to know that students are comfortable reporting the bullying and that schools are taking it seriously by documenting and conducting a formal investigation. But at what point do high numbers cause us to be concerned? In fact, I personally would be more uneasy about a school that reported zero bullying incidents than one that reported quite a few.
Alternatives to Calling Everything Bullying
To counter some of these concerns, some have advocated for abolishing the use of the term bullying altogether and instead suggested that terms such as “harassment” or “drama” are more appropriate. Neither of these alternatives really solves any of the previously-described problems. In many legal circles, for instance, harassment is a specific term reserved to refer to mistreatment that is related to one’s protected status (based on sex, race, color, national origin, disability and actual or perceived sexual orientation). If a heterosexual boy posts an embarrassing picture on Instagram of another heterosexual boy, is it harassment? Not by some legal definitions.
And calling all teen disagreements drama also dilutes the problem. To be sure, there is a lot of background noise in schools these days that could be classified as drama. Being upset with your best friend because of some actual or perceived affront is drama. So is refusing to talk to your sister because she ate the last Pop Tart for breakfast. Most of what teens would call drama would not fall under most definitions of bullying. And nor should it. As danah boyd (author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) and Alice Marwick have found in their interviews with youth, “teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something.” Referring to a bullying incident as drama allows the aggressor to neutralize their role in the harm. If everyone does these kinds of things, and if drama is just an everyday part of life for teens, then it isn’t that big of a deal and not worth focusing on.
Bullying is deliberate, repeated harm inflicted by one or more toward another who is unable to effectively defend him or herself. Accidentally hurting someone’s feelings is not bullying. Yes, it sometimes can be difficult to determine the intent of person causing the harm, but repeated hurtful actions, especially after being made aware that what was done was wrong, is a clear indication of intent. Similarly, hurting someone one time in an isolated incident is not bullying, although if there is a threat of repetition, the behavior could qualify. Also, posting something online might be a one-time behavior, but the fact that the content is accessible repeatedly means the victimization is likely to continue. And if the hurtful behaviors do continue, or if a student comes to you to tell you that he is being bullied, then clearly he does not have the ability to defend himself.
Recognizing that not all hurtful behavior is bullying is an important step toward addressing this problem. It becomes maybe slightly more manageable. My criteria offered above are just some issues to consider when trying to differentiate bullying from other behaviors. You might have some ideas of your own, and I encourage you to share them. While we might not come to complete agreement on this, we can work together to prevent and effectively respond to all forms of adolescent interpersonal harm, whether appropriately classified as bullying or not.
Bullies or Best Friends? The Challenge of Interpreting Interpersonal Relationships
The other night I found myself in the proximity of a group of guys who were playing a game together. As they played, they talked: about sports and relationships and game strategy and many other topics that you might imagine would come up among a group of young men. From my eavesdropping it seemed that they were all longtime acquaintances. But it was also evident that there were some major power-dynamics at play within this bunch. One or two members dominated the conversation, while a few others sat back and focused their energy on the game rather than the gossip.
From an outsider’s perspective, much of the interpersonal interactions could easily be characterized as bullying. To be clear, there wasn’t any physical bullying going on, but I witnessed a lot of name calling, degradation, humiliation, and exclusion. Curse words were cast like paint in a Jackson Pollock piece. Bad gameplay was harshly criticized and one or another’s masculinity was regularly challenged based on what was said (or not said) and done (or not done). As a social scientist who explores these behaviors empirically on a daily basis, this represented a Petri dish of the real-world manifestations of bullying that I regularly see in my data.
One of the things I noticed was that while no one was immune from attack, certain targets appeared to be favored. One among the group seemed to be persecuted more than any of the others. He had a way about him that seemed to attract ridicule and reproach. He behaved unconventionally (in the game, and, based on what I overheard, also in the ‘real world’), and was clearly lacking in social competence. I also noticed that the older members of this group seemed to be revered to an extent among the younger ones, and therefore their aggressive behaviors were often mimicked by the younger ones in an attempt to fit in (and perhaps also to avoid becoming browbeaten themselves).
But I have a confession to make. The interactions I have just described can be best characterized as participant observation, rather than purely observational because I was a member of this group and they were all adults. In fact, I use the term “young men” very loosely when referring to those assembled because “thirty-something” me was the youngest of the group. The relationships and interchanges portrayed represented the dynamics not among a group of apathetic adolescents playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, but rather those of mostly white-collar academics in my monthly poker game.
It struck me as I contemplated my terrible cards that night that there is not all that much different between the way we treat our best friends and our worst enemies. Taken out of context, an outside observer would surely have believed that bullying was occurring within our group. The behaviors expressed included all of the classic definitional characteristics: there was repeated, apparently intentional harassment (meanness, cruelty, etc.) carried out by those with perceived or actual power (social status; academic reputation?) against targets in a way that allowed for little defense.
Most of the comments were accompanied by laughter by many in the group, including the one being roasted, which may have masked the maliciousness of the malarkey. But we’ve learned through our conversations with teens who bully that a lot of bullying behaviors are done by young people who think they are just joking around. So I actually found myself wondering, after particularly punishing digs, whether some of the comments made that night might have crossed an imperceptible line. And if this boundary is difficult for adults to identify, how can we expect teens to know when something is taken too far? This is especially challenging because oftentimes targets of ridicule do in fact respond with laughter publicly–in an effort to save face–while privately they are really hurt by what was said.
I also reflected on this as it relates to my research. As academics we like to debate the best way to define bullying. Or at least discuss the limitations of defining it in certain ways. If I were to survey my card-playing colleagues about their experiences with peer abuse by asking them, for example, if anyone has ever “said something mean to them” or “made fun of them in front of others” (two indicators included in the commonly-used Olweus bully/victim questionnaire) they would have to say “yes” just based on how they were treated by their friends that night. But is it accurate to say that they were bullied? Often our research approaches don’t allow us to accurately distinguish between good-natured ribbing and malevolent meanness. As I have argued previously, I don’t believe that bullying can be done unintentionally. Even though someone’s feelings can certainly be hurt without intent, bullying by definition is deliberate. That said, whether hurtful actions qualify as bullying by academic standards or not is beside the point. If we are treating someone in ways that make them uncomfortable, humiliated, excluded, or hurt in any possible way, then we should stop. But how do we know if our comments are being received in that light? And when delivered from a distance, as online comments are, determining impact can be extremely difficult, no matter the age of the sender and receiver.
I doubt that most people would be categorize the behaviors as I have described them as bullying. But are we, and research, able to tell the difference?
Empower Bystanders to Improve School Climate
As technology has allowed bullies to expand the reach and scope of their torment to an ever broader audience, it has also allowed for increasing numbers of others to see and potentially respond. Cruel posts on Facebook or humiliating pictures sent via a cell phone can be viewed by countless individuals, and the question becomes, what does a teen do when he or she sees such behaviors? In our research, we have found that 42 percent of students had witnessed other people being cyberbullied. We suspect this number is a bit lower than expected due to the wording of the question, which reads as though we were interested in experiences that were synchronous: that is, that they saw the cyberbullying as it was happening. In assemblies at schools, we regularly ask students to indicate by a show of hands if they “have seen cyberbullying.” Usually most of the hands go up.
Since adults cannot be everywhere to witness every adolescent problem (especially those that occur online), we should equip youth with the tools necessary to take some action. In fact it is likely that students will see or hear about these problems before adults. So what should teens do if they see technology being used in a harmful way? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, including the nature of the incident, the relationships involved, their expectation of future harassment or violence, and their interpersonal skills. We certainly do not want to put more youth at risk by pressuring them to actively intervene in situations that might not be safe (e.g., standing up to a physically aggressive bully), but we should give students guidance about what they can do. Minimally, it would be helpful for bystanders to carefully document what happened and then take the details to an adult they trust will respond appropriately. A bystander might also take the target aside to tell her that what happened was not cool and he is there and available to help make the problem go away. A student could also organize her friends to condemn the behavior without doing anything directly.
Sometimes it can be difficult for students to stand up to a bully, especially if the person doing the bullying is a friend. One way to address this concern is to encourage students who are put in this situation to respond in a way that is supportive of their friend but not of the behavior. So if someone is laughing about an embarrassing picture or mean-spirited video, students can subtly express their disapproval by not laughing along. A concerned student could also try to change the subject or encourage the friend who is participating in the hurtful behavior to do something else (like download a new app to their phone or explore a new website that is becoming popular).
No doubt many teens are more than capable of intervening on behalf of the victimized — by helping the target, redirecting the bully, or informing an adult who can respond. The problem is that most students don’t tell adults about their experiences or those of other students. Researchers Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon found that less than 20 percent of students who “saw or heard rumor-spreading, exclusion, harassment based on religion, gender, race and sexual orientation or who witnessed kicking or other physically aggressive acts” told an adult about the experience. Our own research similarly has found that teens are reluctant to tell adults about their experiences with cyberbullying. And whose fault is that? If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is primarily ours. If adults consistently, appropriately, and effectively responded to bullying, cyberbullying, or any other adolescent problem behavior, youth would feel more comfortable coming to us with their concerns.
Encouraging students to stand up for one another can complement broader prevention and response efforts and will result in a better climate at school for a number of reasons. First, it reinforces the mind-set among students that they are all members of the same community where everyone is looking out for one another. How can a school claim to have a positive climate if incidents of harassment are ignored, dismissed, or trivialized by students? Second, there is a greater chance that school personnel will adequately address inappropriate behaviors if students who witness such behaviors are emboldened to take action. If students know that any participation in cyberbullying is likely to be met with disapproval from classmates and, ultimately, potential consequences from school administrators or parents, they will hopefully reconsider their involvement in these behaviors.
Finally, we shouldn’t assume that all students will have the skills necessary to move from “standing by” to “standing up.” Instead, we should provide them with opportunities to learn what to do in specific situations. Educators can also use role-playing to help students develop strategies or bring students together in small groups to brainstorm and talk about these and other appropriate response techniques for a variety of situations, before they arise, which can help empower students to do the right thing when the time comes. They can also take advantage of the skills, experiences, and knowledge of older students to educate the younger ones about these issues. Taking some time to equip students with effective response skills will pay dividends in the long run as educators work to prevent bullying and develop a positive school climate.
Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
Image credit: Saad Faruque (Flickr – Creative Commons)
Deterring Teen Bullying: Dos and Don’ts
There’s been a lot of interest lately in passing new bullying and cyberbullying laws. The pressure to pursue these provisions seems to come from the idea that the threat of harsher penalties will deter teens from bullying others. But will they? Deterrence theory is a very popular philosophy within the criminal justice system, and as such serves as the basis for many policies (e.g., mandatory sentences and “three strikes” laws). The basic premise is simple: humans are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of any behavior and will ultimately act in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rational people will therefore be more likely to refrain from deviance when the costs (severe punishment) are increased.
The problem with this perspective is that adolescent brains haven’t yet fully developed to the point where we can assume rationality in the face of unknown or unlikely consequences. Moreover, we often focus too much on formal punishment as a means to compel compliance instead of recognizing other powerful forces that may be even more effective. So what can be done to deter teens from bullying others? Below I offer some basic bullying deterrence dos and don’ts.
DON’T increase formal sanctions. As noted above, a lot of people have been pushing for increased criminal penalties to be leveled against those who participate in bullying. Bills have been passed or proposed in most states (see our summary here) even while legislation has been languishing at the federal level for almost 5 years. New laws that clarify and support the roles of educators in responding to bullying are helpful, but those that seek to further criminalize are not likely to be effective at preventing the behaviors.
As I have stated before, it is unlikely that new criminal laws will result in more teens being deterred from engaging in bullying. Those who were dissuaded before will still be, but the added threat of increased legal punishment isn’t likely to prevent additional people from participating. The problem is that most teens (and many adults for that matter) simply don’t stop to consider the possible costs prior to participating in a behavior (especially possible criminal consequences). They are usually absorbed in the moment and aren’t thinking about what could happen if they are caught. Plus, the odds are that they won’t be caught (or significantly punished).
DON’T enact zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require school administrators to apply a specific, generally severe sanction (often suspension or even expulsion) to a student who is found to have participated in some proscribed behavior. These policies were most often originally focused on curbing weapon and drug possession at school, but in recent years they have been expanded to include other forms of violence and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, “zero tolerance” is a fine idea in theory. Educators do want to clearly communicate that they have zero tolerance for weapons or drugs or bullying in their schools and that those who violate this standard are certain to be punished. The problem is that these policies, by definition, do not allow educators to use their discretion to handle situations outside the letter of the policy. Bullying is largely a relationship problem, and educators, working with parents, need to use their knowledge of the situation to apply a reasonable sanction that is more uniquely designed to address the particular problem at hand. One-size-fits-all responses frequently fall short in issues involving teens.
DON’T utilize public shaming. Shame is a powerful force that can be used to encourage conformity and compliance. But when misused, it can result in the exact opposite response. Historically, societies have used shame to induce guilt among those who behave in ways that are counter to societal norms. Shaming can also have the unintended side effect of severing the emotional bond between the person(s) doing the shaming and the one being shamed.
Australian criminologist John Braithwaite argues that there are two types of shaming: disintegrative (or stigmatizing) and reintegrative. Disintegrative shaming results when society identifies a person as deviant, and figuratively (or even literally) expels that person from the conforming group. Reintegrative shaming occurs when society condemns the behavior, but not the person. In this case we avoid labeling someone “a bully” but instead refer to the specific bullying behaviors that need to stop. It is not the child we are convicting, but their behavior. Even when done with the best intentions in mind, public shaming is too risky when applied to adolescents whose self-esteem is generally under-developed and fragile.
There have been quite a few recent examples of parents (or educators – see this) publicly shaming their kids to send them (and others) a message about the wrongfulness of their behavior. This approach is misplaced. In my view, parents who publicly shame their kids are doing so primarily because they themselves felt publicly humiliated by the actions of their children and so they feel the need to prove that they are “good” parents by punishing in a public way. While this might seem like a creative method to address the behavior, I believe it could do more harm than good. The importance of the parent-child emotional bond cannot be overstressed, and permanent damage could be done. Praise publicly, punish privately.
DO give students a stake in conformity. The threat of punishment only works if someone has something of value in their life that they would put at risk of losing if punished. For example, earning a bad grade only hurts if a student cares about good grades or is aiming for college or a scholarship. After-school detention is most powerful when a student has something else they really like to do after school that they would miss out on (such as an extra-curricular activity). Taking this a step further, if a man is unemployed, homeless, and broke, the threat of brief incarceration isn’t really enough to stop him from misbehaving. At least in jail he will be given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. As Bob Dylan famously sang, “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The best thing we can do for students to deter them from mistreating others is to get them involved in prosocial activities that they really enjoy so that the threat of school sanction or parental punishment holds weight.
Moreover, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be serious to have an effect. For instance, at least as of right now, I have a perfectly clean driving record. I have never been pulled over for any moving violation in over 20 years of driving [knocks on wood]. As much as the threat of receiving a modest monetary fine deters me from speeding, my desire to keep my record unblemished is an even stronger incentive, at least for me.
DO connect and interact. Another reason many people refrain from misbehavior is because they don’t want to disappoint the people in their lives that they care about. Prevention is all about relationships. Inasmuch as many teens are not deterred by the threat of formal punishment, they are dissuaded from participation in behaviors that they know their friends, parents, or other valued adults would frown upon. When teens are emotionally attached or socially bonded to others, they internalize their norms and values and do not want to disappoint them by behaving in a way that is contradictory to those principles.
The concept of virtual supervision demonstrates that kids will behave in ways that are consistent with adults they value and respect, even when those valued others are not directly supervising them. For example, if I really value my relationship with my mom, and I know that she would be disappointed in me if she knew that I bullied someone, then I am less likely to bully others, even in situations where she is not present because I am considering how mom might feel if she found out about my behavior. Of course this only works if I have a really great relationship with mom and don’t want to damage that relationship by disappointing her. So the key is developing strong relationships with kids.
And this powerful effect can also work with others who work with young people (educators, church leaders, and law enforcement officers, to name a few). As an example, one time when I was in high school, I drove my ATV across town to some community event. Several minutes after I got there, one of the local police officers arrived and immediately started chewing me out for driving too fast on the city streets. He was yelling at me, saying that after he saw me he had gone to my house and was waiting for me and was going to give me a speeding ticket! For the record, I really didn’t think I was going that fast. But nonetheless, I was devastated. I was embarrassed and upset that I had disappointed him – not just because he was a police officer, or that he was threatening to give me a ticket, but because he had been my hockey coach the year prior and I had a great relationship with him. I felt terrible. In the end, he didn’t give me a ticket, but from then on I drove very slowly when navigating the city streets on my ATV.
It was a very powerful experience that others can learn from. Take the time to develop a positive relationship with your kids and students. For decades we have known the power of spending just a bit of regular time with students (e.g., 2 minutes a day for 10 days in a row). Learn their names. Give them high-fives as they come off the bus. Show them that you care – because we know you do. It can make all the difference.
DO develop a positive school climate. A positive school climate is one that stimulates and encourages respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. Research consistently demonstrates that the more positive the climate of the school is, the fewer problems there are with bullying (and cyberbullying). A sense of collective concern is cultivated where students just seem to look out for each other more and believe that the adults in the school are genuinely there to help.
Since schools with better climates overall have fewer bullying incidents, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges where bullying is something that just doesn’t happen here. If it does, it is addressed and stopped immediately. Students see that and are less inclined to resort to bullying in cases of conflict.
Deterring detrimental behaviors in a society requires more than just passing a new law or cranking up the consequences in existing laws. Considerate understanding of the needs and desires of teens will help us to design an incentive structure that is more likely to be effective. The simple fact is that some teens will not be deterred in their behaviors by the threat of any formal, criminal punishment, no matter how severe it may be. But these same youth could be prevented from bullying others if they have caring relationships with others or are involved in activities that they value.
Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case
The independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today. I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment. I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.
The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:
“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”
The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.
Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues. One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied. Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need. Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond. And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.
We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion. We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out. But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.
Cultivate empathy. Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.
Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive. Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.
Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.
Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way. There often is no right way. People should be allowed to be people. People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.
What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another. Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them. This does not make them soft or weak. Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.
Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.
The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true. Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.
If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.
Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down. They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.
Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.
Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them. Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.
Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).
Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.
Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.
These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them. Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad. The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future. When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance. So start now – it’s totally worth it.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.
Law Enforcement Involvement in Bullying Incidents: Different Rules and Roles
Last week I posted about a situation where a student was suspended for his involvement in a fight in which video evidence showed that he did not participate in a way that warranted the punishment. In fact, from all available evidence, he did exactly the right thing to do: he walked away. Another aspect of that case that generated public scorn was the reported unprofessional treatment that the student received from the police officer assigned to the school. The student was evidently told by the officer that he should “bulk up” as a way to avoid being pushed around in the future. This got me to thinking a bit about the role of law enforcement officers in the schools.
Recent data are hard to come by, but thousands of officers work in schools every day across the United States. They are mostly responsible for the safety and security of the students, staff, and visitors, but often are utilized in a variety of other roles – some of which they are inadequately prepared for. For example, school-based law enforcement officers are occasionally called upon to provide instruction in the classroom (especially using pre-packaged drug or violence prevention curricula) yet they rarely receive formal training on how to teach effectively. Moreover, officers are regularly brought in to investigate or even mediate peer conflict, yet many are not well-trained in dealing with bullying incidents (or even in working with kids generally). Over eighty percent of the school-based officers we surveyed back in 2010 said that they needed more training on how to deal with cyberbullying. So what can cops contribute to the well-being of students and staff at school?
Law Enforcement Presence in Schools: SRO vs. Ad Hoc Model
Schools that have a dedicated school resource officer (SRO) assigned to their building are at an advantage when it comes to dealing with student issues that may implicate law enforcement. These officers generally have more training and experience in dealing with students and schools and their unique issues than their counterparts assigned to traditional patrol functions. Since SROs are in the schools on a continual basis, they are usually more attuned to student interpersonal relationships and the concerns of educators. The best officers know the students personally, and interact with them in a relatable way. As a result, students come to respect the police and better understand that they do more than, say, show up at their house when there is a domestic disturbance or issue them a citation for driving 5 miles-per-hour over the speed limit.
Unfortunately, this model has been disappearing in many schools across the country as both school and municipal budgets have contracted. Historically, SROs were often funded through a combination of money from schools and cities or counties, but when one partner pulls the financial plug, the other rarely has the resources to make up the difference and the position is usually lost. As a result, police are often called to the school only in situations where a significant (and possibly criminal) incident has occurred. Sometimes it is the same officer that responds throughout the school year, but often the call will be directed to whoever is on duty and in the area at the time. Having a consistent contact is important from a procedural standpoint (making sure the officer is aware of the issues related to schools and students), but it also helps to have a familiar face – both from the perspective of the staff and students.
Different Roles and Responsibilities
When it comes to responding to bullying (or any incident, really), school administrators and law enforcement officers play different yet complementing roles. Usually law enforcement is only pulled into the discussion when an incident appears to rise to the level of a violation of criminal law. Assaults or serious substantiated threats of violence would be the most common examples where the police should be brought in. Law enforcement can also assist in investigating incidents. They often have more training in interviewing and evidence collection, and would be able to evaluate the evidence to determine if a crime has been committed. That said, schools should be careful when including law enforcement officers in an interview because it changes the dynamic considerably. Having an officer stand over the shoulder of the principal while he or she is asking the student about school behaviors is intimidating under any circumstance, but especially so if the officer is not one who is regularly seen in the school.
Technically speaking, when an administrator is investigating an incident, they are doing so as a representative of the school, for possible school discipline. If the police are involved (whether it is a SRO or other officer), the investigation may become one where the focus is on uncovering evidence of a crime for possible criminal punishment. When that happens, the procedural rules change. For instance, when a school official is interviewing a student or searching his or her property, they typically only need a reasonable belief that the student has engaged in, or possesses evidence of, a behavior that violates school policy. Very few constitutional protections are afforded to students in these cases because the school is acting in loco parentis (in place of parents) and not as a government official for the purpose of formal punishment. When the police are involved in investigating a crime, citizens (including minors) do have certain rights.
In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, prior to “custodial interrogations,” law enforcement officers must inform individuals who are suspected of committing a crime that they have specific rights. We’ve all heard this statement before on crime shows: “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…You have the right to an attorney…If you can’t afford one, one will be provided…” etc. This standard also generally applies when officers are interviewing minors in the community, but the question was recently raised in the Kentucky Supreme Court about whether students should be informed of their rights when being questioned by an officer at school, or by a school administrator in the presence of an officer (see also J.D.B. v North Carolina).
The Kentucky Supreme Court re-affirmed the ability of school officials to interview students for the purpose of a possible school sanction without being required to inform them of their rights, but ruled that in circumstances where a police officer is involved and criminal charges are possible, Miranda warnings are required. This deviates from some previous interpretations which basically held that if a law enforcement officer was assisting in a school investigation, the officer was beholden to the rules that applied to school officials. No doubt this issue is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for clarification.
I have also previously written quite a bit on the different issues associated with whether an educator or a law enforcement officer can search the contents of a student cell phone. New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) states that students are protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. In T.L.O., the Supreme Court also made it clear that the standard that law enforcement officers must reach to conduct a search (probable cause that a crime has been committed), is not required of educators. The standard applied to school officials is whether the search is “justified at its inception and reasonable in scope.” Of course there is a bit of subjectivity to this standard and what appears to be reasonable for one person may not be for another. In T.L.O., the Court ruled that for a search of student property to be justified, there must exist: “reasonable grounds for believing that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.”
These are just some of the issues, and as you can probably tell, many of the important questions have not been fully settled. Overall, officers and educators need to use their judgment about situations that might benefit from, or necessitate, law enforcement involvement. As long as there is no immediate threat of harm, it is usually best for school administrators to interview students involved in misbehavior without a law enforcement officer present. Under these circumstances they have a lot more freedom and leeway to gather the necessary information. As soon as the administrator reaches the conclusion that a crime may have been committed, he or she should turn the investigation over to the police. It is recommended that administrators have open lines of communication with local law enforcement officers (and especially SROs) so that both can respond quickly and effectively when confronted with a problem.
Coordinated Community Response
A well-trained and experienced SRO will be an asset in any school, and most administrators would (or at least should) welcome them with open arms. I have seen many amazing SROs work their magic in schools – improving safety and crisis response efforts, yes, but also by enhancing police-community relations and improving the overall culture of the school and broader community. The evidence concerning the effectiveness of SROs varies considerably (see this and this and this, for examples), which isn’t surprising given the diversity of personalities employed in these positions, and the varying ways in which SROs are utilized in schools. As is frequently the case, the conclusion I reach is that more solid research is necessary.
As a criminologist who teaches future cops, I know that the majority of law enforcement officers would approach any assignment with integrity and professionalism. Some are cut out to work in schools, while others are not. The duds need to be pulled out because they are doing more harm than good. From the available evidence, the officer in the video referenced above isn’t a good fit for a school and should be reassigned. If administrators and SROs work together for the common purpose of helping students (along with parents, of course), then great things can happen. There are a lot of ways this can fail, but usually it doesn’t. The high profile anomalies will end up on the nightly news, on YouTube, or in a courtroom. But we shouldn’t base our opinions on these worst cases and instead focus on what can be done to improve the response efforts of all involved.
If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of the issues, check out chapter 10 of our book “Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives” which covers “School Law Enforcement and Cyberbullying.”
Image credit: Gazzette
Video Evidence of Bullying: Implications for Effective Response
A new video has surfaced showing a bullying incident in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The video shows 14-year-old high school freshman Kobe Nelson being pushed around by a classmate while a throng of onlookers heckle and encourage the two to fight. Several of the students can be seen recording the situation on their cell phones. It appears from the video that Kobe is simply trying to walk away, but the aggressor keeps pulling him back into the fray. Eventually Kobe is able to escape, but is later contacted by a police officer assigned to the school who inquires about the fight. He was taken to the office where he was informed that he was being suspended for two days for fighting. Presumably the other student involved was also suspended, but his sanction has not been discussed publicly.
There is sadly nothing all that special or unique about this kind of incident – fights happen in schools every day, and near-misses like this are without a doubt even more frequent. According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 12% of high school students had been involved in a fight at school in 2011. Overall, these numbers have been dropping since the mid-1990s, but still remain at levels of concern. There are no data available that quantifies the number of times students walk away, as Kobe did on that day.
Kobe protested his suspension, arguing that he didn’t do anything wrong. When his father, Tommy Purvis, learned about the video and watched it, it was clear that Kobe’s description of the incident was accurate – he didn’t do anything wrong. Mr. Purvis approached school officials with the video but they reportedly refused to watch it, saying that they already knew what had happened. The police officer assigned to the high school also apparently mocked Kobe, telling him that he should “bulk up” so he wouldn’t make for such an easy target. Perhaps this was an ill-conceived attempt by the officer to lighten things up. But flippant responses like this help explain why less than 30% of the students in our most recent survey (October, 2013) told an adult about their experience with bullying. Being dissatisfied with the school and law enforcement response, Mr. Purvis and his son went public with the incident by posting the story, and video, online.
The Power of Video Evidence
Video has always served as valuable evidence to enable investigators to see exactly the extent of one’s involvement in a criminal incident. Remember back in 2008 when several girls lured 16-year-old Victoria Lindsay into one of their homes for the purpose of beating her up? The motive for the assault seemed to have been linked to some trash-talking Victoria was doing on MySpace. The assault was premeditated for the purpose of teaching her a lesson and was deliberately perpetrated in front of several cell phone cameras so that the incident could be posted on MySpace and YouTube. Several girls were charged criminally and the chief offender, 17-year-old Brittini Hardcastle, served 15 days in jail. The assault was immortalized online and in a 2011 Lifetime movie. There are no shortage of similar squabbles that went viral. Publicity abounds when cruelty is captured in its raw and unedited form. Indeed, one wonders if Rodney King would be a household name today if not for the video that emerged of his beating.
With this in mind, should we encourage bystanders to record incidents of bullying when they witness it so that adults charged with investigating can see exactly what happened? We already encourage students to keep all evidence of cyberbullying, and so reminding and allowing them to document face-to-face incidents like this can help adults sort through the details of what happened so that offending parties can be held accountable. Of course, this could be abused. There is a big difference between the teen who gleefully records an incident for the purpose of later public posting and ridicule, and the teen who quietly gathers evidence to take to the authorities. The latter might be appropriate while the former most certainly is not (and may warrant punishment in its own right).
It is important to remember, too, that video recordings often only capture a snippet of a larger incident. In Kobe’s video, we see less than 90 seconds of the interaction and have no idea what Kobe might have said or done to possibly instigate the altercation. There are always multiple sides to any story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more details emerged in this case. That said, one can only examine the evidence that is available, and video should always be used in combination with eyewitness interviews to put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.
I worry, however, that had it not been for the video evidence, Kobe would have had a harder time substantiating the facts of the incident. Sure, maybe a few of his friends would have stepped up and offered support for his version of the events, but no doubt other observers would have contradicted those and the school would have been forced to default to offsetting penalties (punishment for both). And what kind of message does that send?
With Cyberbullying, There Is Always Evidence
One of the defining characteristics of cyberbullying is that there is always evidence. Whether it is a text message, Facebook post, Instagram picture, tweet, or video, it is important to continually remind those who are being targeted to preserve that evidence. With face-to-face bullying it is often one person’s word against another. Digital evidence helps to clarify who said what and when.
I was talking with a school resource officer in Wisconsin last spring about an incident where a student came up to him after school and said she was receiving mean text messages. The officer asked the student to bring in a copy of the messages for him to review. The next day this student brought a printed-out copy of the messages, which included over two pages of content. The problem was that just about every other message had been blocked out with a black Sharpie. When the officer questioned the student about the redacted messages, the student responded “Well…those are my texts to her, and those aren’t important.” Of course they are important! Adults who investigate bullying incidents need to be able to see all of the information surrounding the incident, so they can respond appropriately given all of the available facts.
School and law enforcement officials need to thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying so that those responsible can be properly disciplined. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds. First of all, many law enforcement officers lack good training on how to handle bullying (especially cyberbullying). And even though school administrators are generally much better at handling these kinds of incidents, they are stretched so thin with declining budgets and increasing mandated responsibilities that they often do not have enough time to adequately investigate these reports. So they triage them as best they can, but sometimes mistakes are made. Ultimately, it is up to everyone who witnesses bullying incidents to step up and report what they saw so that the correct and appropriate action can be taken.
Bystander Intervention in Bullying Incidents: A Misguided Experiment
A video has been making its rounds lately showing two young men engaged in a social experiment of sorts. The video shows one hounding, harassing, pushing, punching, and threatening the other because the target apparently failed to do the “bully’s” homework. The two play out this interaction over and over again directly in front of various people at various locations on a university campus, presumably to see who would intervene, and how. To their surprise, most of the onlookers simply ignore or walk away from the “incident.” They just seem to not want to get involved. The actors are critical of this and actually confront several of them afterwards to try to get an explanation. But, my question is: should we have expected anything different?
Many of those who’ve discussed the video on social media, or posted comments on the YouTube video itself, applaud the efforts of these two for apparently exposing a serious problem: people just don’t care. If people genuinely cared, it is reasoned, then they would intervene when they saw bullying happening and it would stop. But this perspective leaves me shaking my head and saying to myself “if only it were that easy.” I have mixed feelings about this little experiment and its potential consequences, and it seems valuable to discuss them here.
Is This Experience Representative?
One of my concerns about this particular approach is that I don’t feel that the situation depicted is realistic. When it comes to bullying overall, there is a lot that happens that doesn’t look like what we see in the video. In fact, I would argue that this is the least likely of possibilities. What is portrayed is very stereotypical (you’ve got a physically more aggressive dude with a backwards hat pushing around a seemingly weaker and wimpier—and smarter?—target). Sure, some young people are bullied like this, but I doubt this scenario represents the norm. It’s true that bullying frequently happens right in front of us. But most often it is a lot more subtle than what is being portrayed in these scenes. It is unlikely, for example, that two strangers are just going to suddenly appear in front of you in the midst of such a blatant physical altercation like what we see.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of research out there when it comes to bullying among university students, so it is hard to know exactly how prevalent the problem is and what the typical experience looks like. Even so, I doubt that very much of it looks like this: direct physical bullying perpetrated right in front of a stranger in a common area. I’ve been connected to colleges for over half of my life and I have never seen, nor even heard about, situations like this happening. I don’t question that it does happen, but is it really helpful to use a statistically rare incident as an indicator for general response?
What Would You Do?
It’s so easy to watch a video like this and exclaim with passion and confidence that if you were to confront such a situation you would most definitely do something! If we ask people whether they would intervene if they saw someone who was being mistreated, I imagine many would say that they would. But would they really? I mean, it is very easy to envision heroic intervention in times of chaos or tragedy, but it is wholly another thing to actually do it.
Back in November of 2000, Sameer and I were attending an academic conference in San Francisco. At the completion of one of the day’s presentations, we left the conference center and began our mile or so walk to our hotel on the other side of the city when we came upon two individuals fighting in the street. One was flailing punches while the other had his adversary firmly by the hair. For some reason, I instinctively and immediately stepped in to separate them. They were both complete strangers to me but I jumped right in. I didn’t recall what Sameer did while I was trying to break up the melee, but when we talked about this video and remembered and reflected on the incident in San Francisco, he admitted to me that he just froze and felt paralyzed. In hindsight, my interjection was probably foolish: who knows what I was possibly getting myself into! The whole incident lasted less than a minute, and I seriously question whether I would act similarly if put into the same situation today. I think I would, but a person never really knows until actually faced with the situation.
The Bystander Effect
Some might interpret the failure to act as a function of the “bystander effect.” The theory behind this idea is that oftentimes even good and caring people refuse to take action when confronted with someone in need of help. Perhaps they don’t think it is any of their business, or maybe they think others will step in. Maybe they feel it isn’t their place to intervene and behave differently from the social group around them, which gets them to think “no one else is doing anything, why should I?”
The bystander effect was made famous in the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, who was 28-years-old when she was stabbed to death outside her home in New York City on March 13, 1964. There is nothing exceptional about a New York City murder (there were 635 other homicides in the city in that year), but what shocked the conscience of most people was that the murder was reported to have happened largely in plain sight (even though it occurred at 2:00am) with over three-dozen witnesses but little intervention by any of the onlookers. According to a newspaper story: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Some question the facts as reported in this case (see especially Levitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics), but nevertheless, a bystander effect has been well documented in the literature. People just don’t typically leap into action in these kinds of situations.
That said, the bystander effect doesn’t really apply in the cases observed in the video since in most of the situations the bystander was alone, not in a group. The bystander effect usually only applies when a person within a larger group refrains from taking action. In the video, the persons being tested are mostly by themselves. So something else has to be causing the inaction.
I don’t believe that the majority of people failed to act because they were apathetic or uncaring. They were just as likely legitimately afraid for their own safety. Furthermore, we don’t know how many of the people who were leaving the area would have contacted the authorities or taken some other action to resolve the situation once they were in a safe place. I did notice a general theme that most of the bystanders in the video were seemingly mild-mannered and not very physically intimidating (except for one guy that seems to come out of nowhere when he hears the ruckus). Were these particular individuals targeted for this because they were the least likely to respond (especially physically)?
It’s Good to Have Options
In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to compel someone to intervene in a physical bullying incident. If the person feels physically and socially capable, then by all means he or she should. But the truth is that many just don’t. It is true that most who witness bullying do want to do something. So we believe it is crucial to equip teens with a variety of tools they can use should they confront a situation like this.
It is important to remember that, unlike the scenario depicted in the video, most teen bullying happens between, and in view of, people who are known. That is, typically witnesses to bullying either know the one doing the bullying, or the one being targeted, or both. If they are not comfortable stepping in at the moment when it occurs, they still have other options for responding:
– tell an adult that they trust will take appropriate action,
– talk to the one who was being bullied after the fact and offer support,
– anonymously report the incident, and persons involved, to their school,
– report cyberbullying to the website it appears on,
– enlist friends to help resolve the conflict, or
– choose another response that does not place themselves at risk for harm.
Without question, we need to do more to equip and empower teens who witness bullying to do something to help (see Chapter 4 of our new book Words Wound, entitled “Start Standing Up, Not Standing By”) . Expecting that they intervene when they see a physical altercation involving complete strangers, though, might not be the best idea for most young people under most circumstances.
Finally, I am concerned that the popularity of this video may lead to unintended consequences. For example, others may be inclined to pursue similar “experiments” with the hope that their video will go viral. This video has been viewed over 3 million times in just a couple of weeks and teens have been known to do whatever it takes to get noticed. What happens if one of the witnesses intervenes with violence before the performers have a chance to let them know it’s just an act? What if someone has a weapon? Plus, teens may target others for harassment, and – if caught – simply point to their friend in the bushes recording the whole thing, and exclaim “it was only an experiment!” I’m sure some opportunistic tormenter will attempt to use something like this as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
I also fear this video might be viewed by some who are being bullied as further confirmation that no one out there really cares about them or is willing to help. While dramatic, maybe it’s even reasonable to conclude that we are all pretty much alone in the world, given the repeated failures of people to intervene on behalf of others, even when they see victimization occur directly in front of them. I am thinking in particular about a teen who is bullied in a more hidden or indirect way, and struggles to explain his or her experiences to a parent or teacher. If a person who directly observes bullying right in front of them doesn’t think it deserves a response, what hope does the teen who suffers in silence have?
Can Someone be an Unintentional Bully?
Defining bullying is a tricky thing. And technology just adds another complicated layer to the whole situation. I mean, we know it when we see it, and at the extreme end it’s easy to identify: the repeated threats, multiple humiliating posts, and numerous hurtful texts most likely qualify. But what about that mildly inappropriate joke directed at no one in particular? Or the post that reads “I’m going to kill you. jk. LOL.”? Everyone seems to have a slightly different perspective when it comes to whether or not to categorize a particular experience as bullying.
Officially, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” Researchers like Sameer and I like to sit around for hours discussing the different ways to define and measure something empirically, so we freely admit that ours is an imperfect definition. For example, if I take out my cell phone and start bashing you over the head with it, is it cyberbullying? Well, it is willful, repeated harm using a cell phone. But those aren’t the kinds of behaviors we are talking about. With cyberbullying, we are referring to incidents where someone uses technology, primarily computers or cell phones, to harass, threaten, humiliate, or otherwise hassle someone else repeatedly over time. Also included in our definition is the concept of purposiveness. To be considered bullying, in our opinion, the behavior in question must be “willful,” that is, deliberately or intentionally done or said to cause harm.
Most of the commonly-accepted definitions of bullying include an element of intent. Scandinavian researcher Dan Olweus, who is arguably most responsible for the current academic interest in the topic, defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.” The Minnesota Department of Education states that “definitions of bullying vary, but most agree that bullying includes the intent to harm, repetition, and a power imbalance between the student targeted and the student who bullies.” Finally, Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” While this definition doesn’t explicitly include intent, one could interpret “aggressive” to mean that the behavior in question was not unintentional.
In addition, many state bullying laws refer to intentional behaviors. Delaware law characterizes bullying as an “…intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act.” Louisiana defines cyberbullying as “the transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person.” Indeed, intent is a fundamental component of criminal law generally. In order to hold someone criminally responsible, not only must we establish that the person engaged in a wrongful act, but that he or she did so with “mens rea,” that is, a guilty mind. When it comes to law there are always exceptions, and we believe that the vast majority of bullying incidents can and should be handled outside of the formal law. The point is that most academic and legal definitions of bullying include intent. But does that mean the element is necessary?
Parenting advocate Sue Scheff recently wrote about “accidental” bullying and cyberbullying for the Huffington Post. She describes incidents where teens say things to others, usually online, that aren’t intended to be hurtful, but are experienced as such. “Even though it wasn’t your objective, your words can be taken out of context by others when they’re read and regurgitated, amplifying your digital footprint.” This can happen offline as well, of course, but technology certainly does more easily obscure actual intent. Many of us know from experience that it often leads to more frequent misunderstandings as communication occurs without important facial expressions, vocal intonations, or other interpretive behavioral cues that provide color and context to what is conveyed.
Scheff credits Katie Greer for first alerting her to these types of behaviors. In Scheff’s article, Greer explains accidental bullying in this way: “Oftentimes, kids described trying to be nice or positive to one friend or cause via various social networking sites, and unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, or leaving someone out in the process.” I agree that it is common for teens to say things to classmates or even to their best friends, without malice or intent to cause harm, but yet the comments are misinterpreted or otherwise result in harm. But is this bullying?
The concept of an accidental bully is not new. Internet lawyer Parry Aftab has included the “inadvertent cyberbully” in her taxonomy for years (since at least 2006). “They do it for the fun of it. They may also do it to one of their friends, joking around. But their friend may not recognize that it is another friend or make take it seriously.” According to Aftab, inadvertent cyberbullies “don’t lash out intentionally,” which is curious because she defines cyberbullying as “when a minor uses technology as a weapon to intentionally target and hurt another minor” (emphasis added). Like Greer, Aftab describes a situation where teens do or say something to be funny or even helpful, but it is misinterpreted or, for one reason or another, results in hurt feelings.
Greer offers an example in which the friends of a teen girl set up an online profile on Instagram where people are asked to comment/vote for the prettiest girl among four shown. The idea is to show their friend that she is very pretty. The profile creators stuff the virtual ballot box so that their friend emerges victorious, not realizing that by doing so the other three girls involved in the vote have had their feelings hurt (because, after all, they aren’t the prettiest). Were the less-pretty girls in this example bullied? If the teens who created the site genuinely and honestly did not do so to cause harm to the girls who did not win, then I do not believe it is accurate to classify the incident as bullying.
Of course, the key to this is determining intent. It is possible that the girls responsible in Greer’s example could have intended all along to take particular classmates down a notch by setting it up so they would emerge as losers. Or rig the vote in a way that one specific girl received significantly fewer votes than all of the rest, thereby securing her spot as the “least prettiest.” It would be correct to classify those cases as bullying, though definitely not accidental. But if the girls are sincere and authentic in stating that they really didn’t mean to cause harm to those who were not voted the prettiest, then it isn’t bullying. It should not be ignored, however, and the girls responsible should be informed about the unintended consequences of their actions so that they will refrain from similar behaviors in the future. Hopefully that will be the end of the issue. If not, then subsequent intervention would be necessary.
Context is Important
Because it is impossible to know for certain what was going on in the mind of a teen when he or she behaved in a particular way, it is important to gather as much information as possible with which to determine whether or not the behavior in question could have been intentional. For example, is this the first time the particular student has been accused of bullying? Have there been behavioral problems with the student in the past? Were the students involved previously friends? Was there a falling out? Did anyone else (other students or staff) notice previous problems between the students?
Of course we need to keep in mind that just because a teen has never misbehaved in the past, doesn’t mean they didn’t do so deliberately this time. And former friends often mistreat each other, especially if there was a recent issue that led to the breakup. The problematic behavior itself is only one piece of the puzzle. The more information you are able to gather about the nature of the relationships among all involved, the easier it will be to figure out what happened and why.
Why it Matters
For years I deliberately remained on the sideline when it came to debates like this. For me, whether some behavior was bullying or not was really beside the point. I advocated for identifying and focusing on the specific problematic behavior and addressing it reasonably and appropriately for what it was. Unfortunately, this is no longer an option as some states have passed laws that mandate specific actions when it comes to behaviors defined as bullying.
For example, New Jersey law requires principals to investigate every incident of bullying within one school day, and complete a formal report within 10 days that must be submitted to the superintendent within 2 days of completion. Results of the investigation must be presented to the school board at the next regularly scheduled meeting. Students in Georgia who are found to have bullied others for a third time are sent to an alternative school. Furthermore, labeling a particular behavior as bullying can inflame a situation – especially if the label is being misapplied. So it has become imperative to clearly articulate what is meant by bullying.
I don’t expect to resolve this decades-long definitional debate here today, but do hope to encourage researchers, policymakers, legislators, educators and others who are charged with putting students in particular categories (e.g., “the bully”) to think carefully about the criteria they use to make these decisions. Defining a person’s behavior as bullying, or labeling someone “a bully” can set that person on a particular trajectory, and we best not do it capriciously or haphazardly.
Holding Parents Responsible for Their Child’s Bullying
Without a doubt, parents have a duty to do their part to ensure that their kids do not bully others. They need to regularly remind their kids about the importance of treating others the way they would want to be treated. They should talk about how some things we might do or say to someone that seem funny at the time are actually pretty hurtful. When it comes to preventing cyberbullying, parents need to regularly check in on the online behaviors of their kids. Problematic behaviors need to be addressed with reasonable and appropriate discipline. In general, parents need to instill in their children an ethic that includes respecting others and always acting and interacting with integrity, whether online or off. And they can do that in a caring and authoritative manner that encourages emotional connectedness yet demands respect and accountability. Indeed, research has shown a positive parent-child relationship makes it less likely that youth will engage in bullying behaviors as they do not want to risk damaging the valued bond.
But if parents fail to take these steps and their child bullies others, should the parents themselves be held criminally responsible?
Latest Attempt at Accountability
An ordinance approved last month by the Monona, Wisconsin, Common Council allows parents of children who bully to be fined $114. The city appears to be the first in the country to pass such a measure. The Council also amended its ordinances to incorporate existing state criminal statutes that prohibit disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a telephone or computerized communication systems, and harassment. All of this sends a clear message to citizens that harassment in all of its forms is not welcome within the city limits.
Last fall I wrote about a growing movement among municipalities to criminalize cyberbullying locally by enacting ordinances. As occurred in Monona, many times city ordinances simply mirror existing state laws. As I wrote back then, there are a few reasons for why this move might make sense. It allows a city attorney to pursue charges against an individual even when the county-level district attorney is unwilling. It also allows for the cases to be handled in a municipal court (which Monona does have–many cities do not), rather than the state circuit court system. This has the added effect (for better or worse) of shielding violators from the public shame of being eternally listed on Wisconsin’s Consolidated Court Automation Program website (CCAP) for all to see.
History and Theory Behind Parental Liability Laws
Parental liability laws hold parents accountable, and financially liable, for the behavior of their children when it is deemed that the parents were negligent in their obligation to provide proper parental care and supervision. In theory, these laws make a lot of sense: the idea is to compel parents to make sure their kids aren’t behaving in a reckless or delinquent manner. School law states that educators can be held liable for damages when they are found to have been deliberately indifferent to harassment that happens at schools. Maybe it is appropriate to hold parents to the same standard. Parents who are not adequately “parenting” ought to be punished right along with their kids, right? Well, in practice it is much more complicated than that.
States have long had various laws on the books that can be used to hold adults responsible for the actions of youth (for a detailed history, see this article). In 1903, Colorado was the first state to make it a crime to “contribute to the delinquency of a minor.” California law generally requires parents to “exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over their children.” Parents who fail in this mandate could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail. Massachusetts law states that “a parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent his minor child from inflicting injury, intentionally or negligently, on others.” In fact, some have suggested that parental responsibility laws can be traced back to 1646 when Massachusetts enacted its Stubborn Child Law which noted that parents can be fined if their child is caught stealing. Of course the same law also proclaimed that “stubborn and rebellious” sons who do not obey their parents “shall be put to death.”
Other Possible Causes of, and Solutions to, the Problem
A number of years ago I was involved in evaluating a truancy reduction initiative in three elementary schools in Michigan. One element of the program was to hold parents accountable if their elementary-aged children did not attend school. For students younger than 12-years-old whose parents did not cooperate with school officials, a warrant was sought for parental prosecution under the state’s compulsory attendance law. The key phrase here was that the parents targeted were uncooperative (and indignant). Only 3 parents out of the nearly 300 families involved in the program fell into this category. Most were just looking for help to address a relatively simple problem that contributed to the absenteeism, like providing an alarm clock or transportation to school.
I think the same can be said when it comes to bullying. Most often when parents learn about the bullying behaviors of their children they will take the necessary steps to ensure that such behaviors do not continue. In some cases they just don’t know what to do and with a little guidance they will be fine. (For recommendations on how to respond to cyberbullying, see our suggestions.) In very rare cases, a few parents simply do not recognize the bullying behavior of their children as hurtful, or worse they may even encourage it. Or parents completely ignore what their kids are doing online, even after being made aware of possible problems. Presumably, these are the types of parents that parental responsibility laws are directed toward.
One problem I see with this approach is that it is also likely to have a result that is opposite of that which was intended. We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is integral in preventing a whole host of inappropriate behaviors. The concern is that threatening to punish a parent for the behavior of the child may serve to further weaken this relationship. Parent and child are pitted against one another when the child misbehaves: “Because of what you did I have to pay $114!” Furthermore, anyone who has a child of their own or who has worked with youth in a professional capacity (I fall in both camps) knows that even the best-intentioned guardian can run into an obstinate child who refuses to follow any instructions. It would be inappropriate to hold parents responsible in situations where it is clear that the parent is doing everything they can to try to remedy the behavior. These laws are really intended to handle the opposite – when parents are doing very little to respond. And again, I feel like this happens very rarely.
Unfortunately there has not been any evaluation research done to assess the effectiveness of parental liability statutes so we really do not know what kind of effect they will have. Dr. Eve Brank, who is a professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, has studied parental responsibility laws in depth and told me “it’s impossible to speak about whether they are a good tool or not. We know that parents certainly play an important role in raising their children, but we do not know the effect of imposing legal sanctions on them when their children are involved in illegal behavior.” Indeed, in the project I referred to earlier that targeted elementary absenteeism in Michigan, we were unable to follow the students long enough to determine if the threat of parental prosecution actually resulted in better attendance. So we frankly just don’t know if holding parents criminally or financially responsible for the behavior of their kids will result in reduced bullying.
Critics have argued that this is simply another way to limit free speech and that the parents of outspoken youth will be punished for the protected speech of their kids. If a child speaks up about his or her moral objections to homosexuality, for example, it could be construed as bullying and therefore could invoke punishment for the child and now the parent as well. Even though the Monona ordinance clearly states that it does not apply to any “constitutionally protected activity or speech,” there is admittedly ambiguity when it comes to defining an incident as bullying, especially when it involves contentious subjects. As adults (parents and others), it is our responsibility to teach teens to disagree, and even debate, in a civil manner. So if you disagree with my thoughts here, feel free to sound off. But please keep it respectful–your kids could be watching!