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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?