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)
Ban School, Open Facebook
There is much consternation among parents and educators alike about the perceived criminogenic nature of social networking websites. Despite some evidence that its popularity among some teens is beginning to wane, Facebook is still the most prominent figure in this space. As such, it tends to receive the brunt of the blows, with fervent calls from well-meaning adults to ban teen access to the site, and others like it. Recall one principal’s plea to parents over three years ago: “There is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.” To be sure, there are plenty of good reasons to limit time on social media, especially for younger Internet users. But when it comes to bullying behaviors specifically, the evidence is clear that the school is a much more “dangerous” place to hang out than Facebook.
Bullying vs. Cyberbullying
At its core, all forms of bullying involve deliberate and repeated hurtful actions directed toward another who can’t easily defend him or herself. While technology has created additional avenues and opportunities for this to occur, it really hasn’t created a whole new class of bullies who only harm others from afar. In general, those who bully online, also bully at school.
Moreover, just about every study that has included measures of both bullying at school and bullying online has shown that the former still occurs much more frequently than the latter. I realize the counter-intuitiveness of this statement, but the consistency of this discrepancy across varying studies is compelling. For example, the National Crime Victimization Survey’s biennially-conducted survey of students (the School Crime Supplement) showed that 28% of primary and secondary students had been bullied at school while 9% of students had been bullied online in 2011 (the most recent year available).
Similarly, in all nine of our formal surveys conducted over the last nine years, the prevalence rates for cyberbullying have been significantly less than traditional school bullying. In our 2010 study involving 4,400 middle and high school students, 26% reported that they had been recently bullied at school while 8% said that they had been recently bullied online (4% on Facebook specifically). In October of 2013 we surveyed a few hundred middle schoolers in a small school in the Midwest and found that 20% had been bullied at school in the previous 30 days, while 5% were bullied on Facebook during that same time.
To be fair, some evidence shows that the gap may be narrowing. Bullying at school has been steady or declining in recent years while cyberbullying may be creeping up, but certainly not at the pace that most perceive.
One of the challenges in trying to make sense of all of the data on different forms of bullying is that survey questions are often phrased problematically. If you ask someone—especially a teen—if they have “been bullied,” unless instructed otherwise they are going to report any experience with bullying, irrespective of where it happened. Asking, for instance, if anyone had spread rumors or repeatedly said mean or hurtful things to them doesn’t specify a particular location so we don’t know exactly where it happened. As a result, it is quite possible that some bullying experiences that are interpreted as having occurred at school may have happened online (or, even more likely, it occurred in both environments).
There is no question that we hear about more high profile cases of cyberbullying on the nightly news, which gives the illusion that it is the more prevalent problem. And with the rapid expansion of technology in the hands of our teenagers over the last decade or so, it isn’t unreasonable to presume a precipitous increase in technology-related problematic behaviors. But it’s just not true.
Focus on Cyberbullying Still Necessary
Please don’t misunderstand – I am certainly not suggesting that we should ignore cyberbullying. It’s still a significant problem that affects a meaningful number of teens. This past summer we scrutinized all of the peer-reviewed academic journal articles we could find that included cyberbullying prevalence rates. Across the 55 papers we examined that included victimization data, on average, about 21% of the teens surveyed said they had been cyberbullied. While the numbers published in these paper vary widely (from a low of 2.3% to a high of 72%), one thing is certain: cyberbullying is happening, and it doesn’t have to.
We need to condemn bullying in all its forms. Whether it happens online or at school—on Facebook or on the bus—efforts need to be taken to prevent and appropriately respond to all instances of serious and repetitive mistreatment. But, to limit access to Facebook for the purposes of preventing cyberbullying is akin to restricting access to school with the goal of preventing face-to-face bullying. Just as someone could spread rumors about another person at school without the target being there, the same is true about online environments. Instead, adults need to teach youth to use technology responsibly and regularly check in with them to ensure that they are doing so. We must also empower teens themselves to be a solution to the bullying problem by equipping them with tools that they can utilize should they experience or see it happening at school or online. Working together, teens and adults can be a formidable force to counter cruelty, no matter what it looks like or where it happens.
There is a new cell phone application that is gaining notoriety at the speed of light among some groups of teens (as well as their teachers and parents). In essence, Yik Yak is pretty much a location-based anonymous Twitter feed. The free app allows users to post anonymous comments that can be viewed by anyone who is within 5 miles of the person who posted it. Or at least the 500 who are the closest. When installing the app, the user gets a warning message stating that the app contains mature material and is therefore only appropriate for users 17 and older. But that hasn’t stopped high school students in some cities from signing up in droves.
One can easily see the attraction for students in using this app: they can post nameless comments that others in their immediate vicinity can see. As such, it is perfectly tailored for a school environment. Often the comments are mundane observations for their classmates about what is going on around them. But they could include harassing messages, answers to tests, sexually explicit comments, hate speech, or bomb threats. Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have sent letters home to parents, educating them about the app, and imploring them to see to it that it is removed from their child’s phone. I appreciate the steps these principals are taking to inform parents, but wonder whether the effort will really result in fewer students using it.
Alternative to Facebook?
Teens are hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents. Facebook is still by far the most popular social media environment for teens, but they don’t seem to visit the site as frequently, or for as long, as they once did. One reason for that is the fact that most parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers) are on Facebook and can therefore see much of what teens are posting. So they are looking for an alternative place to hang out and communicate without adults looking over their virtual shoulders. Yik Yak has apparently served that purpose for some.
We were first alerted to the app a couple of weeks ago when we received a report through our website encouraging us to investigate it: “The amount of hateful comments is basically every other comment. It is too much to even report. Cyberbullying is already a huge problem today and the last thing we need is an anonymous app that allows one to do that. Soon Facebook, twitter, and other social medias will be the least of our worries when it comes to cyberbullying and suicide.”
We get these kinds of reports frequently and often the new app that is mentioned disappears before it can gain national attention. Something was different with this app. In just the last week or so, quite a few people have contacted us with questions about how to protect themselves and their schools from its potential wrath. Because cell phone apps and online environments are constantly changing, however, we suggest that, instead of focusing on banning a specific site or particular piece of technology, parents and educators should work to instill good values in their children and students so that they choose not to use them in ways that cause harm. Attacking particular applications to stop cyberbullying is a lot like trying to win a decent prize at the carnival by playing that whack-a-mole game. The odds are stacked against you. The target always shifts.
It’s Probably Not As Bad As We Think
Before getting too worked up about this latest “threat,” it is important that we keep some perspective. First of all, Yik Yak’s reach is still extremely small with only a couple hundred thousand users (compared to over 30 million on another popular and fear-inducing app: Snapchat). Second, we know from more than a decade’s worth of research that most teens are not misusing technology or mistreating others while online. Snapchat, for example gained infamy about a year ago as the “sexting app” because the images taken and sent using the app seemed to disappear after 10 seconds. Most teens realize that even though the image may no longer be visible on the 5-inch screen in front of them, it doesn’t mean it is really completely gone (despite implicit promises from the app itself). The vast majority of teens use Snapchat to send goofy, yet mostly harmless, selfie pictures to their friends and even though some will misuse it, they are in the minority.
The same is likely true for new apps like Yik Yak. Sure, the anonymous nature of the posts may embolden users to let down their guard and post things they normally wouldn’t say in a face-to-face interaction. But again, most teens are savvy enough at this point to realize that eventually it could come back around to them. In fact, there was already at least one example of a student being arrested for what was posted on the app. Moreover, unlike some sites and apps, it seems that the creators of Yik Yak are being responsive to the concerns of adults. According to the Chicago Tribune, company officials have agreed to disable the app in the Chicago area while schools attempt to get a handle on the significant problems created by it.
Time will tell whether Yik Yak will really catch on among teens (or the adults who were its original intended audience). One thing is for certain: this won’t be the last time we hear about an app that is creating problems among students in schools.
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.