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Casualties of Bullying

Illustrations by Carol Nichols

Casualties of Bullying
UMaine researchers say that children, teens are increasingly ill-equipped to relate to one another

Casualties of Bullying: Watch the Videos

Watch the videos


Cyberbullying Reality
Nearly all technological developments are mixed blessings, and the use of computers and cell phones to foster bullying is no exception

Links related to this story

The arsenal included a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, air-powered guns made to look like assault rifles, knives and homemade grenades. Their owner was a 14-year-old who police say was plotting a "Columbine-style" attack at a high school near his Pennsylvania home, allegedly to avenge the bullying he endured in middle school.

"He may have believed that the world would be a better place without the bullies in it," said Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor Jr., in the Philadelphia Inquirer, following the boy's arrest last October.

Lethal attacks in schools are rare among the estimated 60 million children who attend more than 119,000 schools in the United States, according to The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, a 2002 publication issued by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. From December 1974–May 2000, 37 incidents of targeted school-based attacks occurred, committed by 41 individuals.

When these attacks occur, the nation appears to get yet another wake-up call, followed quickly by a feeling of dread that it's happened again. And the urgency to search for answers is renewed.

One of those searches, the Safe School Initiative, began after the April 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, hoping to "identify information that could be obtainable, or 'knowable,' prior to an attack." One of the 10 key findings of the study: almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident.

The study also pointed to the overall pervasiveness of bullying.

"The prevalence of bullying found in this and other recent studies should strongly support ongoing efforts to reduce bullying in American schools," the report said.

Bullying is a type of aggression that occurs repeatedly with the intention to harm or disturb, according to researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who studied its prevalence. It is characterized by an imbalance of power that may manifest in physical, verbal or psychological aggression — from hitting to name calling, threats, rumors and shunning.

That prevalence study, published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that nearly 30 percent of the more than 15,500 students surveyed in grades 6–10 reported moderate or frequent involvement in bullying.

Faced with such statistics and a growing body of research on the immediate and long-term negative effects of bullying, the tide of public sentiment is turning. Schools are reexamining their policies regarding such student behavior. States like Maine are issuing bullying and harassment prevention guides for schools and communities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Bullying Prevention Campaign sponsors one of the many educational Web sites.

Then there are grassroots efforts, like the one in Nova Scotia last fall. Two high school seniors said enough was enough when they saw a freshman bullied for wearing a pink shirt the first day of school. The pair bought 50 pink shirts at a discount store and gave them to classmates. They also emailed their peers, urging them to join the "sea of pink" anti-bullying cause. The next day, hundreds of teens came to school wearing pink.

Despite the heightened awareness and growing dialogue, the prevailing notion among adults is still that "kids will be kids." Bullying remains largely viewed as a rite of passage; part of learning to socialize and prepare for relationships as adults; an immaturity that passes with age.

But research by educators and psychologists at the University of Maine and elsewhere is showing that what is largely considered an age-old problem of childhood has taken on new dimensions in our technologically driven, media-saturated society. And its effects have long-range implications. The bottom line is that children and teens increasingly don't know how to relate to each other. And the adults in their lives need to help.

One is the loneliest number

One is the loneliest number

Even if a youngster is considered an outsider with peers, all it takes is one best friend to protect that child from being at risk for loneliness, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which can lead to victimization, according to research by Cynthia Erdley-Gardella and other UMaine psychologists.  Victimized students actively disassociate.

Friendships and group acceptance are important barometers of youngsters' psychological adjustment, says UMaine psychologist Cynthia Erdley-Gardella, whose research focuses on children's peer relationships. Children without friends are at increased risk for loneliness, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which can lead to victimization.

Victimized students actively disassociate, not talking or sitting with anyone. Such withdrawal or loner mentality becomes more problematic with age, as appeared to be the case with Seung-Hui Cho in the Virginia Tech shootings, and is less normative in males, says Erdley-Gardella.

"In general in our culture, males are not expected to be sad, but they can show anger," she says. "Boys are not given as much emotional support because they're supposed to be tougher. Withdrawn, shy boys are more apt to be victimized."

Nearly all school shooters are males and tend to be "overlooked" as not susceptible to relational victimization — bullying focused on harming a person's sense of belonging or hurting his or her reputation by highlighting weak points, says Erdley-Gardella. But when they tend to be depressed, some of these boys act out rather than internalize their frustration.

Even teens' peers assume that girls are more relationally victimized than boys. But a recent study of students in grades 9-12 by UMaine Ph.D. psychology student Jessica Matthews demonstrated that boys are just as vulnerable.

The finding was the result of boys self-reporting, rather than relying on peers' perceptions of who is relationally victimized.

Victims need to try to find ways to be more assertive and stand up for themselves. They also could benefit from the support of others, but that doesn't often happen. According to Erdley-Gardella, an estimated 70 percent of school-age children and teens stand by in the face of bullying because they don't want to draw attention to themselves and because they believe the victim somehow deserves the abuse.

Bullies have esteem issues as well. Those who bully say they victimize to create excitement, alleviate boredom and increase their status in their peer group. It's important to try to increase their empathy and see the effect of their words and actions, says Erdley-Gardella.

"When it comes down to it, adults can't dictate. Change has to come from the pressure of the peer group. What's needed is a more open, accepting, positive, supportive and safe school environment celebrating diversity. If that becomes a culture in a school, ultimately students will have the greatest success."



Girls need to understand girlfighting and the labeling and competition behind it, says education research Mary Madden.  A key to turning girls from adversaries to allies is media literacy, helping them critically analyze cultural messages and sexist portrayals of girls and women, and respond constructively.

For girls, the cultural messages about how society expects them to behave, act and look are pervasive in the media and in advertising. But the unrealistic portrayals set up a dynamic among girls that is as divisive as it is destructive.

The result is a form of bullying called girlfighting.

Girlfighting is relational aggression girls use against one another in their struggle to gain self-esteem and stature in a male-dominated world. Though largely covert and subtle, the peer targeting hurts girls emotionally, leaving them feeling excluded, betrayed, insecure and isolated.

"As a result of girlfighting, girls understand that relationships are not always what they appear," says Mary Madden, an education researcher at UMaine who focuses on adolescent emotional and social health issues, including girls' development and education, gender equity and hazing.

"They also are aware of how quickly they can become the target. As a result, they try to feel less vulnerable and divert attention from themselves by targeting others."

Women who experienced girlfighting in their youth or have daughters who went through it talk about how damaging it is, Madden says. "When women can remember the details of their experiences from 30 years earlier, it tells you something about the powerful impact it has."

Three years ago, Madden coauthored From Adversaries to Allies: A Curriculum for Change with Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education at Colby College and cocreator of the nonprofit Hardy Girls Healthy Women, based in Waterville, Maine. The middle school curriculum addressing girlfighting prevention was cited in the 2006 Maine's Best Practices in Bullying and Harassment Prevention: A Guide for Schools and Communities, published by the Maine Governor's Children's Cabinet.

In a school with such a curriculum in place, girls feel safer emotionally among their peers, Madden says. Not all the girls are friends, but they are all allies.

Evaluation of the curriculum after its piloting in 10 Maine schools found girls who bought into the cultural ideals of how they should look and act had higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem. Depression decreased and self-esteem increased among girls enrolled in the curriculum, says Madden.

With Adversaries to Allies in place, girls see the value of taking action to support each other as opposed to downgrading and fractionalizing. In such a school climate, adults are more responsive to girls' concerns, including issues they see as injustices. They help girls figure out constructive ways to respond and make change.

"Once girls see that these are unjust messages by society, then they can start to constructively respond for social change," says Madden, whose upcoming research will involve the study of girlfighting in the context of other social justice efforts aimed at a more comprehensive approach to improving school climate. "They learn to stick up for themselves and for kids on the outs, including interrupting bullying when they see it."

Future shock

Future shock

Recent research shows that children with bullying histories begin dating earlier, view their relationships as less supportive, and are at increased risk for entering into abusive dating relationships, says UMaine psychologist Douglas Nangle.   Research showing the developmental trajectories of physically aggressive children and the longer term implications for their future relationships is sobering.

For too long, the perception has been that youngsters' friendships and adolescents' romances are innocuous because they are often short-lived and superficial — part of the growing pains to endure on the road to adulthood. But through the work of UMaine psychologist Douglas Nangle and other researchers, there is growing evidence of the connections between children's friendships and teens' relationships, and their implications for healthy adult relationships.

"We're realizing there's a connection between physical and psychological aggression in young kids, and how that can carry into future relationships," says Nangle, whose research focuses on peer relations. "People need to understand that the different problems and issues relating to aggression, bullying and dating violence are connected."

Dissertation research by one of Nangle's graduate students is investigating whether aggressive adolescent behavior in peer groups and friendships is a predictor of similar behavior in dating relationships. One focus is the role of relational aggression.

Nangle is particularly interested in the social skills required as children make the transition from same-sex friendships to larger mixed-sex group interactions and eventual romantic relationships as teens. He and a former doctoral student, Rachel Grover, now an assistant professor at Loyola College, coedited a special section on the development of adolescent romantic competence that will soon be published in the Journal of Clinical and Adolescent Psychology. A feature of the section is that certain social and emotional skills and competencies serve to form the foundation for healthy adult relationships. These can be taught and fostered.

"Looking at dating aggression from a competence standpoint, for instance, might show that coercive actions stem from an inability to more constructively problem solve in conflict situations," he says.

Nangle and Grover have been studying teens' heterosocial competence, the ability to effectively negotiate social situations that involve the other sex, including friendships and dating relationships. They developed an assessment tool, the Measure of Adolescent Heterosocial Competence, which asks teens to respond to a range of challenging social interactions with the opposite sex. They developed a parallel assessment instrument for use with college-age students.

"In one study, we found that college students high in a dimension of social anxiety — a fear of people evaluating them in a negative way — were more likely to use psychological aggression in their romantic relationships. Sensing rejection, these individuals may jump more quickly to coercive and manipulative responses in conflict situations," Nangle says.

Not enough attention is paid to teaching children and teens how to have healthy friendships and relationships, contends Nangle, who also recently studied relational aggression in at-risk preschoolers. From day one, children's behaviors in friendships need to be viewed as bridges to more long-lasting relationships.

"The skills we use in relationships of all types are so complex," he says. "(Yet) somehow we seem to believe as a society that people will learn them through 'osmosis' or something. Why not invest in more systematic educative efforts, perhaps as part of the school curriculum — and more."

Bullying in a virtual world



Student-on-student bullying is a challenging enough dilemma for teachers and school administrators. But bullying enabled by technology — making it more anonymous, insidious, instantaneous and far reaching — is increasingly causing safety and legal issues for schools and students.

"It's clear to me that this is a new and dangerous form of traditional bullying," says Dianne Hoff, UMaine associate professor of educational leadership. "It's (often) about sexually degrading or terrorizing, making someone fearful, which to me is in line with victimization."

A confluence of factors gives rise to cyberbullying, leaving schools at a crossroads, says Hoff, whose research includes contemporary legal dilemmas in education. More courts are ruling that schools are becoming overly restrictive on student dress, speech, and behavior. Coupled with the explosion of technology and a generation of parents quick to defend their children, right or wrong, students can bully more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

Students who are cyberbullied by classmates may seek help from school administrators, who can impose disciplinary action as they would for other instances of bullying or harassment, Hoff says, as long as the behavior occurred or has a negative impact at school. But defenders challenge schools' jurisdiction in such matters, claiming that the communication between students occurred after school on a home computer. Parents of victims want the schools to take action, whereas parents of the perpetrators argue their children's First Amendment rights are being violated.

"Schools have an obligation to keep students safe," says Hoff, who gives safety training presentations in districts statewide on cyberbullying, intruders and threats. "If the problem is related to school, I tell administrators they not only have a right, but a responsibility to act."

Research by Hoff and UMaine educational psychologist Sidney Mitchell found that cyberbullying causes fear, anger, feelings of helplessness and inability to concentrate. Paradoxically, those who have been cyberbullied said they did not stay off Web sites or cell phone text messaging because the technology is intrinsic to their social life.

"Research shows that students' most common way to deal with bullying is to bully back," Hoff says. "There is also a lot of evidence that cyberbullying can quickly cross over to real-life stalking and physical assaults. What starts online escalates to predatory behavior."

Hoff compares the virtual world that is fostering cyberbullying to a modern-day version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

"(In cyberspace) kids are on a virtual island with no supervision, norms or rules. The worry is about an escalating uncivilized environment for which they have no moral compass and which has long-term implications," she says.

"Adults have to step up (and) help students develop healthier relationships, social coping skills, and, ultimately, appropriate moral compasses for an electronic age."

by Margaret Nagle
January-February, 2008

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