The Bullying Epidemic

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An Epidemic of Intimidation

While violent incidents are still relatively uncommon, harassment is widespread. A new national survey of nearly 16,000 children shows that about one third have been involved in bullying, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in Washington, D.C. Unlike teasing, bullying involves repeated harassment intended to cause physical or psychological harm. The NICHD study found that 13 percent of kids in grades six through 10 had taunted, threatened or been physically aggressive toward classmates, while 11 percent had been the targets of such behavior. Six percent said they'd bullied others and been bullied themselves.

The researchers found key differences between the sexes: Boys were more likely to be bullies or victims of bullying. Girls, on the other hand, were more frequently the targets of malicious rumors, sexual harassment and jeers.

While the stereotype is that bullies have low self-esteem, they're actually often self-confident, says Kate Cohen-Posey, author of How to Handle Bullies, Teasers, and Other Meanies (Rainbow Books, 1995). In fact, the NICHD study found that bullies are often popular and tend to make friends easily. But if a bully feels slighted, he may be tempted to take it out on someone who can't fight back. Why? That's the coping mechanism he's familiar with; some bullies come from homes where they're harassed themselves. Bullies tend to perform poorly at school and by age 24, 60 percent of former bullies have been convicted of a crime, according to a study conducted in Norway.

Victims, on the other hand, generally have poor social skills and few friends, says Carolyn Roecker Phelps, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "These children may be physically smaller than their peers, may look or act differently or have different abilities." The psychological trauma of recurring harassment puts victims at risk of suffering from depression or low self-esteem as an adult-and, in a small but significant number of cases, may cause them to become violent or suicidal.

The younger the child, the more likely he is to suffer from bullying. A soon-to-be published study Roecker Phelps conducted found that 26 percent of third-graders, and only 11 percent of sixth-graders, said they were frequently shoved at school.

On the other hand, older kids are less likely to tell an adult when they are bullied. In Roecker Phelps' study, 36 percent of third-graders said they always or usually told a teacher when they were confronted with physical aggression, but only 5 percent of sixth-graders were willing to do so. When the bullying takes the form of ridicule, even fewer students will admit to being subjected to it.

What makes the pervasiveness of bullying alarming is the link to school violence. Last fall, a study by the National Threat Assessment Center, run by the U.S. Secret Service, found that in more than two thirds of the 37 school shootings since 1974, the attackers felt "persecuted, bullied, threatened or attacked." In more than half of the rampages, revenge was the motivation. Before opening fire on his classmates, Charles Andrew Williams was tormented. Student witnesses said kids burned him with cigarette lighters and accused him of being a "faggot." Even when he announced that he planned to "pull a Columbine," two students called him a wimp and dared him to do it.

Why has bullying become more serious? Jerald Newberry, executive director of the NEA's health and safety division in Washington, D.C., blames violent entertainment. "We're seeing more aggression than we did fifteen years ago because kids see complicated problems being solved by weapons on TV and in the movies."

Continued on page 3:  Banishing Bullying


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