Bullying: a 21st century problem?

Why have mean girls (and boys) suddenly become the hottest issue to tackle?

Colleen Kaman By Colleen Kaman

Growing up can be hell. Ask any teenager, or think back to your own adolescence. If you can’t remember what it was like to be in high school, check out one of the most iconic high school films in the past decade: Mean Girls. It’s a darkly comedic take on navigating the treacherous waters of the American high school, complete with popular girls and wannabes, lunchroom fights and email rumors, trying to belong and social suicide. In short, it’s a fictional story about bullying, and the nasty behaviors that dominate the teenage years.


Taking bullying seriously – why now?

Apart from dark comedies about the brutish aspects of growing up, however, it’s only in the past two decades that school age bullying has come to be seen as a public health crisis.

It’s not that the word “bully” is new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has been used to describe “a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker” since the 17th century. Bullying was generally viewed as a disagreeable behavior, not necessarily a violent one. And the likelihood of running into such cowards was seen as an unavoidable part of childhood.

That began to change by the early 1980s. Many consider Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus the grandfather of the field. It was his groundbreaking study that first quantified the serious long term impact bullying can have on both bullies and their victims.

Just as critically, Olweus demonstrated that bullying could be reduced with targeted treatment.

Media reports about cyberbullying and kids tormented into committing suicide have driven much of the recent interest – here in the U.S. and abroad. “You really just need a small number of suicides,” British psychologist Peter K. Smith notes, “because one of the big worries of parents is, is my child being bullied?” Those media reports, then, pressure parents and politicians take action.

Is freedom from bullying a human right?

Smith points to another trend that has focused our attention on youth aggression: the expansion of what we think of as human rights.

Screengrab of the online space for the Big March 2012, “the world’s first virtual, global march for children’s right to be safe.” (Beatbullying.org)

Bullying has come to be understood alongside sexual harassment and racial harassment, Smith says, as the “the freedom to not be persecuted repeatedly, not to be attacked repeatedly.”

This kind of thinking has led to a greater international focus on halting bullying behavior. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child already guarantees every child a right to live, grow up, participate in any activity, and be protected from discrimination. This spring, the UK-based charity Beatbullying has organized a global march to build support for the addition of anti-bullying language in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Anti-bullying efforts are also becoming tied to the flourishing gay rights movement. In the U.S, youth-led chapters of the Gay Straight Alliance  have become a fixture in many schools.

At the same time, this connection has placed a number of anti-bullying efforts squarely within the highly politicized cultural debates that have dominated U.S. politics in recent decades, and highlighted the challenges of implementing policies intended to promote a supportive environment.

What’s been happening in Minnesota provides a dramatic example. The Anoka-Hennepin School Board’s policy requires teachers and school staff to remain neutral on matters involving sexual orientation. But that in turn has generated significant controversy, in part because it has made it difficult to enforce the district’s zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy.

Increasing focus on the bullying of LGBT youth

A 2005 study commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 65 per cent of middle and high school students reported being verbally or physically harassed or assaulted in the previous year because of a personal characteristic like race/ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.


In 2010, President Obama recorded his own It Gets Better video as a message of hope and support for LGBT youth struggling with being bullied.

Dorothy Espelage is one of the foremost bullying researchers in the United States. She says that many anti-bullying programs in the U.S. don’t take into account the degree to which bullying is often related to gender.  Her research suggests that 30-50% of bullying involves the use of homophobic insults.

“This isn’t just a boy phenomenon,” Espelage stresses. “Both boys and girls direct homophobic language at one another.” Left unchecked, she warns, this kind of behavior is linked to sexual harassment and even sexual violence.

Gender is missing in the bullying conversation, agrees C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist who studies inequality among youth. “Boys regularly tell me that it’s the worst thing you can call someone — the worst thing you can call another guy is fag or gay,” notes Pascoe. “They don’t like it, even if they constantly use those insults with one another.”

Yet kids see these behaviors as normal, Pascoe stresses. “They’d never see themselves as bullies.”

Who bullies?
There is growing effort among some researchers to reframe the bullying discourse altogether, moving from “bully” and “victim” terminology and focusing on inequality and social dynamics among youth. For instance, Espelage notes that bullying is not merely a behavior of maladjusted kids, but rather a successful social strategy. In elementary and middle school, Espelage has found that bullying “actually leads to popularity and high social status.”

Pascoe adds, “when you conform correctly, you’re less likely to be bullied. I think that’s a much more productive way to look at bullying.”

No magic bullet to end bullying- although the Nordic states are trying

Even as the conversation around bullying has become more nuanced, however, figuring out how to effectively reduce incidence of bullying remains elusive.

British expert Dr. Smith notes that the majority of interventions have only been able to reduce bullying by 20-25 percent. Although the immensely popular Olweus intervention program has demonstrated a higher reduction rate, Smith says that the program has struggled to replicate these results outside of Norway, where it was developed.

Unfortunately, he points out, the program hasn’t exported well. “They’ve tried it in the (United) States. They’ve tried it in Germany, and in some other countries. But it’s had much less success there. Why that is, we don’t know.”

At a minimum, the challenges of tackling bullying in the U.S. appear to be as complicated as the issue itself. Some experts have suggested that it could be related to the lack of a single national anti-bullying policy and the make-up of the U.S. population. The most successful anti-bullying interventions have been implemented in countries like Finland and Norway. Both have relatively homogeneous populations and a strong central government.

And unlike Europe and Australia, which have tended to focus on educational interventions, the U.S. has been more likely to focus on zero-tolerance policies that harshly punish offenders.

Yet many bullying researchers suggest that restorative interventions that engage both bullies and victims often the greatest promise to help kids overcome what can otherwise be a pretty challenging time of life.