Abolishing bullying (and cyber bullying) from our Internet connected society

The next building block for a highly effective school organization is the removal of bully behavior from the structure of the establishment. Bullying inside any school structure and its related structures will greatly diminish the potential of that school – if not eventually destroy it. We must clearly understand that bullying is the antithesis of dignity, respect, and understanding.

Adults and youth must recognize the devastations of this behavior, increase our awareness of the problem, develop strategies for early identification/intervention, and design comprehensive policies in relationship to bullying.

Some people will try to convince us that bullying is a childhood problem. This is far from the truth. Bully behavior must be monitored in adults, as we are just more subtle and skilled in its application.

Abolishing bully behavior is vital to our society whether it be in the family, a workplace, a school, a church, or in the community. It is critical that we understand bullying is a widespread problem, which can begin in childhood and extend into the lives of adults. The long-term negative results of this behavior can be far reaching into the future of both the bully and the target of the bully.

Myths of Bullying

There are many myths that have clouded our ability to recognize bully behavior and provide appropriate interventions. Some people believe bullying is a normal part of childhood and becoming a teen. These people believe the behavior will disappear again in the late years of high school. Our research today is quick to note that the behavior is now becoming more prevalent in the adult workplace and in marital relationships and not totally disappearing as once thought.

A second myth is the belief that ‘bullying makes you tougher’ and the target of a bully needs to figure out how to ‘stand up to the bully’. These people do not understand that bullies are often much stronger than their targets and can harm the targeted person even more. Some bullies will even try to convince others that the victim actually brought it upon themselves in order to cover up their behaviors.

Third, we once believed bullies were only boys with low self esteem and would eventually grow out of their bully behavior. This is far from the truth. Childhood and teen bullies can be either male or female and often have an incredibly high sense of self esteem.

A fourth myth is the misunderstanding that the teacher and the parent will know when their children are being victimized by a bully. It is disheartening to realize that adults only recognize about ten percent of the bullying around them. It is my belief with a heightened sense of awareness and a built in trust between the child and the adult, this awareness can be raised to more responsive levels.

Fifth, some people believe bullying isn’t a ‘big deal’ and doesn’t have a lot to do with the problems facing our world today. This may be the greatest myth of all! Just look at the problems facing our world. How many of these problems could be solved if we truly practiced dignity, respect, and understanding?

Profile of the Bully

Bullying is a learned behavior in which a person uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate others who are perceived weaker. Repeated incidents by the bully only tend to reinforce the bully’s behavior and thus creating an increase in their perceived power. The behavior can include physically harming the targeted person(s); damaging their property; knowingly placing their target(s) in reasonable fear of harm; and creating a confrontational environment. Simply put – bullying is about power. It is about one person wanting to be more powerful than a weaker person.

Children will often ask me, “What if I just give the bully what they want?” I remind kids that bullies are rarely pleased by their target. It is not about what we give the bully – it is about the power they have over the targeted individual.

When we look deeper into the behaviors of the bully, we often find verbal, physical, and symbolic techniques used to dehumanize the targeted individual. It is these techniques which are extremely devastating to the target of the bully and which separate these acts from other inappropriate impulsive behaviors.

Verbal bullying is a technique intended to humiliate the individual through talk. The bully uses the targeted person as the butt of verbal jokes, practical jokes, sarcasm, or humorous situations, which create demeaning circumstances.

Physical bullying is a technique used to symbolize the target’s weaknesses. Examples of physical bullying may include hitting, smacking, poking, tripping, or just overpowering the target. Unwanted sexual touches may occur in some instances.

Symbolic bullying is another technique used to humiliate the targeted individual. This may include mocking or mimicking the targeted individual through a drawing of a picture, written notes, or even photos.

Male bullies between the childhood and teen years tend to be more physical and direct in their attacks. The male is often physically older, bigger, and stronger than their target(s) and appear to be high in confidence and self esteem. Others may be very aggressive and lean toward pro-violent attitudes, as hot-tempered individuals who frustrate easily with a strong desire to dominate others. These individuals often demonstrate little or no empathy for their targets.

Profiles of child/teen male bullies often include doing poorly at school, fighting, drinking, and smoking. Although they may appear to make friends easily, the friends of the young male bully often share the same pro-violent interests and problem behaviors. Followers of the bully rarely initiate an act of bully on their own and yet they will participate in an act triggered by the bully.

Child/teen female bullies are different from the males and probably the most difficult to observe. These bullies often target females more often than males and usually the same age as themselves. These individuals are more inclined to be verbal using emotional and indirect methods of attacks in a group, which may include both boys and girls as followers. Examples might include the spreading of rumors and manipulating friendships to isolate a targeted person socially. Female bullies are more likely to deny their behaviors as ‘bullying’.

Note: The parent of both male and female youth bullies often provide little emotional support, supervision, and involvement in their child’s life. Parent discipline is usually either extremely harsh or very permissive. It is not uncommon for these parents to become enraged when confronted by their child’s behavior.

Profile of the Adult Bully

An example of adult bullying in the workplace.

Are there bullies in the adult workforce? Yes. Some childhood bullies will stop their behavior in their teens, others will continue these inappropriate behaviors into their adult life. Some adult bullies will be past victims now behaving in a bullying manner. Our research studies are now finding that bullying in adults is far more frequent than we originally believed, and even more frequent than behaviors such as sexual harassment and discrimination. Research shows that one in five workers has been bullied by an adult in the work place during the past twelve months. One study in Australia stated, ‘More than ninety percent of teachers say they had suffered mentally or physically because of abuse. Others complained about unmanageable workloads, belittling, undermining, and exclusion from decision making roles ‘.

Adult supervisors (eighty percent) overwhelmingly account for most of the bullying in the workplace. The adult bullying is often quite different than the profiles of teens and children. Adult bullies are more likely to target workers who are capable, dedicated, and well-liked by co-workers. The supervising bully tends to be threatened by this type of worker who is skilled at cooperative and non-confronting behaviors.

Adult bullies in the workforce often exhibit a need for control while demonstrating low social skills and a lack of empathy for others. Their attack styles often include unjustified criticism of the worker and the constant search for trivial faults, which may be followed by public humiliation, ignoring, over-ruling, and even isolation of the worker. These behaviors can give the adult bullies satisfaction.

Highly effective workers often threaten the adult bully. The bullying supervisor may react by designing unrealistic goals, deadlines, over amount of work, a removal from important assignments and an assignment of demeaning duties, or even the increasing responsibility without authority with the intent to cause failure!

The entire workplace must understand that bullying destroys the organization by causing undue stress and ineffectiveness. This will result in time lost through absenteeism and the quality of the work. The organization eventually will lose its best workers and their intelligence. A clear foundation of strict anti-bullying policies and educational training must guide the entire operation of the organization. Keep in mind, a well run organization will out perform other organizations by thirty to forty percent.

Profile of the Bully’s Target

Who are the youth targets of a bully? Research still tells us that bullying amongst males is far higher than in females and the frequency of bullying peaks during the middle school years.

The target of a bully often appears anxious, insecure, cautious, and of low self esteem. Male targets especially tend to be weaker than their peers. It is a rarity for a targeted person to defend themselves or retaliate against a bully. The target often cries easily and may even collapse during the act of bullying.

It is not uncommon for the targeted person to be a social isolate, lack social skills, and display little or no sense of humor. Many times targets such as these are just identified as people ‘who didn’t fit in’.

The provocative target is very difficult to work with. These individuals can be both aggressive and anxious, irritate others near them, be disruptive, easily emotionally aroused, and keep the conflict going even when they lose.

Students with learning disabilities or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can easily be the target of a bully or even become a bully. They have a four times greater chance of becoming a bully than other kids and ten times more likely of being a target. Children identified as ADHD are often misidentified by adults as bullies due to their hyperactivity, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, and demanding nature. Their inappropriate behavior is not about ‘power’. About one third of ADHD children are egged on by others and were disciplined instead of the bully. Learning disabled children with poor self-esteem or social skills make them the perfect target of a bully.

People who are targeted by a bully often find it difficult to concentrate in different settings and can even lead to an avoidance of the place where the bullying is occurring such as a school or workplace. It is estimated eight percent of our students will miss one class per month due to a bully.

Adolescents who are involved in bullying either as the bully or the target are more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms and psychosocial issues. Studies of students age 12-17 tell us twenty three percent of them believe one or less teachers know or care about them; forty six percent say two teachers; and thirty one percent say three or more teachers.

Frequency of Bullying

The frequency of bullying during the school years reveals the widespread significance of bully behavior. We estimated years ago that about twenty five to thirty percent of our youth would be the targets of bullies at some point in their lives. Our research today is clearer on the frequency of bully attacks. Recent studies of schools across America tell us that twenty one percent of all elementary schools, forty three percent of all middle schools, and twenty two percent of all secondary schools report bullying as its most frequent discipline problem. At first glance, our data appears to be on the rise. Eleven percent of sixth grade students in 1999 reported being bullied at least once per week; in 2005 eighteen percent of sixth grade students reported the same bullying frequency. This increase in percent may not be due to increased incidents, but rather increased awareness in bully behavior.

Cyber Bullying

Cyber bullying is the use of text messaging, cell phones, emails, photos, and websites for the purpose of bullying. Acts of cyber bullying have nearly quadrupled in the last five years. The internet and cell phones are quickly becoming the technique of choice for bullies. Forty two percent of our teens say they have been bullied online. One in four will have it happen more than one time. Thirty five percent say they have been actually threatened.

Females are more likely to be the cyber bully or target. Gossip tends to be the most frequent style and can be posted easily through text messaging, email, web sites, blogs, and chat rooms. Only a small number of the targets will tell their parents and yet most will tell their friends.

Cyber bullying provides us with some very difficult challenges. Getting something off the internet once it is there seems almost impossible before the damage is done. Heading off cyber-bullying is equally difficult. All families, businesses, and community organizations must be proactive in their approach to dealing with this problem. Here are some suggestions: (1.) Model appropriate cyber behaviors at all times and with all people. (2.) Talk about bullying frequently within the family/organization, both what it is and the effects of the behavior on people. (3.) Set clear expectations and consequences for bullying. (4.) Build a trust level with children, teens, and adults that will allow us the knowledge immediately when an act of bullying has occurred. (5.) Teach the target of cyber bullying to remain calm, to not reactive to the incident, and to keep the evidence. (6.) Use effective filters and software with the computers as needed. (7.) Keep the computer in easily viewed areas. (8.) Know what is being done by other organizations to prevent cyber bullying such as in schools, families, and communities. Consider the best of these strategies for your organization (family).

We must teach everyone to never ignore threats no matter whether it is face-to-face or cyber bullying. Teach the targets to stay calm and in control. The cyber bully of threatening behavior will more than likely be someone the target knows. These types of problems always need adults for interventions.

Dealing with a Bully

All individuals, whether targeted or not, need to understand what is bullying, the characteristics of the bully, and the long lasting effects and consequences for such a behavior. We can use this understanding to begin developing an effective preventative advocacy. Our first line of defense should be a plan, which prevents bullying from happening. This includes better education, identification of the target and the bully early on, researched based intervention strategies, and clear communication with the families of our youth.

A few years back, a frustrated father told me that he didn’t know what to do to help his son deal with a bully. The father in all of his frustration finally told his son to fight back. The next day the son did as he was told and hit the bully at the onset of a verbal provocation. The bully quickly used this opportunity to beat up the much weaker boy and tried to convince others that he was just protecting himself. This example is the very reason I do not recommend this tactic, as the target has no idea what the reaction of the bully will be. Remember – targets of male bullying are often much smaller and weaker than the bully. A tactic of this kind can potentially lead to a higher level of violence. Had the tactic worked, the target’s potential of becoming a bully in the future would increase.

I encourage all individuals to look at their own body language when confronted with a bully. My grandfather always said, “Stand tall – look them in the eye – be proud of who you are.” Potential targeted individuals should never take their eyes off the bully. If the bully steps toward the targeted person, the target should step back, maintaining good eye contact and stay out of reach.

Targeted individuals should not be afraid to tell the bully to leave them alone or to say no. Remain calm on the outside even if the targeted person is scared on the inside and use a strong voice when talking to the bully. Targets should always avoid letting the bully engage them in argument or telling them what to do. My best advice for the target is to disengage with the bully as quickly as possible and immediately seek adult assistance.

Sometimes it is better to just avoid the bully when possible, while remembering to stay away from isolated areas where the bully can hurt people without anyone observing it.

I believe strongly all people need to always look and feel their best each and every day. This makes the individual the least likely to be noticed by the bully. Bullies often avoid individuals who have many friends and actively support each other. Friendship building is one of the most effective strategies in dealing with bully behavior.

We must encourage everyone to become anti-bully advocates – willing to get involved if they witness an act of bullying. This may require getting adult help, especially in situations, which could lead to physical danger or harm. We must learn to trust and help each other. Trust is built on the ‘Pillars of Success’, in which everyone in the organization models the behaviors of dignity, respect, and understanding.

Parent of a Targeted Individual

It is very difficult to be the parent of a targeted individual or even the bully. The most important thing is to know as quickly as possible that your child is one or the other. At that point you must begin to make decisions, which are right for your child’s best interests. Denial is not in the best interest of your child.

As the parent of a targeted individual, you will likely experience many emotions including hurt and anger, as you are confronted with the knowledge that your child is the target of bullying. Stay calm. Do not tell your child just to ignore it – they may not trust you again if you do this. You must be their advocate!

You will want to know what is in place for additional support and protective supervision for your child where the bullying is occurring. Is there a teaching component which reduces the susceptibility to be a victim of a bully? How were children taught to be more aware when others are victimized and react appropriately?

The first reaction of the parent of a bully will likely be denial and/or anger. This is not a time for permissive or extremely harsh reactions. No one wants to think that their child could be capable of such things. We must listen to the entire extent of bullying known to gain a complete understanding of what the child has done. Keep in mind the bully is often a very charming and a creative liar. You will want to know what steps have been taken to support and protect the targeted individual(s). Consequences for the behaviors need to include appropriate apologies, restrictions, monitor, and restitution for damage caused to property. It is far better to cooperate with authorities. Last, as the parent of a bully, you will need to find high quality counseling in cases of serious bullying acts where harm and threats of harm were created.

What can we do as family to prevent these things from happening as a proactive approach? Let’s start by teaching our children bullying is wrong throughout their childhood. We need to become better listeners to gain understanding. Sometimes we have to come at the problem indirectly in order to gain the understanding we want to know. I recommend every child have at least 15 minutes a day of uninterrupted time with a parent to discuss things important to them. The parent in return becomes a better listener and advocate for their son/daughter.

Parents must be constantly watching for the signs of concerns, which may include fear, sick (headaches/stomachaches), anxiousness, sleep problems, and missing property.

Adults will often consider placing their child in some type of martial arts class. If the intent is to teach their child skills to do harm to another – this is a bad idea in the making. If the intent is to teach their child discipline and confidence – this could be a very good idea depending on the personality of the child.

If I could pick one thing every parent needs to accomplish, is to teach our children they can trust selective adults to help them.

Schools and Bully Prevention

The schools must begin with a clear understanding of both state law and organizational policies concerning bully behaviors. Those guidelines must be adhered to at all times.

If a person witnesses an act of bullying, intervene immediately, and identify it for what it is. You may need to restate policies and rules. Keep your reactions calm and deliberate. Never tell the bully and the target to work out their problems – you may feed into the power of the bully. Begin by separating the individuals involved which means to clearly protect the targeted individual from the presence of the bully. Listen to both the target and the bully in private. Be reminded that bullies can often be very charming. Listen to other bystanders to gain insight of the entire incident.

The consequences for this behavior should be firm, natural, and consistent. Bullies must not be allowed further inappropriate contact with the target. The truth is the most powerful weapon against the bully. Remember, bullies are usually talkative, wishing to focus on themselves with a disregard for others. They will quickly criticize and turn on the targeted individual. Sometimes we need to use methods of confronting the bully that do not give away the source where the information came from.

We must create an environment of inclusion for all people in developing anti-bully advocacies, which improve the relationship of our youth and adults.

Strategies in school environments such as student to student relationships can be greatly enhanced with the use of circles in the classroom, as we try to develop extensive peer support for each other.

Are there consequences for doing nothing? What happens when victims decide to get even? Our studies have found that targeted individuals of bullying sometimes not only take revenge on the bully, but will also attack those people who in their eyes did nothing to help them when they were being targeted. MSNBC found in February of 2005 that many attackers (of bullying) felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack and said they had tried without success to get someone to intervene. These unresponsive people in the eyes of the victim were singled out in more than half of the incidents of reprisals.

Bully Prevention Programs

The search for an effective bully prevention program is not an easy task. The effort must take in many considerations before the right program is located and adopted as discussed in ‘Searching for High Quality Programs’.

I have witnessed many times through the past, school district adoptions of ineffective behavior programs or a high quality program, which sit on the shelf gathering dust. Either situation should give the members of that organization great consternation.

How can we prevent this from happening with the adoption of a bully prevention program? First, the process for the selection of potential programs must be well-organized and functional. The needs of the school must be the driving force.

You will find that most bully prevention programs are actually designed for schools. There will be quite a large number of programs designed for the elementary and middle school ages. The number of programs for the high school ages will be fewer.

Each program will have a slightly different approach than other programs. Some programs will profess a strong curriculum, while others assert effective plans for action. It is my belief that a high quality bully prevention program will be a blend of both.

A high quality bully prevention program should provide the answers to a number of questions in detail:

1. Does the program match with the basic beliefs of the organization’s foundation – dignity, respect, understanding, and equilibrium?

2. Does the program meet cultural expectations?

3. Does the needs assessment of the school match with the program?

4. What role does baseline data play in the program? How is data kept and used?

5. Does the program emphasize preventative approaches? Are the approaches across all grades?

6. Does the program serve the interests of the school in today’s setting? Will the program be far reaching into the future?

7. How does the program have an effect upon the community?

8. Does the program clearly define curriculum and procedures congruent with the rules and policies of the organization?

9. Does the curriculum include the various types of bullying?

10. Does the program teach ‘bully proofing’ (avoidance techniques) strategies?

11. Does the program present the view point of the victim and those who observe bullying? Does the program bring in the voice of the bully?

12. Does the curriculum teach bystanders of bullying what to do?

13. Does the program bring together the networks of the organization?

14. Does the program emphasize prevention, intervention, or both?

15. Are the roles of adults and students clearly defined within the program?

16. Do the students understand the difference between bullying and other aggressive acts?

17. Does the program include cyber-bullying?

18. Does the program clearly outline training of network members?

19. Does the program include community training?

20. How does the program continue a sustainable level of ongoing support?

21. Is the program connected to federal grant programs such as ‘Safe Schools’?

22. Can you continue to operate the program based upon cost effectiveness?

23. Does the program offer sites in your area for you as a reference or opportunity to visit?

Summary Statement

Is bully a new phenomena of the 21st century? No. Bullying has been found in our schools, our families, our workplaces, and throughout our communities in the past. We can now see a growing awareness of the serious consequences for our youth, adults, schools, families, and communities both as the bully and the targeted individual. In the communication age of the 21st century, we will become even more interdependent with each other. Our future will be heavily contingent on our ability to interact and work cooperatively toward mutual goals.

It is estimated there will be 20, 000 deaths this year in relationship to the devastations caused by bully behavior.

Whatever you may believe, the facts are this, the victims of the bully never forget what happened to them – the bully must live with that – and so must we. Bullying is a learned behavior, which can be prevented!