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Making Bullying Everyone’s Business

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Bullying is more than a problem of one child bullying another. The power imbalance that defines bullying is also reflected in classroom social relations. Whereas those who bully are frequently considered “cool” or popular, their targets are “uncool” are typically rejected by classmates.

Those who witness bullying play a key role in reinforcing and maintaining the social imbalance. Although in studies most students report that they disapprove of bullying, they are unlikely to stand up for the bullied, even if they feel sorry for them. They may be reluctant to get involved because they feel anxious about their own safety or social status. Most importantly, when no one says or does anything in response to a classmate getting bullied, youth come to overestimate their classmates’ approval of bullying. Such overestimations then decrease the chance that they would defend a victim of bullying, and instead make it more likely that they will join the bullying.

Some school-wide anti-bullying programs are specifically designed to change the culture of schools so that students become more supportive of the targets of bullying than those who bully others. Bullying becomes “everyone’s business.”  The process starts by making all students aware of how they, as witnesses of bullying, play a critical role. Teachers then need to help students gain the social skills and confidence to help others. Adults also need to model how to stand up for, and support, the bullied.

While the focus of best-practice interventions is to reduce rates of bullying and victimization, even this may not be enough. Studies show that the emotional distress of the bullied is actually worse in classrooms and schools with lower rates of bullying. Such research findings demonstrate why we need to not only understand how bullying affects classroom environments, but also how environments affect the experiences of bullying.

One recent study showed that in schools with lower rates of bullying, children who had been bullied blamed themselves. In such environments, children who are bullied come to believe that the reason why they get ridiculed is due to something about themselves that they cannot change. This type of self-blame is associated with more intense emotional distress, and such beliefs increase the risk of getting bullied in the future.

Although lower rates of bullying can intensify the distress experienced by the bullied, we also know that having even just one friend can help them feel less vulnerable. We also know that societal minority youth feel less bullied and safer in school when they are in ethnically more diverse (as opposed to less diverse) classrooms. In more diverse settings, there are multiple ways to “fit in” and friendships with other races are related to feeling safer. These findings were discussed at the two-day workshop Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) working session, “Building Capacity to Reduce Bullying and Its Impact on Youth Across the Lifecourse,” sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Research findings highlight how bullying affects, and is affected by, classroom social relations.  That is why we have to work together to support and empower students to be more than passive bystanders and make bullying everyone’s business.