What Can Be Done About Bullying?

Posted on Oct 16 2020 by Aaron Heldt

What Can Be Done About Bullying?

Bullying can be found in all types of organizations and societal structures, but it is perhaps more obvious and destructive during the middle school and high school years. The concept of bullying behavior in schools has been presented so often in films and television that it has become almost an expectation of being a student. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even though bullying has been around as long as humans have lived in societies, there are bullying prevention efforts that can make these formative years safer for middle school and high school age students.    

How Is Bullying Defined?

Since 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services has offered the website stopbullying.gov as a resource for parents, teachers, other school staff, and students in the effort to make bullying a thing of the past. They define bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior” that “involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” A power imbalance is the key factor; bullies use physical size or strength, popularity, or even embarrassing information to assert control over another person or simply to harm them. The other factor that defines bullying is repetition; bullies don’t bully someone just once—an aggressor tends to exhibit the same behavior over and over again, often directed at the same people.  

What’s easy to miss sometimes is that bullying goes beyond the jock beating up a nerd motif; on the contrary, bullying transcends demographics and can be seen regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status. Indeed, bullying can even transcend the physical; cyberbullying is a more recent development (and one that is more obvious now during the COVID-19 crisis), but it still represents people using a perceived imbalance of power to control or harm others. Even with all the variation, though, it’s still possible to categorize the types of bullying: 

Verbal Bullying: Saying or writing unwelcome things about a person 

  • Name calling
  • Teasing
  • Taunting
  • Sexual comments or innuendo 
  • Threats   

Physical Bullying: Hurting a person bodily or intentionally damaging their possessions

  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Punching
  • Tripping
  • Pushing 
  • Hand gestures
  • Physically looming over someone 

Social Bullying: Seeking to intentionally damage someone’s reputation or relationships

  • Spreading rumors
  • Causing public embarrassment
  • Leaving someone out of a social situation to make them feel isolated 
  • Cyberbullying (i.e. through social media) 

In more recent years, school leaders in the United States have had to evaluate bullying policies and school safety in light of new threats like the possibility of a school shooting. While rare, it is a delicate issue that concerns many people. What is less rare is the growing number of students who have come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In many cases, these students have likely taken a disproportionate share of various forms of bullying as a result of sharing this information with their peers and the rest of the public.

What Are the Effects of Bullying?

It can be easy to dismiss bullying with some variation of, “it happened to me when I was a kid, and I turned out OK.” Unfortunately, that attitude ignores extensive research done on this topic that has concluded that bullying is actually a public health crisis. A recent article from Yale Medicine noted that research “links being bullied in childhood with a long list of physical and mental health challenges, including obesity, depression and higher risk of chronic disease.” The fact is that being forced to endure the aggressive behavior of a bully can have lasting consequences for a person’s overall well being. Consider the potential effects: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Changes in sleeping patterns 
  • Loss of interest in maintaining good habits
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Decreased achievement at school
  • Reduced participation in school or extracurricular activities 
  • Suicide or suicidal thoughts   

Quite simply, bullying has the potential to totally upend an otherwise normal experience of adolescence and instead make life a torturous chore that doesn’t seem worth living. While the relationship between bullying and suicide is complicated and not at all direct, it’s undeniable that bullying-related increases in depression or anxiety can have a profoundly negative effect on anyone’s outlook on life or self-esteem. What’s also clear is that these negatives can have a lasting effect that impacts people long into adulthood. 

Steps Towards Bullying Prevention  

So what can be done about bullying? First, it requires the cooperation and collaboration of parents, teachers, students, and community groups. The old saying “it takes a village” is true for bullying prevention because there isn’t one simple fix. To really reduce the occurrences of bullying, it requires a variety of methods: 

Understand: The first step is helping young people understand what’s really going on when someone bullies another. A bully’s behavior is the problem of the bully, not the victim. Teaching teens how to spot it and stand up to it can go a long way toward making it rarer. Some examples: 

  • Tips on how to stand (or respond vs. reacting) up to a bully
  • Tips on actions to take when confronted by a bully 
  • Strategies for staying safe near groups or adults
  • Teaching other students how to offer help as bystanders when they see someone being bullied

Communicate: Keeping lines of communication open is crucial for students who are being bullied regularly. One of the main reasons some young people are repeatedly bullied is because they feel alone or that there is no one they can go to for help. Initiating forthright conversations with students is therefore a key ingredient in bullying prevention:

  • Ask students questions about school, relationships, or activities to get a better sense of their daily life 
  • Start conversations about bullying with questions like “have you ever been afraid to go to school?”
  • Always pay attention to a plea for help, even if it seems shrouded in language that makes it seem like ‘no big deal’ 
  • Stay engaged with school activities and the current concerns of teens 

Activities: Bullying often happens when a victim is isolated or feels alone, so one of the best ways to avoid such situations is to be engaged in activities or groups outside of home and school. Being part of a group can introduce new, healthy friendships and have a profound effect on a student’s confidence level:

  • Volunteer
  • Participate in sports
  • Join a club, youth group or afterschool program 
  • Become involved in a new social circle 

Demonstrate: Ultimately, one of the best ways to prevent bullying is for positive adult influencers to model what it looks like to treat others with respect, kindness, and fairness. Nobody was born wanting to be a bully; that behavior was modeled, and to counter it, adults need to practice the values that they tout: 

  • Be aware of how you’re handling stress and conflict 
  • Be aware of how you treat friends, family members, and colleagues
  • Demonstrate that bullying is not necessary to feel empowered and successful

Where to Seek Help

Any bullying prevention program takes education and cooperation, but it also takes resources. In addition to available bullying prevention resources at the federal, state, and local levels, nonprofit organizations like The Bridge Teen Center and The Bridge Thrift Store provide important venues outside of the typical spheres of home and school for students to be engaged, connected, and empowered through programs, events, and job readiness programming. 

The Bridge Teen Center is a community center that is wholly dedicated to providing precisely that kind of safe space for teens in the Chicago Southland and Northwest Indiana. We offer a variety of free programs and activities for students from 7th to 12th grade that are designed to help students explore their interests and connect with other teens in a bully-free welcoming environment that still has adult supervision. In order to offer these opportunities, we engage the expertise and experience of more than 350 program volunteers each year.  The organization operates without any ongoing government funding, raising it’s entire budget through private donations. At present, 90% of every dollar donated directly supports the free programs for teens. Parents, students, and potential partner organizations alike can learn more about our history and impact online.