Bullying. This buzzword, once thought of as a harmless rite of passage and as within the realm of normal childhood interactions, is now universally recognized as a harmful epidemic. The issue has expanded beyond the fences of the schoolyard and has made its way into the public eye, reaching all the way to the Oval Office, with the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention held in 2011. In fact, anti-bullying efforts have gone as far as legislation; the vast majority of North American schools are legally mandated to have clear and strict anti-bullying policies with an emphasis on prevention and reporting. If the 1990’s was defined by the War on Drugs, this decade and the last may very likely be known for its campaign to eradicate bullying.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the official definition of bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”

It is no secret that the effects of bullying, on both the victim and perpetrator, can be serious and long-lasting. The Department warns that bully victims suffer from increased “depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy,” as well as “decreased academic achievement – GPA and standardized test scores – and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.” And of course, the most tragic result of bullying is “bullycide” – suicide as a response to being bullied.

We’ve all heard urgent warnings about the horrors of bullying and the necessity of prevention. But has it helped? Has this decade-long campaign against bullying, which has created widespread awareness and prevention laws, made any difference in the incidence of this painful phenomenon?

An Unprecedented Drop

According to an article by the Associated Press (AP) from March of 2015, school bullying hasdecreased considerably, reaching a 10-year low. Yet before we celebrate, let’s take a closer look at the numbers. According to the AP, “Nearly 1 in 4 surveyed U.S. students say they have been bullied in school. That’s an improvement, but the prevalence reinforces just how difficult the problem is to solve.” The National Center for Education Statistics began surveying bullying in 2005, and though it has seen an unprecedented drop, if a quarter of students are reporting being bullied, we cannot declare this problem solved. According to Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, “Even though we’ve come a long way over the past few years in educating the public about the health and educational impacts that bullying can have on students, we still have more work to do to ensure the safety of our nation’s children.”

Perhaps it’s time to shift the nature of the bullying conversation, moving beyond statistics and policy towards a more nuanced understanding of the complex human dynamic at play.

Is it possible that over the course of engendering the current state of hyper-awareness of bullying, educating the masses and passing laws, we’ve lost something in the process? As parents and communities, are we sometimes so quick to label a situation “bullying” that we are becoming whistle-blowers, crying wolf on actions that are not truly abusive, and lie in the spectrum of normal and healthy? And might we be robbing our children of valuable social skills and conflict resolution tools by playing
the “bully card”and imposing adult involvement on every
ordinary skirmish?

Over-Reactive Parents

Signe Whitson, a child and adolescent therapist, shares one mother’s reaction – or perhaps overreaction – to a relatively benign incident: “Last week, my daughter was bullied really badly after school! She was getting off of her bus when this kid from our neighborhood threw a fistful of leaves right in her face! When she got home, she still had leaves in the hood of her coat. It’s just awful! I don’t know what to do about these bullies.” Whitson prods the woman with further questions to reveal that the daughter wasn’t upset at all by the interaction. In fact, the girl “just brushed the leaves off and told me they were having fun together.” As the conversation continues, we learn that the daughter retaliated with her own
light-hearted leaf throwing, and that the “bully” was a friend with whom the daughter has a good relationship. Whitson probes further and finds that the daughter is not covering up for the bully to downplay victimization, nor was there a crowd ganging up on her, yet the mother still adamantly asserts, “I won’t stand for her being bullied by that kid. Next time, I am going to make sure the Principal knows what is going on after school lets out!”

In this account, an innocent game of leaf-throwing, which was perceived positively by the children involved, was incorrectly labeled “bullying” by a
well-meaning adult. Are parents becoming so over-reactive towards bullying that they are trying to fix what isn’t broken – and in the process ignoring that which really is broken?

Whitson also points out the important difference between bullying, and rude or mean behavior. She defines rudeness as “inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else,” which can manifest itself in school as bragging about a good grade or cutting in line. “Incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.” Mean behavior is characterized by intent, and defined by Whitson as “purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once
(or maybe twice),” such as criticism or name calling. But even this is not true bullying. As noted earlier, bullying contains three elements: intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior.”

When normal childhood drama is mistaken for bullying, we do a grave disservice to everyone involved. The overuse of the label threatens to water it down, rendering parents and teachers immune to the claim and making them unlikely to intervene appropriately when a situation is truly abusive. Additionally, adult arbitration in every mean or rude occurrence unfairly stigmatizes one child as a bully, and doesn’t allow the children to navigate these social situations that unfortunately don’t disappear when they are no longer in school.

Boisterous Banter

To this point, Child Development Expert Dr. Helene Guldberg controversially asserts that anti-bullying campaigns are doing moreharm than good. She writes:

Firstly, they present a very negative view of children: portraying them either as nasty little brutes or as helpless victims. Children’s relationships with other children are assumed to be damaging, and children are tacitly encouraged to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion.

We are told schools must adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying. But such an approach is deeply problematic. It suggests that whenever a child feels picked on or victimized, their troubles –
whatever they may be – can be resolved in an instant by a third party. It teaches nothing about the complexity of friendships, enemies and relationships in general. It says nothing of the fact there will be some people in life you will struggle to get along with. It implies that a person has the right to expect everyone they meet to be unfailingly pleasant and kind.

Dr. Guldberg urges teachers not to get involved with “boisterous banter or everyday playground disputes,” and to rather let children figure out how to handle it themselves. She laments the fact that “the obsession with bullying” has gripped teachers and politicians to the point that we deprive children of “experiences they need to develop.”

Political Hype

Other opponents to anti-bullying legislation question the efficacy of laws and policies in actually preventing bullying, especially when resources are lacking. True, legislation brings attention and awareness to serious issues, but are theselaws, which are passed in the columned governmental buildings by elected officials, actually trickling down to improve behavior in interpersonal relationships? The National Safety and Security Services claims that “anti-bullying legislation, typically an unfunded mandate requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies but providing no financial resources to improve school climate and security, offer more political hype than substance for helping school administrators address the problem.”

Another interesting angle of bullying is that intimidation and aggression are all too common in the adult world, as well. In the workplace, for example, bullying can take the form of excluding or isolating one person, establishing impossible deadlines to ensure failure,offensive jokes, and criticism. According to Dr. Gary Namie, National Director of The Healthy Workplace Campaign, a whopping 37 percent of adults have experienced bullying. What we have, essentially, is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: adults continue to engage in social patterns they learned as children, and simultaneously model bullying/victim behavior to their offspring, who in turn mimic these actions in their own relationships. How do we stop the cycle?

If we believe that more legislation is the answer,we can tout the banner of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). HWB legislation, which has been introduced by 29 states, provides legal redress to employers and employees in dealing with unhealthy work environments.

Yet, a niggling question still remains. How can we protect our children from dangerous bullying situations while still giving them the freedom to learn to navigate a difficult relationship?

There is no easy answer to this question. For now, we can take comfort in the decreasing numbers of school-aged bullying incidents, and pray for the insight and wisdom to handle these delicate situations in our own lives and the lives of our precious children.