Bullying – 21st century style presents challenges for targets, caregivers

By Phyllis Hanlon
June 1st, 2010

Go back to your middle school years and you’ll probably remember at least one student who picked on the boy with a lisp or the girl who wore glasses. He might have shoved other students in the cafeteria, disrupted the kick ball game on the playground or shouted obscenities from the bus windows. Fast-forward and you’ll find similar behavior today, but with a twist – advanced technological tools and shifts in societal thinking have made bullying a 24/7, equal opportunity problem.

Elaine Ducharme, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Glastonbury and member of the Connecticut Children and Youth Committee of the Connecticut Psychological Association (CPA), reports that 160,000 children miss school each year because of bullying, which she defines as aggressive, persistent, intentional, repeated behavior that creates an imbalance of power and strength and can be physical and/or psychological. “Every seven minutes on the playground someone is bullied. And one in five children admits to being bullied,” she says.

In the past, victims could escape the torment once they left school property. Now, technology allows for round-the-clock intimidation. Cell phones and non-stop texting, often without adult supervision, provide a vehicle for circulating harmful messages. “Would you drop your child off in a dark alley at 11 p.m.? If you wouldn’t, why would you give them a phone?” Ducharme asks.

Bullies use Internet sites, such as Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, formspring.me and tumblr.com to continually torment their victims. “Kids can never get away from it,” says Ducharme. This “cyberbullying” has become popular for several reasons: anonymity, a tendency to say things you would not in a face-to-face situation, easy access, quick distribution and reluctance on the part of victims to report the abuse for fear of losing Internet and phone privileges, she explains. These unrelenting attacks can lead to low self-esteem, fear, depression, and anxiety and can lead to drug and/or alcohol abuse, according to Ducharme.

Bullies oftentimes find passive support from bystanders. Larry J. Karp, Psy.D., a private practitioner at the Gateway Family Institute in Hardwick, Vermont and president of the Vermont Psychological Association (VPA), explains that mob psychology leads children who feel vulnerable to seek security within a group, he explains. Also, violence in the media is contributing to desensitization in general. “There is no empathic connection when one person is hurting another. [Children] are seeing the person as an object and can’t connect with the hurt and pain,” says Karp.

Foad Afshar, Psy.D., president of the New Hampshire Psychological Association (NHPA) and founder of the Cleer Institute in Concord, N.H., has witnessed a “huge surge among girls” when it comes to bullying, noting that their behaviors are more aggressive and overt. “There has been a transition in the social structure. Media portrayal of girls is more equalized to boys,” he says, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “However, girls are under tremendous pressure, particularly between the ages of 10 and 12. Children are exposed to more mature behavior.” Afshar says that young girls assume a pseudo persona that reflects adult thinking in a child’s mind.

Afshar contends that loneliness also makes a child more vulnerable. “A child with no social structure depends on Facebook and texting. They are susceptible to negative feedback. There is nothing to counter that,” he says and indicates that helping his young clients develop self-protective skills consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy can make a situation more palatable. “I teach them to cerebrally evaluate the situation, engage in critical thinking,” he says.

Lenore M. Tipping, Ph.D., who has private practices in Bangor and Orono, Maine, indicates that a child’s attributional style and perception may ameliorate a negative response to bullying. Children who understand that a bully treats everyone in a disrespectful way will fare better, she says. Those individuals who believe the problem lies with them begin to think they have no recourse and bullying will continue, causing the victim to lose hope. “Stress is exacerbated by lack of or perceived lack of predictability and control. I try to help the child reframe the situation and realize that the bully is not infallible,” she says. “You need to encourage strength in the victim. They become less aware of these strengths when they are bullied.”

Many of the interventions practiced today have grown out of the teachings of Dan Olweus from the University of Norway, who developed his philosophy of culture change following several bullying-related suicides. Ducharme says, “Most bullying interventions have been a derivative of this program. The school has to promote a culture of kindness.”

Some strategies, while seemingly reasonable, fail to adequately and appropriately address the problem of bullying. Ducharme points out that peer mediation has become popular, but is not really a good idea. “Everyone is responsible for something. It’s really important to understand that and it requires adult intervention. Kids won’t sit down and talk over their problems.”

Ducharme recommends more in-service programs and partnerships between schools that will help teachers understand methods that work and offer educational opportunities.

Afshar believes strong family support and monitoring online activity is critical. He advises parents to join their child’s social networks. “It’s really important to engage and see dialogue. It’s okay to comment on Facebook entries,” he says. Providing balanced support may also help the child cope with a bully. “It’s difficult for kids who are over-protected. They are very vulnerable to bullying,” says Afshar.

Tipping encourages parents to instill a caring attitude in their children. “This might involve a paradigm shift,” she says, noting that societal mores tend toward greed and winning at all costs. She promotes a “shared concern” philosophy in which parents teach children to care for one another.

Karp says, “You need to be aware of when [a situation] becomes beyond the capability of the child. A child will get discouraged when they feel they are not getting support. The key thing is for parents to send a message that we care about you and say you don’t have to put up with this.”

Our culture is experiencing a “crisis of ethics,” which is leading to aggressive behavior, according to Karp. “We’ve lost something in the sense of community,” he says. “We’ve gotten disconnected.”

All six New England states have passed some form of anti-bullying laws intended to protect students and create prevention/intervention programs.

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