MassGeneral Hospital for Children News

To many, bullying can seem like a rite of passage in childhood. But while it may be fairly commonplace, is bullying really "just kids being kids"? For some victims, the negative effects can last a lifetime, and those who engage in bullying are demonstrating deeper-set issues themselves.

The meaning of mean

Ending bullying through cultural change

27/Apr/2010

To many, bullying can seem like a rite of passage in childhood. But while it may be fairly commonplace, is bullying really "just kids being kids"? For some victims, the negative effects can last a lifetime, and those who engage in bullying are demonstrating deeper-set issues themselves.

Gene Beresin, MD, director of the MGH/McLean Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training Program and medical director of the MGH Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic, and Steve Schlozman, MD, associate director of Training, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the MGH/McLean Hospital, explain the psychology behind bullying -- and explore ways to stop it.

A serious problem

According to a 2001 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately 30 percent of children are affected by bullying in one way or another -- 10 percent of children reported being targets of bullying, 13 percent reported bullying and 6 percent reported both.

"Boys reported being both the perpetrator and targets of bullying moreso than girls," says Beresin. "Also, bullying was reported as more common for sixth through eighth grade students than for ninth and tenth grade students, the age groups that the study focused on."

"The amazing thing is that there have been multiple studies since then that show relatively consistent numbers across Western nations," adds Schlozman. "Bullying is a serious problem."

Beresin

Bullying is generally defined as one or more children consistently attacking a single child -- rarely more than one -- and causing some combination of physical, emotional or social harm. It can take many shapes and forms. Bullying may be physical, especially in the case of boys, while indirect bullying, like talking behind someone’s back, is more common in girls. A new type of bullying, "cyber bullying," or using internet-based methods to harass someone, also is on the rise.

"Being the victim of bullying is extremely painful," explains Beresin. "It is emotionally distressing, and causes anxiety and depression. It creates social isolation, feeling on edge, and having a sense of wariness about the intentions of others."

Schoolyard psychology

Schlozman

What's even more damaging is that victims often do not tell authorities, since this may result in more aggressive attacks. As a result, victims feel alone and helpless -- they feel as if there is no one they can turn to. This despair can result in depression for some children; they may consider suicide as the only way out.

"Victims remain silent and don't even tell their parents, lest they act on their behalf," says Beresin. "Telling a teacher, principle, coach or other authority is felt to put the victim at greater risk, particularly if the bully is punished. The victims fear even greater attacks as a result."

Still, while the victims are most directly affected by bullying, bullies themselves are demonstrating behavior indicative of issues worthy of attention. Bullies seek to assert power or dominance and act out anger by targeting kids who are weaker, different and vulnerable. Children who bully tend to have psychosocial problems -- they may be involved in drinking and smoking; they show poor school performance in both academic achievement and social effectiveness; they tend to have a hard time making friends; and they are generally more isolated than other children.

"Bullying is a dysfunctional way of kids coping with their own problems," says Schlozman. "They don't appreciate the harm they inflict on others in a sensitive manner."

"The kids who bully -- like those that are bullied -- are often very insecure and anxious," adds Beresin. "Many times they are depressed and have significant problems with self-esteem."

But bullies and victims of bullying aren't the only ones involved in the paradigm. Schlozman points to a triangular model of bullying proposed by two researchers at the Menninger Clinic.

"These researchers note that every script for bullying has the bullier, the one who is bullied -- and bystanders. Observational studies suggest that these third parties egg on the behavior that leads to bullying among victim and aggressor," he says. "Assessments of these bystanders indicate that this behavior is meant to prevent being directly involved. Thus, attempts to quash bullying only by drawing attention to the role of the active aggressor might not work."

Cultural acceptance

Even if adults or children involved do speak up about bullying, others may not take their concerns seriously. They believe bullying is a normal problem, and children must simply deal with it on their own.

"There is a cultural feeling, perhaps especially in the United States, that the individual ought to be able to take care of him or herself," say Schlozman.

"Some parents tell their kids that they should 'go beat up the bully,'" adds Beresin. "And while this may work in rare cases, it is seen by kids as very dangerous: The possible repercussions may be worse! Additionally, why perpetuate the same terrible behaviors as the perpetrators?"

Addressing the issue

According to both Beresin and Schlozman, bullying should never be treated as "normal" behavior.

"Conflicts and misunderstandings are inevitable, but bullying is not," says Beresin. "Kids may be insecure, feel threatened, feel isolated, anxious or angry, but this is no reason to pick on others."

"Evolutionary biological behaviorists have noted that human group behavior is most similar to baboon colonies," notes Schlozman. "Based on individual characteristics, we establish a hierarchy. But are we baboons? We don’t have to be: We have other and more diverse qualities than being able to hoot the loudest or throw the largest stone."

Beresin cites a study suggesting that systemic change within schools is the most likely means by which change can be affected. "This means anti-bullying initiatives at all levels of school culture are necessary -- not just via punishment, but via safe mechanisms of discussion, contingency management, vigilance and consistency. It's important to remember that when harmful or aggressive behavior is intermittently but not consistently squashed, the behavior is usually enhanced."

He believes teaching interpersonal skills and conflict resolution should be more of a priority in traditional education -- but adults need to be educated as well: "Many adults don't have a clue about resolving conflict in their own lives -- how can they provide tools for their kids? They need guidance."

"As with many social issues, change needs to come from the rules of social engagement itself," concludes Schlozman. "The fact that bullying continues and is to some extent tolerated suggests that true systemic change has not yet happened. Adults need to understand how to identify the patterns of behavior that lead to bullying, to know when referral to experts in child development and child behavior is warranted, and to increase their understanding of what is often misperceived as a relatively normal and simple problem. These changes will not happen over night, but true social change rarely happens that easily."

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