Concern about bullying has increased exponentially in recent years, but it’s possible that we may be overreacting, Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. suggested at the annual meeting of the North Pacific Pediatric Society.
Media coverage of suicides by teenagers (especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender teens) who were bullied at school sparked the It Gets Better Project in late 2010. It Gets Better videos, with positive messages from adults who made it through their own tough teen years, went viral and have been seen by many millions of people.
The New York Times review of the 2012 movie “Bully” says it’s not just about the families profiled in the film but also about the “emergence of a movement.” Controversy around the film’s rating garnered lots of press coverage and publicity.
So, awareness of bullying is definitely up. That’s good, Dr. Kastner said, but it also means that people have started applying the label of bullying to behavior that doesn’t fit the bill. “I get called about bullying a lot,” said Dr. Kastner, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.
“Bullying is a little like sexual abuse was 25 years ago,” she said. “It’s great to have heightened awareness, but then people start throwing around words for a whole continuum, and then it gets muddy.” When increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse led to teaching about inappropriate touching and related topics, some parents were asked by their children during bath time if this was sexual abuse, she recalled.
She defined bullying as a pattern of tormenting with a power differential between the bully and the bullied. It’s not a one-off occurrence of cruelty, though there are plenty of those in the adolescent years.
Evolutionary psychologists describe how peer status seems to be one of the most universal dynamics seen across cultures and time, she said. “There was something adaptive about jockeying for peer position in your tribe.” One implication of that is that adolescents have a biologically-based hypersensitivity to peer relations and rejection.
“Social cruelty is normal and it exists on a continuum,” Dr. Kastner said. “It’s helpful that we talk about the concept of a continuum, so it’s not an either/or and oversimplifying this.”
When an adolescent encounters an act of social exclusion, or rumoring, or physical cruelty, depending on the situation and the teen’s sensitivity this could go down as one of the worst things that happened to them in their childhood. But was it bullying?
“Details, details, details” – that’s what the parent or physician needs to make a good assessment, she said.
Bullying seems to be common. Approximately 20%-30% of teens report that they have been bullied, she said. Fifty-three percent of students report seeing bullying at lease once a week, the National Crime Prevention Council reports on its Bullying Prevention page.
Attention has increased not only on the bullied but on bullies. One study found that suicidal adolescents who also were bullies had a heightened prevalence of substance use and functional impairment.
Dr. Kastner recommended resources from the National Crime Prevention Council for physicians who want to help families understand and address bullying. The Council also offers resources specifically for cyberbullying.
The key is for parents to talk about all these things with their teenager not once, but many times. “It’s like sex education – good, but don’t make it a one-time thing,” she said. “Make it a continuing conversation with context, a dialogue. Don’t overreact. Make it interesting. Be responsive. Be a good listener. Keep weaving in new information, new hypotheticals,” because a one-off conversation “is probably not going to do much.”
–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)