Battling bullies

They've driven youth to suicide and thwarted the best-laid plans of schools and parents. Is there any cure for bullying?

The number of students between 12 and 18 who have reported bullying abuse more than doubled between 2001 and 2007.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Has bullying grown more prevalent?

It’s certainly more publicized. A recent spate of "bullycides"—teen suicides triggered by intense bullying—has made national headlines. Not since the Columbine massacre a decade ago, itself perpetrated by two bullied teens, has the topic been so much in the news. In August, the federal government convened its first bullying summit and announced a grant program for anti-bully efforts by schools. In 2007, nearly one in three students between 12 and 18 reported having been bullied, up from one in seven six years earlier. Explanations for the jump vary. Since schools are taking bullying more seriously, they may be reporting more cases. Overly sensitive parents might also be interpreting routine social slights as bullying. But things might actually be getting worse.

Why would bullying increase?

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Some experts believe the rise of early-onset puberty may be driving kids to turn mean or cliquish at increasingly early ages. Others believe that youth today are more narcissistic and less empathetic than previous generations. "Where there is empathy," says Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, "there is hope for respect." But there’s no doubt that social networking has also played a role. Bullying often takes the form of physical intimidation or verbal taunting. But it can be just as devastating in the virtual realm of cyberspace. More than half of 15- and 16-year-olds say they have experienced cyberbullying. Online abuse can range from kids piling on a victim with scathing ridicule, to humiliation by way of making private information, including photos, globally available. Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September after his roommate secretly taped him being intimate with another man and posted the video online. When bullying occurs online, says one Virginia school official, "you can't get away from it."

What are we doing to combat it?

A lot. After Columbine, American schools scrambled to deter bullying in all its endlessly inventive forms. Many schools have implemented anti-bullying programs. The most prominent is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, created in Norway; it trains students, teachers, administrators, and support staff in spotting and stopping bullying. (The thrust is to question the bully calmly but directly about his behavior.) Other programs seek to nurture empathy among students instead of merely punishing bullies. "If making an example out of a teenager would successfully change behavior," says Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist, "we'd have a pretty well-behaved country of adolescents."

Isn’t bullying just a rite of passage?

Not for everyone. The suicides of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, who hanged herself in January after months of torment by classmates, and 13-year-old Asher Brown, a Texas eighth-grader whose parents said he shot himself after being "bullied to death," confirm that the effects can be horrific. Researchers at UCLA discovered that victims of bullying tend to do worse academically than their peers. Other studies have found that bullied students are less likely to speak in class, and are at greater risk of truancy, depression, and suicide. "We cannot address low achievement in school while ignoring bullying, because the two are frequently linked," said Jaana Juvonen, lead author of the UCLA study. A Yale study concluded that bullies themselves have an increased risk of suicide, and a pioneering Norwegian study found that 60 percent of boys who were bullies in middle school had a criminal conviction by age 24. "There is a lot of evidence that psychological problems in adolescence can persist into adulthood," says Ronald Iannotti, of the National Institutes of Health.

Why do kids become bullies?

It's mostly about power and status. Although the stereotyped bully is a big dumb guy suffering from low self-esteem, many are actually popular, intelligent, and egotistical, with plenty of self-esteem. Their bullying of others is a means of demonstrating their superiority to other students, enabling them to rise in the social hierarchy. But the origins of bullying are complex. A recent DePaul University study concluded that if a kid feels he’s being arbitrarily punished at home, he's more likely to become a bully—meting out arbitrary punishment to others. Parents inevitably are a key factor, since kids often ape what they see at home. As a kindergarten teacher in New York City says, "The mean girls are often from mean moms."

Who becomes a victim?

It's not just a handful of small, timid kids. Fear of bullies keeps 160,000 kids out of school each year. Victims are often different from classmates in appearance, dress, or speech. Gay students—or those believed to be gay—can face special torment. The vast majority report having been harassed in school. But some conservatives oppose anti-bullying curricula that even mention homosexuality. Linda Harvey of Mission America, a Christian group, says such curricula could "incorporate mandatory pro-gay propaganda." After recent suicides by gay teens, however, the plight of bullied gay kids is rising on school agendas. "This shouldn't be a political issue anymore," said Rebecca Dearing, a high school junior from Minnesota. "It's a human issue."

It gets better

One thing that makes bullying so devastating is the dread among victims that it will never stop—that life will never get better. To counter this, writer and gay activist Dan Savage launched a YouTube video campaign in September entitled "It Gets Better." Savage and his partner discussed their difficulties growing up gay, but also emphasized how satisfying their lives have been as gay adults. In the wake of their confessional, thousands of others, gay and straight, have posted videos of their own, ranging from ordinary people to celebrities like Tim Gunn, the fashion consultant who gained fame on television's Project Runway. On video, Gunn recounted his own teenage despair, which led him to attempt suicide. The campaign's message is summed up by openly gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns. "The attitudes of society will change," he said. "Please live long enough to be there to see it."

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