October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Every year, organizations raise awareness about bullying, hold parades and empowerment sessions, and lobby for harsher punishments for bullies. Every year, it doesn’t seem to matter, as bullying claims more victims’ lives.
The most recent victim — that we know of — was 16-year-old Channing Smith, who committed suicide after his classmates outed then bullied him for being gay. He is one of the dozens of children who have killed themselves due to bullying, especially cyberbullying, which has a way of following them home from school.
Over the past 15 years, with every high-profile case of bullying, new laws have been enacted, and existing laws strengthened, to address what increasingly seems to be an epidemic. The names of the victims have been attached to both legislative bills (such as the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act and Phoebe’s Law) and awareness foundations (such as the Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover Foundation). With each so-called “bullycide,” more people organize to stop this deadly menace that’s inextricably tied to school life.
Most people agree that bullying is bad and can be deadly, and over the past few years, anti-bullying efforts have ramped up.
Why, then, can’t we stop it?
Background on Bullying
The Columbine Effect
The national conversation about bullying was invigorated by the revelation that the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting had been victims of bullying and were purportedly seeking revenge on their tormentors. Programs such as the Empower Project in D.C. and Operation Respect in New York, and awareness events such as National Bullying Prevention Week and No-Name-Calling Week, developed after extensive news coverage of the shooting. Georgia also enacted the nation’s first anti-bullying law.
Bullying as a Crime
For a long time, the specific elements of bullying, such as repeated harassment, power imbalances, and social manipulations, were technically not illegal. Bullying was considered synonymous with physical abuse — and even then, it was considered “boys being boys” rather than something worthy of involving law enforcement.
Pop culture reflected this narrow conception of bullying by portraying the bully as the awkward fat boy who shoved others around. As we know now, anyone can be a bully, and bullying veers into dangerous territory. It’s insidious precisely because it’s not the same set of behaviors in each case. For Phoebe Prince, it was harassment by girls who disliked her for “stealing their boyfriends.” For Megan Meier, it was being catfished. For Carl Walker-Hoover, it was being endlessly mocked for being “gay.” When the torment feels inescapable, children, who are already vulnerable and hormonal, are at high risk for taking their own lives.
Between 1999 and 2005, only 15 states had anti-bullying laws. In 2005, a watershed moment for educational policymakers occurred with the high-profile lawsuit against the Tonganoxie, Kansas school board (the plaintiff, Dylan Theno, eventually settled for $440,000) and the Red Lake High shooting (perpetrated on March 21, 2005 in Minnesota, by Jeff Weise). Concerned over possible litigation, shootings, or both, 16 states added anti-bullying laws.
More laws have been passed or modified each year; currently, all states but Colorado and California have such laws, which prohibit the act of bullying, require school boards to implement prevention and reporting methods, and in some states, require teachers and administrators to report incidents to police. Now, many of these laws are being modified to mention cyberbullying.
What is Bullying?
Many people think that “bullying” only applies to children, but bullying is quite simply the perpetration of abuse, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise, in a social context such as a school or workplace. Bullying is repeated or chronic, and to be counted as bullying rather than teasing or mere insults, it must reflect a power imbalance. For example, a popular kid regularly mocking a less popular kid is bullying, while a popular kid mocking a member of their own clique is not bullying. For adults, this often manifests in the workplace, where abusive supervisors or managers use their power to insult or manipulate their subordinates.
When the torment feels inescapable, children, who are already vulnerable and hormonal, are at high risk for taking their own lives.
The experience of bullying has been linked to major depression, including suicidality, and poor school or work performance. Despite what some Internet commentators say, there is no evidence that people who experience bullying are weaker. Rather, they tend to be perceived by the bullies as weak or abnormal. Victims can be anyone, just like bullies can be anyone. On that note, those who experience negative health consequences of being bullied are not weaker or more “sensitive.” There is no shame in feeling damaged by bullying, and there should be no pride in being able to “let it roll off your back.” The appropriate response is always to seek recourse.
Why Does Bullying Happen?
Now that we’ve accepted that bullies are not just the unhappy fat kid who secretly hates himself, many casual observers have been quick to swing to the other extreme. They demonize bullies as “psychopaths,” and the news media certainly helps them with that by vilifying bullies and martyring the victims. Shows such as “Scream Queens” have taken the alleged link between mean girls and psychopaths to the extreme. Common wisdom holds that bullies are deeply deranged. Or, more likely, parents simply don’t want to believe that their precious angels could be bullies.
The research reveals a complicated picture: Bullies aren’t psychopaths, but they do tend to fall within the “Cluster B” personality traits shared with psychopaths. Studies have found that bullies are low in empathy and find it hard to take other people’s perspectives. That might imply that bullying is a byproduct of a lack of social skills. However, results have been inconsistent, and the link between low empathy and bullying is more profound when one particular Cluster B trait is included.
Namely, bullies are narcissistic. In my own research, I found that people who scored highly on the standard narcissism inventory were more attuned to the bullying aspects of physical abuse or social manipulation that they observed in videos. They were more interested in bullying, even if they didn’t perpetrate it themselves.
Make no mistake: Bullies want to hurt others because it aggrandizes themselves, and they learn how to do so by observing other people. A lot of this behavior can be linked to one’s power goals as well as the person they’re modeling. Bullies breed bullies. Just look at the chief American bully: Our President.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a whitepaper called “The Trump Effect.” The authors stated,
We heard reports that both elementary and middle school students have taken to chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ in a ‘taunting tone.’ Others cited an increase in the use of [Trump’s common campaign] words like ‘loser’ and ‘deadbeat.’
Those kids weren’t saying those words with no idea of what they meant. They’d likely internalized what they heard at home and found those words, normalized by the President, to be useful insults. Kids aren’t dumb. I don’t know where this idea that “kids say things they don’t mean” came from. Kids have complicated social negotiations that rival a season of Game of Thrones.They form alliances and name enemies. Believe me, from growing up in the South, I saw that childhood was not mutually exclusive with bigotry.
How Can We Stop Bullying?
For many years, school administrators decided that the best course of action was simply to say “Stop it, or else!” They implemented “zero-tolerance” policies that immediately suspended or even expelled students who bullied. The problem was that, as the film Mean Girls illustrates, bullying is on a spectrum of bad behavior, and it’s too easy to punish the victims or misidentify teasing as something more sinister.
Research has identified several common outcomes of zero-tolerance policies:
- The victim is expelled after they react to a bully’s provocation, or they are framed by the bully.
- Minority students tend to be expelled more often than white students.
- The bully continues to harass the victim via electronic means.
- The bully continues to engage in bullying behavior out of retaliation or simply because the expulsion did not negate their desire to bully.
Recently, anti-bullying educators and social scientists have introduced restorative justice, which is considered to be more culturally competent (and thus less likely to punish minorities). This approach includes techniques such as empathy training and mediation among quarreling students. While the programs have helped reduce school crime in jurisdictions where they’ve been implemented, they can’t address the core cause of bullying.
A Culture Change is Needed
As I discussed above, bullying is not a psychological quirk. It’s a highly strategic, narcissistic undertaking. Think about it: Plenty of us have been angry when a lover pursued another partner. We’ve all felt humiliated when someone with authority disliked our work, and we’ve all been disrespected at some point in our lives. Do we all run social media campaigns to smear someone’s reputation? Throw eggs at them? Slam them into lockers every day? No, because we’re not bullies.
Bullies want to hurt others because it aggrandizes themselves, and they learn how to do so by observing other people.
Bullying is a twisted form of performance art meant to humiliate a victim to enhance one’s personal power. And by blaming victims and perpetuating a culture that rewards narcissism, we’re enabling bullying.
That’s why we can’t stop it.
We’re unwilling to take the hard look at our own behavior that contributes to bullying. While behavior such as harassing a cashier over an expired coupon isn’t bullying per se, it’s on the spectrum of bad behavior that we normalize in American society.
Lead with compassion and teach your children to talk through their needs and desires. Find ways to translate narcissism into humility and manipulation into the embracing of your differences with other people.
And most importantly, call out bullying when you see it. Your marches and Facebook shares aren’t enough. Your turning a blind eye to abuse undoes all your good deeds. This Bullying Prevention Month, make a promise to all those children who took their lives after being bullied. Promise that you will speak out against bad bosses, toxic friends, and politicians who use their immense power to belittle the masses.
Your voice can save lives. Use it.
Interested in the sources used in this research? Leave a private note.
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and anthropologist based in Orlando, FL. She studied visual anthropology at the University of Florida, where she specialized in the anthropology of violence, legal anthropology, and psychological anthropology. She earned her master’s for original human-subject research examining the relationship among media portayals of bullying, sociolegal response to bullying, and the social construction of bullying behavior.