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‘Bullying’ & ‘peer victimization’: Clearer terms, better communication

I suspect two reasons why people (mistakenly) think cyberbullying is on the rise are…

  1. Its increased visibility: Cruel words and behaviors are unprecedentedly public now, because of the social Web, so that’s what’s actually growing – the exposure – which is sometimes confused with the behavior itself. The confusion needs to be cleared up. The exposure may be scary, but it’s a net gain because wrongs have to be exposed to be righted, and exposure offers more information about and therefore understanding of an age-old problem that now has greater potential than ever to be addressed.
  2. A lack of definition so that virtually every form of negative behavior is mistakenly called “bullying.” Whether in news reports or policy circles, virtually all kinds of meanness – something said in an argument, a fit of anger acted out, a stupid prank gone very wrong, or what most scholars define as “bullying” (repeated, intentional cruelty toward someone at the wrong end of a power imbalance) – is thrown under the “bullying,” and especially the “cyberbullying,” umbrella, which makes for misinformation and bad policymaking by schools and governments.

“It is not even possible to know who the instigator [of a cyberbullying incident] is, let alone whether this person is more powerful or is repeating their insults. So … ‘bullying’ has shucked its official definition, and come to mean any belligerence, threat or harassment that occurs online,” researchers at the University of New Hampshire and University of the South write in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

Better definition

Authors David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and Sherry Hamby suggest that the term “bullying” is problematic because of what it both excludes and includes. It’s good that “bullying” excludes “trivial conflicts among peers,” but it’s not good that the word excludes serious single acts of aggression against a peer.

“A peer who whacks a schoolmate with a baseball bat and sends him to the hospital – this is not technically bullying if it occurs only once or if there was no pre-existing power differential. A student who sexually assaults another student – this is not technically bullying if it only happens once. But,” the authors write, “the reality is that when schools adopt ‘bullying prevention’ programs, they are trying to target and eliminate all interpersonal aggression, the bat assault and the sexual assault included, not simply the repeated aggression in unequal relationships.” So the terminology should catch up to the reality on the ground.

Schools should address any kind of cruelty (and not just from students), including bullying and cyberbullying (which should map more closely to the offline version), and getting clear about terms helps them do that. The researchers propose that educators, researchers, and advocates – especially those dealing with bullying – “increasingly emphasize that the domain of interest is ‘peer victimization and aggression’ or ‘peer victimization, aggression and bullying,’ explaining that it goes beyond bullying to include peer sexual assault, dating violence, gang violence and single episode assaults.” The authors mention a precedent for this in the literature: “As rape has come to be understood as a subcategory of sexual assault, the more common term in recent years, so bullying would be recognized as a subcategory of the more commonly used peer victimization.”

Getting past words to communication

Going with “peer victimization” or the more general “peer aggression” would be helpful to young people when we’re working with them to address a particular incident. “Bullying” is an adult term to them, so if we want equal participation from them in conversations about peer aggression, it’s better not to use loaded adult terminology. “Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish,” social media researchers danah boyd and Alice Marwick wrote in a commentary in the New York Times). So it’s better to use more “technical” and general terms like peer aggression so adults and teens can get quickly past words to genuine communication – and together get to the bottom of what happened.

Ask a group of middle-school students specifically what bullying is, as New Jersey teacher Marianne Malmstrom did, and you’ll probably get as many thoughtful responses as these. Notice how prominent intention is in these students’ definitions. What this says to me is that – because each incident or struggle is individual and contextual – it may help to start with perceptions of intention among those involved, getting multiple perspectives on what happened and why. Did someone want to move up the social ladder (the social rivalry piece considered in this study) or marginalize someone else because (they believed) it would help them feel better about themselves? Was it a joke or prank that ended up hurting somebody? Part of an argument? Questions like these help us move past labels and generalized “solutions” like school suspensions that usually resolve nothing and can make things worse for targeted students (see and this on related research out of Texas).

…and unprecedented problem-solving

Principal Karen Siris, who developed a program that involved creating a “Caring Majority” of “upstanding” students in her Long Island, N.Y., elementary school, recently wrote in an email that “it is the culture and climate of a school district and a commitment to social and emotional understanding that is at the heart of [bullying] prevention.” In my work with them in the past few years, I have heard statements like this from educators, risk prevention specialists, and scholars in psychology, sociology, and medicine. So it looks like we may be getting somewhere now – getting closer to solving this social problem that youth, parents, educators, and policymakers worldwide have been dealing with for generations. So social media’s not only giving the problem unprecedented exposure, it’s giving us an unprecedented opportunity to “get it right” this time!

Part 1 of this two-parter was “Bullying still > cyberbullying, but most kids do neither.”

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anne #

    Bruce, I agree that any bullying is too much. But I also feel that – because of what we’ve learned from the social norms research – it’s important not to exaggerate the numbers. See this abstract from the work of Profs. Perkins & Craig at Hobart-William Smith Colleges. The complete report – “Misperceptions of Bullying Norms as a Risk Factor Associated with Violence among Middle School Students” – can be found on this page in their site.

    August 29, 2012
  2. Bullying cruelty is far too common and I agree it is definitely important to to listen to researchers’ suggestions that educators, researchers, and advocates who deal with bullying deal head-on with aggression and peer victimization.
    Sexual assault, dating violence and gang violence are all reasons we need to stand up against bullying.

    August 29, 2012

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