No one deserves to be bullied
By Spiros Tzelepis, Greece
While trying to compile a special report on bullying, I was faced with the problem of defining what bullying is and what its impact on people is from a scientific point of view. I found some personal stories on bullying problems that depicted that the problem exists and they also depicted the feelings of victims; but I thought that a sociologist could present the issue from all possible sides and could give the readers a "global" view of it. So I thought to address to Roberto Hugh Potter, the sociologist who has in the past helped me to compile the report on youth violence, published in September '99. I was glad to discover that he was still interested in dealing with my questions one and a half years later and this is the result of our (new) online discussion:
Which are in your opinion the major causes of bullying? Why would someone want to harm a weaker fellow?
As with most violence problems, there are two primary ideas about what causes bullying. One emphasizes power and control issues. Bullying is viewed as an attempt by a more powerful person to control the behavior of another through physical or emotional power. This reflects social roles where the powerful control the less powerful, and can be seen to operate from the schoolyard through the corporate boardroom and government. In this view, bullying among children is a predictor of later behavior in a variety of settings, including harassment and partner violence. On the more psychological side, bullying may be viewed as a deficit in personality. This might be from a lack of self-control (which also has a strong socialization component), or some emerging psychological problem.
The answer probably lies somewhere in between, with a combination of psychological predispositions to the use of power to get one's way and a lack of proper socialization to develop self-control.
What do you believe does this behaviour show about the character of the person who demonstrates it?
As a sociologist I tend to think of character as a product of individual predisposition and social environment. Some children may be more likely to be aggressive than others, but how that aggression is channeled is the important issue. Children who observe adults and other children using force or intimidation to get their way will probably try this tactic out, too. If they are rewarded for their bullying behaviors (that is, they get what they want), they are likely to continue bullying.
Many cultures value and reward aggressive behaviors. "Character traits"associated with success are sometimes very similar to those associated with bullying. So, it is the social environment that often makes the difference between a bully and a forceful personality.
Do you believe that bullying among young people is actually a form of youth violence?
I, personally, tend to make a distinction between aggressiveness and violence, especially in young people. It is more a matter of degree and intent than a simple bully/non-bully situation. Bullying is the use of physical or emotional power to get others to do what you want them to do. To the extent that it can potentially cause harm (physical or emotional), I think it moves into the violence area.
Perhaps more importantly is the pattern bullying sets for future behavior. If a young person finds that they can get their way through intimidating others and does not develop the self-control needed to exist cooperatively in society, it is more likely that they will continue to use these behaviors as adults. This can affect not only their partners and children, but also their work place and community.
Short answer: Bullying is a form of youth violence; but since more people report being bullies than being bullied, it may be more of an aggression than violence.
What should be done to prevent bullying from happening?
Bullying prevention programs that have demonstrated the best results have tended to involve whole communities or at least whole schools, rather than being targeted at individuals or class rooms. The pioneering work on bully prevention was done in Norway by Professor Dan Olweus. This involved a whole community approach where everyone knew what behaviors comprised bullying, children, teachers, and other adults kept an eye out for these behaviors, and intervened in positive ways to stop the behavior and resolve the situation. Similar work at the school level has been conducted in Australia by Professors Ken Rigby and Phillip Slee.
The key to all of the effective programs is that the behavior that comprises bullying is clearly defined for everyone and that everyone knows the penalties for behaving in that manner. Follow-through and enforcement by both children and adults is important. Responses to bullying are positive, not simply punishing to the bully.
What are the social effects of the phenomenon, how it affects the personality of victims and what are its effects as they grow up and become adults?
We are only recently learning the longer term effects of bullying on individuals and communities. I think it is safe to say that the effect on individuals varies due to some internal factors (personality) and the types of social support they have from family, friends, teachers, etc. For some people the effects of bullying are minimal and short-lived. Others, however, are strongly affected and can have long-term physical and emotional damage. One of the areas we continue to study is whether being a victim of bullying can contribute to future victimization, so that people who are victims early in life continue to find themselves in situations where they are victimized later in life.
We also need to understand how being a bully affects people later in life. As I said earlier, for some the bullying can be channeled into positive social behaviors and they may become successful. Others cannot convert into positive behavior and may continue to be aggressive and eventually find themselves in trouble with the law, or unable to hold a job, in conflict with their girl or boy friend, spouse, and so forth. Again, it is probably the reaction of important people in their social world that helps explain how the bully will develop.
Bullying, like other forms of aggression and violence, have a cumulative effect on the social world. If bullies are allowed to reign, then the environment becomes more tolerant of aggression. We all become traumatized to some degree. Overall, then, it leads to a decline in social standards of behavior and relationships with other people. In short, it is something we want to control and work toward reducing to as low levels as possible. We probably can't prevent every first-time bullying behavior (primary prevention), but we can reduce them. We can develop effective secondary prevention and intervention programs to help those who resort to bullying behavior find other, more socially acceptable, ways to resolve problems and get what they desire.
What's your advice to the victims?
The first thing to remember is that it is not anything about yourself that makes you a target beyond the bullying thinking you are an easy target. You are not the problem.
The key piece of advice is to tell a responsible adult that the bullying is taking place. You will need assistance from a person who has authority to make the bully change his/her behavior. Dr. Nan Stein deals with the difference between "telling" and "tattling" in her curriculum. It is OK to tell an adult when you are being bullied and get their help. We all need help from time to time to take care of things we can't control.
It is also a good thing for the bully to receive help to understand his/her behavior and the long-term problems that behavior can cause to themselves.
Bottom line, no one deserves to be bullied and seeking help from a responsible adult (teacher, administrator, parent, spiritual leader, etc.) is an honorable and appropriate thing to do.
ROBERTO HUGH POTTER, Ph.D.
Roberto Hugh Potter received his education at the University of South Florida (B.A., 1975) and the University of Florida (M.A., 1977 and Ph.D., 1982). He has worked as a Criminal Justice Planner, Founding Director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Institute, Training and Research Director for the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, and Director of Evaluation Research and Information Systems for Families First in Atlanta. His academic career has spanned five and one-half years teaching Sociology and Criminology in Australia (University of New England), and currently as Director of the Institute for Correctional Research and Training at Morehead State University (Kentucky).
His applied and evaluation research interests include a range of corrections issues. These include evaluating drug treatment programs, victim-offender mediation and conferencing programs, and other community corrections issues. Publications in this area have focused on studies on juvenile justice system decision-making, net-widening, and campus crimes.
On the sociological side, he is interested in behaviors and products at the margins of society, or "daily deviancies", as reflected in the 1996 publication, Pornography: Group Pressures and Individual Rights, a study of the X-rated video industry and consumers in Australia.
I would like to especially thank Roberto Hugh Potter for his willingness to help with producing this interview - S.Tzelepis
Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002
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