In spite of national campaigns against bullying, including legislation in some states that punishes offenders and imposes strict reporting standards on schools, as many kids as ever report being victimized by their peers. The most recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on youth behavior showed no change in reports of bullying among high school kids, on school property, between 2009 and 2013. According to the US Department of Education, up to 22 percent of 12-18 year olds claim to having been bullied by their peers.
A clear understanding of the nature of bullying, including who does it and why, should guide a school’s response. But “most educators aren’t aware of the function bullying serves in school,” said James Dillon, a retired teacher and former principal who directs the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. Without a better sense of what drives heartless peer-on-peer behavior, Dillon said, schools’ anti-bullying campaigns will continue to wilt. “If you don’t understand it, you can’t treat it,” Dillon added.
School leaders who are eager to staunch online and in-person bullying might consider reviewing recent findings from social science as well as the opinions of scholars who study the problem. These findings, in some cases, upend the conventional wisdom about bullying and how to stop it.
Most kids don’t bully, don’t like bullying, and feel bad for the victims. The majority of kids don’t bully other kids and haven’t been victimized, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program reports. In a 2012-13 survey the organization conducted of 300,000 kids from 1,000 schools, 80 percent of students between third and twelfth grade reported never having been bullied or having targeted another for bullying. The Olweus study also found that most students disapprove of bullying and feel sympathy for the victim. “More than 90 percent of girls and 74 percent of boys across all grade levels feel sorry for bullied students,” the report says.
Kids bully to achieve dominance and to solidify their social standing. Kids pick on others as a way to secure their standing among their peers or to move up a notch. In the words of social scientists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, who authored a 2011 study on bullying in the context of social networks in schools, “aggression is intrinsic to status and escalates with increases in peer status until the pinnacle of the social hierarchy is attained.” Children from single-parent homes, and those with less educated parents, are no more apt to bully than kids with married and learned parents. African-Americans and other minorities show the same rates of bullying as their white counterparts. In short, Faris and Felmlee write, “the role of personal deficiencies is overstated and…concerns over status drive much aggressive behavior.” The popular notion of bullies as sullen social outcasts who come from broken homes is a myth.