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Bullying: It Stops Here. Bullying as Sign of Psychological Trouble or Popularity?

Posted Oct 13 2011 10:21am
Check out Bullying: It Stops Here, the new anti-bullying initiative by Anderson Cooper on his cable perch, AC360 (degrees!). While I can't figure out how to type the degree symbol, I can tell you bullying isn't what it used to be according to a new "pilot" study sponsored by CNN and the silver-haired heir-anchor. That's right, the media is now in the research biz and here's what Anderson and friends found in their little survey conducted at a "nationally-ranked" Long Island high school:

Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status," explains Robert Faris, a sociologist whom "Anderson Cooper 360°" partnered with for the pilot study. "It's really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school's social life. It's the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things ... often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors." CNN study: Schoolyard bullies not just preying on the weak.
So toss out the depressed bully who picks on others to relieve his own psychic suffering - the kid who acts out to compensate for his low self-esteem, crappy parents or otherwise hate-filled and lonely existence.  Toss out the anxious, frail victim too.  Bullies, victims, and the hybrid bully-victim are none of the above.

On the contrary the New Bullies are well-liked, seemingly well-adjusted and well-situated kids in the middle to top social hierarchy of middle and high school life, the ones scrapping for power and status.  The most popular students of course needn't bother with the messy work of taunting and teasing.  Those at the bottom somehow are also relieved of the social jockeying, left to dwell in their lowly status.       

Bullying as ordinary social interaction?  A response to the social structure? The remnants of evolutionary-programmed power-seeking primate behavior. 

The New Bullying doesn't exactly mesh with with the traditional bullying portrait of the strong versus weak.  The playground bully picking out vulnerable classmates whose deficits make them prime targets. Remember, it's been only recently that some experts studying the issue have proposed perps and vics be identified by their psychological short-comings.  If this sounds familiar you might have read this snippet from Time in my previous post :


What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?
Studies show that kids who are involved in bullying — bullies, victims and a third subgroup of particularly problematic kids who engage in both behaviors and are referred to as bully-victims — are more likely to have started out with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that predispose them to lashing out and to self-harm. Should We Re-Think Our Anti-Bullying Strategy, Time, September 28.
So how does the troubled bully/vic square with the popular kids vying for power?  The researchers profiled in the recent Time piece pretty clearly separated the two.  The former troubled kid stuff is "bullying", the second, more "mean" behavior.  Of course there is overlap.  In the CNN survey more than half of the high schoolers said they'd been involved in bullying (56%).  That's a whole lot of mean going on.  Do we  think all of it was "bullying?"  When does mere bad behavior cross into bullying? It matters now that most states have anti-bullying laws. 

Just because we fail to call some bad behavior "bullying" doesn't mean it is excusable.  But since we're asking difficult questions about social interaction and children, these issues need be clarified. From a prevention stand-point it probably matters.  If we've misunderstood or muddied the distinctions between different types of bullying then no wonder we can't seem to stop it here, there or anywhere. 

One possibility - bullying may morph across age groups.  I can imagine the traditional type more prevalent in elementary school, the power-striving type in high school.  Any evidence out there?

Also, the popular kids in the social-hierarchy bullying may very well differ in key traits from those involved in the more traditional bullying (i.e.  stigmatized, troubled or vulnerable kids).  I'd like to know how, wouldn't you? Although the popular kids know all the right moves socially, they may still show some signs of trouble (i.e. lack of empathy? lack of impulse control?).  Not everybody is participating in the threatening tweets and such so beyond relative social status there are other factors driving the cruel behavior.

Then there are the perennially bullied.

I know them. You know them. Parents, teachers and school counselors the world over know them. Hard to ignore the existence of these chronically-bullied children. I don't think their suffering makes the same dramatic headlines that the cheerleader gets when she's harassed or commits suicide. Their stories aren't so remarkable or newsworthy in part because we aren't so surprised when they end up face down in the dirt. Why are the latter teased mercilessly? Their stutters, physical disabilities, sexual orientation, name a stigma. I hate to sell them short here in our Bullying: It Stops Here campaign. They exist as well as the pretty girl taunted by the pretenders to the Homecoming throne.
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