Bullying and cyberbullying: Beneath the radar no more

girl textby Peter C. Raffalli, MD, FAAP, pediatric neurologist & MARC pediatric associate.

Bullying is an ancient problem, right? Yes. Yes, it is. Bullying has been around for as long…well, as long as there have been kids, probably. So what’s new? Actually, a lot more than you might think.

While the problem of bullying is old, the severity of the problem is growing and the methods used by bullies, particularly with the advent of new technologies available to children and adolescents, have become more stealth and difficult for parents and educators to detect. However, the news is not all bad. There is simultaneously a call to arms from pediatric specialty groups (the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration) to increase vigilance to the problem and to advocate for victims of bullying.

The basic definition of bullying is kids who intentionally pick on other kids – not just once, but who do it more than once. Bullying can be from one peer or from a group of peers. The negative actions inflicted on the victim can include physical harm – hitting, kicking, pinching or psychological harm – teasing, insulting, belittling, shunning/excluding, playing repeated dirty tricks, spreading rumors.

It is high time that bullying is no longer dismissed as just a rite of passage in growing up. Bullying is a form of abuse victimization and many studies have shown the negative health impact of bullying, both short and long-term, on our kids. At the same time, the literature has also pointed to poor outcomes psychologically and socially for the bullies themselves.

It is important that we act quickly to identify effective screening tools and intervention protocols to help both bully and victim. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has aptly pointed out that, since our goal is to help both the bully and the bullied, “our interventions need to be more therapeutic than punitive.”

Unfortunately, schools may differ in how they detect and deal with bullying which in turn leads to unpredictable success when enlisting the school’s help. Children sense this uncertainty and are very reluctant to report bullying to their parents.

pull quoteIn the case of electronic bullying, research from MARC has shown that 90% of children don’t report to anybody.  Very often the victim chooses to remain quiet in the hope that the bullying will stop. Unfortunately, the lack of action against the bully usually has quite the opposite effect – emboldening the bully. This is why more sensitive, proactive screening measures need to be in place. Schools cannot address bullying and cyberbullying in isolation. A strong network of cooperation between parent, school and pediatrician needs to be in place to screen for the problem and to intervene so that our children feel safe.

Studies have also drawn attention to the unfortunate fact that children with special needs are at higher risk for bullying than the general pediatric population. It is this aspect of bullying that has drawn me into the fray.

Recently I have begun to partner with Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist at Bridgewater State College and Director of MARC. She has studied the epidemiology of bullying behavior in children for many years, particularly in Massachusetts, and her team at MARC travels to schools to train school staff on bullying detection and intervention.

Together, Dr. Englander and I are combining our efforts at MARC and at Children’s by launching a project to study the risk factors for cyberbullying (a topic for which there is very little literature to date). We will be looking to determine whether cyberbullying shares risk factors in common with those known for other forms of bullying. Cyberbullying is growing fast and may already be the predominant form of bullying perhaps in part because it is done from a perceived distance and because it is even harder to detect without deliberate vigilance from parents and schools.

At the same time, Dr. Englander and I are developing a standardized interview questionnaire and short checklist that can be used efficiently by pediatricians to both screen for bullying in the office and also provide patients and families with basic guidance as to how to successfully help the child being bullied.

boy computerHere is some advice from Englander about what we should tell kids about bullying and cyberbullying.

The “old” advice about bullying – just ignore it, or stand up to a bully and they’ll leave you alone – isn’t very useful today.  Bullying often happens by the most popular kids in large groups, making it hard to ignore; and a child who hits another child (even if they are responding to being bullied) is likely to be disciplined themselves.

So what should we tell kids who are victims of bullying?
•    It’s not your fault, and you haven’t done anything wrong.  It’s never ok to attack another person.
•    Let’s separate – not mediate.  Mediation is the wrong approach to take with bullying situations, because bullies are not motivated to help change happen.
•    Talk to us!  Find a safe adult to talk to about what’s happening.
•    Think before requiring a bully to apologize.  An apology from a bully may be seen as a veiled threat.
•    Don’t retaliate.  Bullies want you to retaliate, so they can report you to adults.
•    If bullying happens online, report it.  Social networking sites have “report” links.
•    To help resolve this situation, we need details.  So walk me through a typical day and show me exactly, step by step, what happens.
•    Let’s spend a lot of time with our friends and our family.  Being with people who care about you can help how you feel.

What should we tell children who show signs of being a bully?
•    Even if you feel attacked or disrespected, it is never ok to attack another person.
•    Let’s look at different ways to interpret the social signals you receive from other children.
•    Sometimes kids do things that appear mean because they are trying to be funny.  It’s not funny and not ok.
•    Especially online, kids often believe that no one will ever see what they are doing.  Everything done online has a permanent record, and you can never control who sees you doing something on a social networking site.

Read Children’s youth advisers’ guide for teens on cyberbullying.