Bullying facts: Sifting through the hype for a clear picture

Bullying facts are not as straightforward as you might think  because "bully" has become a buzz word in education. Separating normal childhood development from a serious problem is increasingly difficult as the concept of bullying gets spin from interest groups.

Bullying facts are often shrouded in hype. A "Back To School Bully Buster Bootcamp" run by Kyuki-Do Martial Arts in Huntley, Ill., drew a crowd of kids who were taught self-defense moves and how to stay calm in front of a bully, Aug. 2, 2012.

Parents who sent their kids back to school this month have probably already heard a lot about bullying. Not necessarily because their children have encountered a bully, mind you, nor because school administrators suspect that Junior is a bully himself. 

No, they will have likely heard about bullying – and may have even read reports, signed pledges, watched awareness videos, and learned about new school rules  – because across the country “bullying” has become one the buzz-iest buzz words in education – maybe even in American public discourse overall. (Why else would the question of whether a teenage Mitt Romney was a bully become part of a presidential campaign? And the chair of the US House Foreign Relations Committee even recently called China a “bully” to its maritime neighbors. Take that, Beijing.)

RELATED: 5 bullying myths – what you don't know

But what’s actually going on with bullying in America? 

At Modern Parenthood, we’ve been following the daily flow of bullying-related news items from around the country. But we still have questions: How prevalent – honestly – is bullying in American schools? Has online bullying taken over the lives of teenagers? What should schools (and state legislators, for that matter) do to stop bullying? And while we’re at it, what’s the definition of bullying, anyhow?

Turns out the answers aren't as straight forward as you might think.

Over the past few weeks, we've been reaching out to child development experts, educators and bullying researchers to ask them about these issues. We’ve checked out a number of academic studies on bullying, too. (And there are a lot of them.) In future posts, we’ll share some of what we’ve learned – about anti-bullying initiatives, anti-bullying laws, cyberbullying and various other aspects of what turns out to be a sprawling, complicated topic. (For a preview, check out our Top 5 Myths About Bullying.)

Here's the general picture:
Almost everyone we interviewed agrees that bullying is a problem. As the American Academy of Pediatrics stated in its 2009 policy on youth violence prevention, there's a lot of research that connects bullying to other acts of violence, as well as depression, decreased physical health and long-term psychological challenges. Researchers who study bullying often note how surprised they are to interview adults who have crystal-clear, troubled recollections of incidents of bullying that took place decades earlier.

But the extent of that problem, and what to do about it, well ... that's another story.

There has been a significant cultural shift over the past decade in the way we view bullying. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily new:  University of Massachusetts, Amherst Professor Laura Lovett points out that, historically, there have been a number of times  public perception has changed about what is “normal” for children. At the end of the 19th century, for instance, writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hughes start questioning in their literary work the “standard” child-on-child violence at boarding schools, she says, which helps lead to a new cultural sense of childhood as a time of life that should be protected.

But now, she speculates, we are in a new phase: one in which people are challenging the assumption that bullying is a "natural" part of schoolyard dynamics.

She also sees a move away from the old narrative of the picked-on child finally coming of age by walloping the bully – something you've seen  hundreds of times  in movie and TV plots. (Think George McFly finally punching Biff Tannen in “Back to the Future.")

Over the past few years, there has also been an explosion of anti-bullying laws, anti-bullying curriculums, bullying research, and anti-bullying films, as well as non-profits and support groups.

Advocates who have long worked to raise awareness about the dangers and lasting impact of child-on-child cruelty say this new focus is a huge step forward. Lovett tends to agree.

“Young people are more familiar with the term,” she says. “And that means they’re more able to find ways to stop it.”

But others warn that this anti-bullying sentiment is not so straight forward.

There is widespread disagreement about what bullying actually is – and also about what to do about it. Some critics even wonder whether this explosion in attention – or hype, as they might say – is doing more harm than good, blurring the lines between normal developmental child conflict and bullying, tying up educational resources, and putting more pressure on schools to take action, any action, when there is little evidence about what policies encourage or discourage bullying.

(One related tidbit that we found interesting: Research has found that some anti-bullying initiatives, such as peer-to-peer mentoring, can actually increase the rate of reported bullying in a school.)

It’s easy to give lip service about having zero tolerance for bullying. But, some worry, when the term gets so broad it can lose meaning
Check out the variety of recent bullying-related news we've followed over the past months:

• There's the controversy that breaks out after a six-year-old boy suspended from school after “bullying” another student by singing her the lyrics of a popular song.

• Officials in San Francisco want to hold a sort of bully summit to figure out ways to decrease truancy.

• The defense attorney for 15-year-old Perry Hall High School student Robert W. Gladden Jr. quickly mentions "bullying" as an explanation for why his client brought a shotgun to his Maryland school’s cafeteria and started shooting.

• The debate over whether it’s wise to have students across the country the movie watch  the movie, “Bully,” which details, among other things, the suicide of a 17-year-old bullying victim. Controversy erupts over whether the portrayal of the school and victim are accurate.

• A bus monitor is allegedly "bullied" by the students she is supposed to be monitoring; the video of the taunting goes viral and the bus monitor receives $700,000 in donations.

 With such a wide scope of behaviors and resulting behaviors, how can lawmakers possibly hope to regulate bullying?

That's the topic of our next post: anti-bullying laws. 

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