Most of us have been bullied as children, adolescents and, perhaps, even as adults. Adults, however, should be mature enough to handle a situation and sensibly deal with it. But for young children and teenagers, especially when they’re too scared to inform a parent or teacher about such a situation, it can be psychologically damaging, even when it’s not the physical kind.
Bullying used to be considered an act of an incorrigible child or a harmless rite of passage of growing up. Regrettably, episodes of bullying have become more common in recent years, yet they sometimes receive inadequate attention until one or more students unreasonably annoy their peers or — worse — when it becomes a painful physical experience. Several incidents led to tragic results, which forced bullying to center stage.
There’s a saying that kids can be cruel, but that cruelty is often the result of ignorance and lack of knowledge. Furthermore, studies show that bullying, like prejudice, is often behavior learned from or practiced by an adult, particularly a parent or relative. The same analyses indicate that young bullies, who are not suitably dealt with, often grow up to be abusive adults.
A few months ago I saw a TV news magazine segment about bullying at a Midwestern middle school, which attempted to transform two female bullies. After confronting the students, who paired to harass another student, one of the girls realized what she did was wrong when asked to put herself in her victim’s place. Her accomplice, however, refused to admit any wrongdoing. When the second girl’s mother was told about her daughter’s conduct, she also refused to own up to any offense, attributing the behavior to “children being children.” As a result, the second student was suspended for a brief period, which her mother angrily disputed on camera. Guess the second apple didn’t fall too far from that tree.
Several incidents over the last decade have had tragic results that propelled bullying to center stage. That became quite evident last month when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention last month. The meeting, attended by over 150 students, parents, teachers, advocates and policymakers, revealed that nearly one-third of school-aged children — about 13 million — are bullied each year. Students involved in bullying, it was noted, are more likely to have problems in school, abuse drugs and alcohol and are likely to develop mental and physical health issues.
The First Lady put bullying in the proper perspective when she said, “It breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, the playground and online.”
Cyberbullying on social networking Web sites has become the latest method for non-violent cruel behavior and is on pace to dethrone face-to-face harassment. After all, once it becomes an Internet posting, it’s there for the world to see, which can create untold humiliation for a victim that could be more awful than one-on-one cruelty.
In just the last few years, there have been dozens of stories about children — some younger than 10 — who have been bullied on the Internet. From race and ethnicity to disabilities and physical appearances to clothing and other insults, a bully or gang of bullies can’t wait to text, twitter or tweet nasty news using high-speed technology. Once the information is posted, classmates, neighbors and acquaintances see it, which can only aggravate the shame. Parents must also be vigilant. As they caution children about sexual predators and the Internet, they also have an obligation to educate them about cyberbullying, whether they’re the victim or the instigator.
While public schools primarily exist to educate children, they also serve to teach morals and ethics. Bullying too often passes under the radar of scrutiny, but as we have seen and learned all too often, it can be harmful — even deadly.
When children interact with each other they should not have to deal with harassment. Not only must they learn that they do not have to tolerate cruel behavior — even when it’s only verbal — but, more importantly, children should be taught to report an incident of bullying, even under the threat of retaliation.
The only way to stop harassment is to speak up and not tolerate bullying, the same way they are trained to inform on someone who molests them. It is also essential to make attackers recognize that while they enjoy being cruel, it is unacceptable and may be considered assault under the law.
Only by openly confronting bullying — and those who bully — can it be effectively addressed and prevented.