For a significant number of school-age children, heading back to school is a happy time of reuniting with friends, meeting new teachers, and adopting new routines. But for an unfortunate few, it also means coming face-to-face with a most unwelcome sight – the bully.
Dr. Terry Scott is Director of the Center for Instructional and Behavioral Research in Schools at the University of Louisville’s Department of Special Education. He says that bullying in schools may not be more prevalent than it used to be, but social media provides more opportunities for bullies to do damage these days.
“What we’ve found is that if you simply go into a school and tell kids to stop bullying, the bullying tends to go underground,” he says. “And cyber-bullying is a great place for it to go underground because adults aren’t seeing every exchange the kids have.”
Scott says 30 percent of kids report being bullied during their time in school. With the rise of social media, kids are often on alert in their peer groups 24/7, meaning that the bullying doesn’t stop when the school day ends.
“If there are bullies, they have more opportunities to do something that gets them giggles and attention,” he says. “We have to be more vigilant. The reality is that as educators we have little input about what goes on when kids go home. Parents need to take on that role.”
And while many kids face up to their bullies and find a resolution, tragedies can still occur. In June, a 12-year-old New Jersey girl committed suicide as the result of being relentlessly bullied by her peers.
Scott says middle school is a particularly troublesome time for many children.
“There are bullies in every stage of life, but middle school is a notoriously bad age for bullying and disrespect. Middle school kids are more prone to say hurtful things to other kids purely for the value,” he says, adding that kids who are chronically bullied in school are five times more likely to experience clinical depression in their lifetime.
All schools, according to Scott, should be teaching students to be respectful of each other. And if parents suspect their child is being bullied, they are encouraged to take action.
“If you believe your child is being bullied at school, I would go to the school. I would meet with the principal and the teacher and I would say these are the things that are going on,” Scott says. “What does the school have in place to prevent that? Are you teaching children across the board what is and isn’t appropriate and how to react when they do see those things?”
Peer pressure is a significant factor in the lives of many students, and Scott says it can be used just as effectively to stop a bully.
“The best way to stop a bully is to get the people who are neither bullies nor victims to be involved,” he said. “The number one research-based strategy we have is to get the bystanders to tell bullies to stop. Bullying is generally an attention-getting device for kids, and when the attention-getting is negative it is far more effective.”