The Athlete's Way

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What Tactics Motivate Bullies to Stop Bullying?

University of California researchers identify new strategies to reduce bullying.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with both Jaana Juvonen from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Robert Faris from University of California, Davis about two very different research studies on bullying that each conducted with a colleague. Both studies were released on April 1, 2014.

On the surface, the findings of these studies might appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Although the studies do have different findings, under closer inspection, both studies come to some similar conclusions and both argue effectively for new strategies to motivate bullies to stop bullying.

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In the first study, Jaana Juvonen and co-author Sandra Graham, a UCLA professor of education, analyzed more than 140 studies on bullying from around the world and conducted one of the most thorough analyses to date of studies on school bullying. They found that traditional K-12 schools' efforts to curtail bullying are often unsuccessful. The UCLA review titled “Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victim” is published in the journal Annual Review of Psychology.

Everyday Teachable Moments Are More Effective than Assemblies

In my conversation with Juvonen, she recommended that parents look for “everyday teachable moments” throughout the day when a dialogue about discrimination, marginalization, or unequal rights... organically presents itself. Instead of awkwardly sitting down to “talk about bullying” with your children, Juvonen recommends using real-life examples in the moment to create a dialogue about what drives people to make someone else feel "less than" or treat them like a second class citizen.

For history and English teachers, Juvonen said that using historical examples and literature that illustrate violations of human rights is an effective way to weave anti-bullying messages into the conversation. Juvonen believes these examples resonate more deeply than a lecture solely about bullying taking place in an auditorium.

Juvonen has been studying bullying since 1990. In 2008, she published an insightful report about cyberbullying long before Facebook and other forms of social media had become ubiquitous. Juvonen said school administrators have an especially difficult time addressing online bullying, or cyberbullying, and there continues to be disagreement about whether the issue should even be their responsibility.

Her new review of over 140 studies found that schools are trying a wide range of approaches to protect students, but unfortunately many of these efforts are ineffective. Juvonen said, "Band-Aid solutions, such as holding one assembly a year that discourages bullying, do not work. We are trying to figure out the right balance between comprehensive programs that are costly and require a lot of staff training versus programs that require fewer school resources."

Another study from September 2013 found that many anti-bullying initiatives which have become standard at schools across the country may inadvertently make students more likely to be a victim of bullying than children at schools without any short term bullying programs. Juvenon’s research has also found that sporadic anti-bullying assemblies can backfire.

Juvonen also recommends that if a teacher sees a student who is clearly a social isolate to be proactive about becoming an ally with the student. If the particular school environment condones making your classroom a “safe space” where kids can eat lunch in your classroom, or a librarian can make the library a place where social isolates don’t feel like outsiders. This type of "open door policy" can be an effective way to minimize the plight of the victim.

Juvenson’s review debunks some other common misconceptions about bullying. For example, while it was previously assumed that verbal aggression and exclusion were bullying tactics used more commonly by girls than by boys, the analysis revealed that boys use the tactics as much as girls do. The UC Davis study found similar findings on inaccurate gender stereotypes about bullying tactics.

Sisu Squared: I Am What I Am

Juvonen found that gay and lesbian students—especially if they are overweight—tend to get bullied significantly more than other students. "Starting in elementary school, kids with characteristics that make them stand out are much more likely to get bullied. They are prime targets for bullies because they are more likely to be friendless, and when they have nobody to defend them, the bullying often escalates."

While on the phone with Jaana Juvonen, I shared a few personal stories about being bullied as a gay teenager and my love of the word “sisu.” Like Juvonen, the mother of my daughter hails from Finland. The Finns are notorious for having fought off Russian “bullies” who have tried unsuccessfully to invade their borders for generations. Sisu sums up this grit and is the national mantra of Finland. The loose translation of sisu is to: never give up, never back down, and don’t let people push you around. As an ultra-endurance athlete sisu has long been my mantra.

Sisu has been my mantra as a gay person, too. When I was in the 7th grade, my family moved and I had to start at a new private day school in which most of the students had known each other since before pre-K. There were 32 students in my class: 16 boys and 16 girls. Nobody really spoke to me for the first few months. It was torture! I was a very uncool, gangly, and awkward gay adolescent. Luckily, I was eventually embraced by two other students who felt marginalized as well. We became like three “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” musketeers.

It was the late 1970s, a time when it was very popular to hate disco music and LGBT support didn't exist in schools. The three of us loved disco music and made our statement in homeroom by setting up a small turntable and blasting Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and 12” dance remixes at a time when the zeitgeist was to be burning disco records in football stadium bonfires.

Interestingly, by the end of 7th grade the three of us had gone from being social outcasts to being respected by our classmates because we had the courage to be who we were. The most popular kids actually wanted to be a part of our fringe clique.

My mentor Billie Jean King famously said: “Be bold.” I know first hand that being bold takes guts and a support network of at least one or two allies. Juvonen believes that it’s important for schools to make sure they are helping the students who are most severely and most frequently bullied. Being bold can also mean speaking up when you—or someone you know—are being bullied. I believe that working out and athletics are a great way for anyone who feels like an underdog to fortify your resilience and sisu.

Maintaining what I call "ferocious equanimity" and having the "guts enough not to fight back" while also sticking up for yourself may sound like a paradox...but it is the best way to break the cycle of cutting people down to build yourself up or hurting someone in return because they hurt you.

Juvonen said, "It is important to distinguish between victims of prolonged bullying and those getting called names once or twice. Students who experience continual bullying are at risk for much more severe symptoms." Such students are most likely to blame themselves, and to become depressed and hopeless that the bullying will never stop.

"Students who have been cyberbullied at night often don't come to school the next day, or they come late or are not focused," she said. "There is a very strong association between what happens in cyberspace and what happens on the school grounds. Many of the same students who are bullied in school are also cyberbullied."

Some schools have been successful in combatting bullying by training bystanders to respond to bullying. But Juvonen said the training needs to be a school-wide initiative that provides students with strategies against bullying and unites them in the cause.

I believe another important message for teenagers is that being mean or hateful and trying to make someone feel "less than" is ultimately not going to get you very far in life. Most work environments view bullying and hostility as being unprofessional. The real world doesn’t ultimately allow many bullies to stay at the top of the heap for perpetuity, neither does our evolutionary biology.

Teenagers in the Middle Tier of Popularity Are Bullied, Too

Yesterday afternoon I also spoke with Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at UC Davis, about his study titled, “Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and their Consequences.” The study is published in the April 2014 edition of the American Sociological Review.

In an unexpected twist, Faris and co-author Diane Felmlee from Penn State found that the risk of being bullied can increase as an adolescent climbs the social ladder. The researchers found that many adolescents who are not the typical “normative target” for bullying are at an increased risk of being bullied if their popularity begins to rise.

He found that adolescents in the middle tier of popularity compete to climb the social ladder in a way where equals become rivals. As teens compete for popularity they cut one another down to build themselves up. This can be done using physical aggression and blatant forms of bullying, but more often the bullying tactics are what Faris calls “instrumental targeting” which is more sly and can go under the radar to outsiders who are not being victimized.

Faris said that being victimized within the middle tier of the popularity hierarchy can be especially difficult if someone hasn't had previous experience being bullied. He found that a single bullying event may be particularly psychologically and socially damaging for a relatively popular student if he or she feels that they have “farther to fall” and risk losing their identity as being “popular.”

“In contrast to stereotypes of wallflowers as the sole targets of peer aggression, adolescents who are relatively popular are also at high risk of harassment, the invisible victims of school-based aggression,” Faris said. He also found that gender stereotypes about the ways that people bully are inaccurate. He says, “Girls can be physically aggressive and boys like to gossip.”

For the study, Faris and Felmlee looked at the social networks of 4,000 youths in three counties in North Carolina. Study subjects from 19 schools, enrolled in grades eight through 10, were asked various questions and asked to name their five closest friends.

The study found it isn’t until someone enters the upper echelon of popularity that the risk of bullying subsides. The students at the top represented only about the five percent of the student body. According to this study, being über popular only puts about one in 20 students above the fray and out of reach of being cut down by rivals.

Robert Faris points out that with more awareness about bullying that some teens have learned how to be more savvy in their “cold-blooded calculation” methods used to isolate, victimize, and cut down their rivals.

Like Juvonen, Faris believes that students are tired of being preached at about bullying and believes that looking for “everyday teaching moments” and expanding ways beyond “anti-bullying assemblies” is the key to breaking the cycle of bullying.

Robert Faris clarified to me on the phone that his research supports Juvonen’s findings that having just one friend can in fact “make all the difference” for the true social isolates at the bottom of the popularity totem pole. The truly isolated victims at the bottom of the popularity pyramid will always be at the highest risk for the long-term detrimental impacts of bullying.

He said that he hopes that with the media coverage surrounding this study that the sound bites won't be misconstrued as a takeaway message that people should “feel sorry for the king and queen of the prom because they’re being bullied too.”

Faris emphasized that anyone who appears “different” or like an underdog will always be the most vulnerable for being victimized and bullied. However, he pointed out in our conversation that by the time these kids get to high school they often times are just simply ignored—which can in some ways be just as detrimental physically and psychologically as bullying. Endless studies have shown that feeling socially connected is one of the most important aspects of well-being throughout our lifespan. 

Conclusion: At Least 95 Percent of Teens Are Potential Targets of Bullying

Previous studies on bullying by Juvonen and her colleagues have found that nearly three in four teenagers say they were bullied online at least once during a 12-month period. Almost 50 percent of sixth graders at two Los Angeles-area schools said they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period.

Both of these studies found that all victims of harassment or bullying suffer psychological, social and academic consequences, and they experienced high levels of anxiety, anger, and depression. Students who are bullied are also more likely to have headaches, colds, and other physical illnesses.

Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children about bullying before it happens by looking for “every day teachable moments" and to ask questions that create a dialogue. If they see changes in a child’s behavior they should take the concerns seriously. She also advised using group dynamics to casually open up a collective conversation among a group of your child's peers about how they treat one another in different social situations when the moment seems right for a constructive dialogue.

Faris’ research raises an important point for parents and teachers to keep their antennae up for the potential bullying of people at all levels of popularity and social connectivity. Relatively popular youth who appear to be well-liked and have friends can also be victims of bullying. The individuals eating lunch alone in the cafeteria may seem like the obvious targets for being victimized by their peers, but bullying can happen to just about anyone regardless of how popular he or she appears to be.

Huge thanks to Jaana Juvonen and Robert Faris for taking time out of your busy day to speak with me on such short notice! I greatly appreciate the work that you, and your colleagues, are doing to stop all forms of bullying. Thank you.  

If you’d like to read more about ways to reduce bullying, increase compassion, and fortify resilience check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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