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How Do We Define Bullying?

Noted expert, Emily Bazelon, cautions against the misuse of the term “bullying.”

By Emily Bazelon

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, I argued for a limited definition of bullying. My argument is that “the word is being overused — expanding, accordion-like, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words. State laws don’t help: a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at least 10 different definitions, sowing confusion among parents and educators. All the misdiagnosis of bullying is making the real but limited problem seem impossible to solve. If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it? Down this road lies the old assumption that bullying is a rite of childhood passage. But that’s wrong.”

I wrote this op-ed because since publishing my new book, Sticks and Stones, Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, I’ve talked to a lot of confused parents and frustrated educators. Parents say they want to take bullying seriously, but they’re not sure how to separate it from regular old fighting and aggression—the kind of conflict they know they can’t really stop.

Educators say they are hearing some parents, and kids, cry “bully” as if they’re crying wolf: Using the word to label and discredit any kid they don’t like. These concerns about overreaction are real and significant as we try to prevent bullying. We have to define a manageable, particular problem in order to figure out how to address it.

The definition of bullying that makes sense to me comes from the psychologists who study it: they say bullying is physical or verbal abuse that occurs repeatedly and involves a power imbalance. In other words, it’s one kid, using social power, or physical strength, to dominate another in a way that really makes the target miserable.

Defined in this way, bullying is worth taking seriously because it’s linked, for victims and for kids who are both bullies and victims, to a range of bad outcomes. According to a new study from Duke, 20 years later, adults who’d been victims, or bully-victims, suffered from higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal thinking.

But the tricky thing is that even in this moment of overreaction, there is also still plenty of under reaction. Teachers still sometimes turn a blind eye to bullying when it happens in front of them. Parents sometimes refuse to see that their kids are intimidating other kids in order to score social points—deploying this form of harmful aggression to boost their popularity. And certain groups of kids—gay kids, disabled kids, kids in a religious minority—are much more likely to be bullied and harassed than other groups.

A friend who is a law professor reminds me to be careful about distinguishing discriminatory harassment from other kinds of bullying. In the case of discriminatory harassment based on race or religion disability or sex, or sexual orientation, the law is clear, and so are the definitions. The federal Department of Education wrote a letter to schools reminding them of their obligations in 2010, and it sets out clear guidelines for shielding students from bullying that’s based on what’s really discrimination.

As a law professor friend of mine puts it, “Bullying of the type you write about is important and it is necessary for districts to be thoughtful and get it right. But that has nothing to do with the district's obligation to intervene effectively to prevent harassment or bullying of a severe pervasive nature based on protected classes. That has been clear for years and districts shouldn't claim that the law is unclear. It isn't.”

Emily Bazelon is the author of the new book, Sticks and Stones, Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. She is also a senior editor at Slate, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. She is also a frequent guest on the Colbert Report and has appeared on the PBS NewsHour, Morning Joe, Fresh Air, and All Things Considered.

Emily Bazelon will be speaking on the topic of bullying at The Parent Center of The William Alanson White Institute at 20 West 74th St in NYC, Wednesday, April 10th, 7 - 9pm. Click here for the Registration Page.

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