Poison on the Playground

Bullies are toxic.  They poison the school setting through venomous words and actions that create a hostile environment for victims and their families, as well as witnesses.  In many cases, bullies inflict emotional damage that prompts physical damage. 

The family of a 15-year-old bullied Pennsylvania girl who hanged herself in June of this year reported that the bullies made her feel “worthless.”[i] Other victims report suffering similar feelings, being made to feel like failures or worse, emotions that sometimes become overwhelming. 

Parents across the nation grieve collectively with every teen suicide attributed to bullying, mourning one of the most preventable types of loss faced by young people today.  Because bullying is not only preventable, it is predictable—if you know where to look.

Bullying is a Group Phenomenon That Leaves Witnesses

Bullying is not a solo activity, but a social phenomenon—that leaves witnesses.  Swearer and Hymel in “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying” (2015) describe it as not merely a relationship between a bully and the victim, but a group event occurring within a social context where multiple factors operate to “promote, maintain, or suppress such behavior.” [ii]   

In terms of spotting a bully, the school setting is a venue where bullying leaves multiple witnesses—both on the playground and online, given the consistently increasing number of schoolchildren using the Internet.  One study of 2,500 children across Australia found that children now spend more time online than watching television, and an increasing percentage of young people have their own phones.[iii]

In terms of damage, schoolyard bullies are physically dangerous, yet in some cases, cyber bullies inflict more harm than a punch on the playground.  They cause the type of social and reputational damage that can be deadly.  And it is often only in retrospect, after another precious life is lost through teenage suicide, that we see the warning signs that might have alerted us to the problem.  Here are some ways to spot red flags of bullying behavior before another life is lost. 

Red Flags of a Bully

There is abundant research about the characteristics of bullies.  Many of these traits are summarized in research by Swearer and Hymel (2015).  Although not an exhaustive list, they include callous-unemotional traits, psychopathic tendencies, antisocial personality traits, susceptibility to peer pressure, and others.  Swearer and Hymel also cite research that shows that some bullies are higher in social intelligence and social status.

Although cyberbullies can be difficult to ferret out online, many have the same personality characteristics as schoolyard bullies, challenging victims to meet them after school at the bike racks.  While not applicable in every situation, here are some commonly cited red flags that characterize bullies generally: 

  • Bully DNA: Bullies like attention and power.  In person, they are strong and threatening physically.  Online, they are threatening psychologically. 
  • Personality Traits: Bullies are, aggressive, domineering, argumentative, and lack respect for authority—something other students notice in class.
  • Bullies Punch Down: Bullies select vulnerable targets, often picking on those who are weak, small, shy, and unlikely to fight back. 
  • Bullies Abuse Power:  A bully exploits existing power imbalance, whether physically or socially, or creates power imbalance through aggression—both on and off line. 
  • Bullies are Grandiose and Narcissistic: Full of swagger and bravado, bullies are self-aggrandizing and openly condescending to others.

And here is one you probably would not expect:

  • Good Kids Bully

Many well-adjusted adults can recall engaging in an act of bullying when they were young.  Situational behavior doesn’t necessarily define personality or indicate permanent antisocial traits.  Research corroborates this reality.

Profile of a Bully: Not Always the Traits You Expect

Research by Book et al. (2012), studying a sample of 310 adolescents in Southern Ontario between the ages of 10 and 18, found that as predicted, bullies possessed personality traits that were negatively linked with traits such as modesty or fairness, yet unrelated to traits such as tolerance and forgiveness.[v]  They note that contrary to the bully stereotype portraying bullies as “maladapted aggressors,” their results show that bullies can engage in targeted aggression towards victims and also sustain supportive friendships.

This finding can make bullies harder to spot at school.  Yet they are easier to spot online, where, freed from situational school rules and mentally unencumbered by social rules through the disembodiment of cyberspace, bullying is easier both physically and psychologically. 

The Internet Facilitates Cyber Bullying by “Good” Kids

One significant communication development that makes bullying easier, particularly for adolescents who otherwise appear to have a conscience, is the Internet.  The Internet is the great disinhibitor.  It is a place where bullies can taunt and tease their targets from afar, feeling less accountability.

Some bullies find online bullying easier than in person, not only due to the ease of posting from the comfort of one´s own home, but also with respect to psychological discomfort—or more accurately, the lack thereof.  Cyber bullies are physically removed from their targets, which decreases their sense of responsibility—particularly when they cannot see a victim´s response. 

This mental disassociation and distance facilitates bullying behavior, even by adolescents who do not display traditional bully red flags such as dominance, aggressiveness, and intimidation.

Spotting Means Stopping

Recognizing that bullies come in all shapes and sizes, spotting them is the first step.  It is worth our time to consistently be on the lookout for bullying behavior, both on and offline, resisting the temptation to automatically discount the possibility of bullying by a “good” student.

Stopping bullying behavior does more than allow a victim to safe face; it can save a victim´s life.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, the psychology of attraction, and reading red flags.  She also teaches workplace violence and all aspects of threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

[i] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/06/24/obituary-15-year-old-who-committed-...

[ii] Susan M. Swearer and Shelley Hymel, “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying: Moving Toward a Social-Ecological Diathesis-Stress Model,” American Psychologist 70, no. 4 (2015): 344–353.

[iii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-15/children-now-spend-more-time-onlin...

[iv] Angela S. Book, Anthony A. Volk, Ashley Hosker, “Adolescent bullying and personality: An adaptive approach,” Personality and Individual Differences 52 (2012): 218-223.

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