By Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, Chief, Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
Last week, I had the privilege of joining an assembly with Penn Trafford Middle Schools as part of 100.7 Star’s “Shine a Light on Bullying” campaign, sponsored by UPMC. Along with Bubba from the morning talk show, Bubba’s two daughters (both of whom have experienced bullying), stars from Lifetime’s hit show, “Dance Moms,” and the band, A Great Big World, I had a chance to talk to students about what they can do to stop bullying if they see it in their schools and communities. When we asked students who had ever been bullied or knew of someone being bullied, EVERYONE raised their hand.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so first, some national statistics. In 2010, an estimated 2.7 million children experienced bullying. In Kindergarten through grade 12, about 1 in 7 students report being either bullied or being the aggressor. More than half of the bullying incidents happen in school. The magnitude of the problem is staggering.
The latest research finds that bullying behavior is related to other forms of interpersonal violence such as adolescent relationship abuse and sexual violence. Homophobic teasing (calling someone “gay” to make fun of him or her) and holding more rigid ideas about how boys and girls should behave differently among school-age children are strongly associated with participation in sexual violence perpetration later in adolescence. Increasingly, bullying prevention programs recognize the need to address such prejudice among children that leads to discrimination and ultimately, profoundly hurtful behaviors.
For youth who are being bullied, it is critical for them to understand and hear from those around them that it is NOT their fault. Remember that the problem lies with bullies choosing to be cruel, not because the individual deserves in any way to be mistreated. Bullying experts recommend that children who experience bullying should be taught to document the bullying:
- Write down specifics about verbal taunting.
- Take pictures of any property damage or physical injury.
- Take screenshots of cyberbullying.
Then, the child and his or her parent or adult caregiver are encouraged to bring that documentation to school to make a formal report, and work with the school to create a written plan on steps to be taken to protect the young person. This plan should be revisited in a couple of weeks to see if any revisions are needed.
What we are learning from research on bullying is that the most important aspect of prevention appears to be teaching children skills in empathy and teaching them not to tolerate their peers being abusive and harmful toward others. Also called the positive bystander approach, these bullying prevention programs teach youth to be an ally, not to ignore or do nothing when bullying behaviors occur. In addition to teaching youth to speak up and say something to stop the behavior, they also need to be encouraged to use strategies like:
- Distracting the aggressor
- Engaging the child who is the target by inviting him or her to lunch
- Getting the target involved in another activity elsewhere
- Sending a supportive text to the target
Children also should be encouraged to talk to a trusted adult (at school if this is occurring in school) to investigate and to help.
An area that is particularly challenging for parents is bullying that occurs through texting and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter, also called cyberbullying. Children should be reminded NEVER to share their password with a friend, use the strongest privacy settings available, never to impersonate someone else online, and never to talk about sex with strangers online. If being targeted via texts or social media, the key is to disengage: Block and delete the aggressors. Parents can also help by having a rule that all cell phones and computers stay outside of the bedroom when it’s time to sleep. In one national study, more than a quarter of youth report receiving texts in the middle of the night.
In summary, bullying occurs far too often, but there is something that we all can do to stop such cruel behaviors. We can teach children how to practice daily acts of kindness; encourage them to reach out to other kids who are being bullied or isolated; and interrupt bullying behaviors.
Below are some local and national resources that may be helpful. You can also always find me in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC by calling 412-692-5325. If you are in crisis and in need of immediate support in Allegheny County, call the re:solve Crisis Network hotline at 888-796-8226.
PFLAG Pittsburgh (Parents, Families, and Friends for Lesbians and Gays)
GLSEN (Gay Straight and Lesbian Education Network)
Cyberbullying Research Center