When I ask parents and teens, “What do you think is the most pressing health issue facing adolescents today?” I often hear that bullying is on everyone’s minds. Some of this concern comes from high-profile media cases of teens who have, sadly, died of suicide after being victims of bullying; in the media, bullying has also long been blamed as a contributor to school shootings and continues to be reported as a trigger for violent retaliatory behavior. In addition, research on bullying has increased in the last few decades, with many studies finding that kids who have been bullied AND kids who bully others are more likely to have school problems, mental health issues, and even physical health problems into adulthood.
Of course, we need to figure out what we’re talking about when we use the term “bullying.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently defined bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”
Phew! That’s long and very specific. But the reason this definition has been developed so carefully is so that researchers can study bullying in a standardized way, and policy can be made directed toward a standard type of behavior. Let’s look at the key components of this definition:
Unwanted aggressive behaviors. “Unwanted” means the targeted youth, or victim, wants the behavior (for example, name calling) to stop. This helps us tell the difference between bullying and playful joking, which is enjoyed by both youth involved. “Aggressive” means that there is an intent or threat to use harmful behaviors. However, not all aggression is bullying; for example, a fight between youth of the same strength. Which leads us to…
Power imbalance. When we say “imbalance of power,” we don’t necessarily mean that one youth is labeled as “strong” and the other youth as “weak.” This is referring to one youth manipulating a situation to have control over another so that the target can’t respond or stop the bullying. For example, a “popular” teen may use their social “power” to make fun of a less “popular” teen, even if they are of the same physical strength. In a different example, two teens may be of the same popularity, but one may know a secret about the other and use the “power” of their knowledge to spread rumors about the target.
Occurs multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. This speaks to the impact of bullying over time—for example, if one student calls someone a name in the hall, a youth may be able to brush it off, but if this is repeated multiple times or might spread to other students, it becomes more serious. This also helps us distinguish between single episodes of conflict that might be resolved and never happen again.
May inflict harm or distress. It’s important to know that the harm youth experience from bullying may not be easily expressed or seen, but emotional cuts and bruises can hurt just as much as physical ones. Later in this series, we’ll talk about what research shows about the negative effects of bullying.
With this definition of bullying in mind, this series will focus on different things we know about bullying and ways teens and parents can stop it—I have more to share than can be in one post!—including a guest post from a teen I met during a workshop about bullying. If you’re itching to learn more now, check out stopbullying.gov and cyberbullying.us for resources, or our previous post on bullying.