On Bullying, and Why Definitions Matter

October is national bullying prevention month, and as such it promoted a wealth of writing about bullying. What can parents do to prevent bullying?

The Definition of Bullying

Bullying, as defined by researchers, is a series of acts of aggression in an imbalanced relationship. Let’s take this apart. A series means that one act of aggression is not bullying. It’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t fall under the definition of bullying. Aggression can be one of three types: physical, verbal, or social. We all know physical aggression when we see it. Verbal aggression can be name-calling, threatening, and mocking, for example. Social aggression is hurting someone’s social status or relationships, and includes exclusion, spreading rumours, etc. Social aggression is far more common in girls, whereas physical aggression is far more common in boys during school years. Now, the critical part in my opinion is that the series of aggressive acts take place in the context of a power imbalance. It can be a bigger child physically hurting a smaller child, or a more popular girl socially hurting an unpopular girl. It can also be a grown-up hurting a child, as children are by definition in a status of less power than adults.

I take the space to define bullying because of this blog post. Liz (of whom I think highly) is arguing that even if it’s not bullying, attacking someone on the basis of his or her appearance is hurtful. Yes, it is, and for the sake of moral debate, both bullying and other acts of aggression can be lumped together. But for researchers, the definition is very important. It’s important because you cannot study something that is ill defined. It just won’t work. Imagine if we defined an atom as “something really small”. That doesn’t get us anywhere near being able to study it. This is even more important in psychology and social sciences, as we study phenomena that we can’t always see or sense with our other senses.

Bullying Everywhere

I saw a recent article that is talking about how TV shows are rife with social aggression. Which is interesting because I know that I wouldn’t let my kids watch a show that I know has violence in it. But social aggression can be tricky and harder to detect, and so it’s harder for parents to monitor. It doesn’t mean that the children who watch those shows will automatically become bullies, but when the characters on TV, with which children identify with, perform acts of social aggression and are not experiencing any consequences, it may not be the best example.

I like the example of happy feet. Poor Mambo is being ridiculed and excluded throughout the first 30 minutes or so (which is all my son has patience to watch), and no one is standing up for him and there are no consequences for those who laugh at him (or belittle him) for being different. I’m almost inclined to not let my son watch this movie again, as the only thing he learns is that penguins make fun of the different penguin.

What Parents Can Do

So what can parents do to prevent bullying? I think you can’t expect TV shows or movies to be completely aggression free. Nor should they be. TV should be used as a starting point for a discussion of various issues, including bullying and aggression – and how to deal with them. I think what we can do is to teach our children to identify bullying, and to tell us when they see it or experience it. And perhaps the next level is to teach them to calmly and confidently stand up to bullies, either when they are being targeted, or when they see others being targeted. If more children were able to call out a bully when they see one, maybe there would be less of them.


4 thoughts on “On Bullying, and Why Definitions Matter

  1. Great post! You probably know this already, but I like to quote it when we talk about bullying: “Paula – A teacher in New York was teaching her class about bullying and gave them the following exercise to perform. She had the children take a piece of paper and told them to crumple it up, stamp on it and really mess it up but do not rip it. Then she had them unfold the paper, smooth it out and look at how scarred and dirty is was. She then told them to tell it they’re sorry. Now even though they said they were sorry and tried to fix the paper, she pointed out all the scars they left behind. And that those scars will never go away no matter how hard they tried to fix it. That is what happens when a child bullies another child, they may say they’re sorry but the scars are there forever. The looks on the faces of the children in the classroom told her the message hit home.” (see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/awesome-bullying-lesson-from-a-new-york-teacher)

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