Is Bullying Really on the Rise?

(Excerpt from Taking the Bully by the Horns written by Faith Wood)

Do you recall what it was like to have to write a letter and send it via snail mail? Or, better yet, Airmail?  When I think of the days when stamps were a nickel, it makes me chuckle – I tell my kids, “I remember when I had to walk to school with hot potatoes in my pockets to keep my hands warm!”  They know I’m kidding, but they still look at me as though I’m nuts!

The point is – in those days, bullying was a ‘closet’ activity. You didn’t hear much about it and, when you did, it was hushed up and pushed back into the closet.  Today?  With the advent of the computer and the internet, cyberspace becomes host to a plethora of malcontents – initially meant as a super communication highway,’ the internet, commonly referred to as cyberspace, presents a blank canvas for the bully’s despicable behavior.

Facebook;  Twitter;  cell phones – these are three products of immediate self-gratification.  When kids want things, they want it now. They can’t do without a computer and a cell phone, because they represent a real-time lifeline to friends – and, enemies.

Do you recall the story about Phoebe Prince? Phoebe was the teenager in Massachusetts who was cyber bullied, harassed, harangued and tormented every day at school for more than three months and, one day, she decided she’d had enough.  Phoebe hanged herself in the stairwell of her home.

When Phoebe and her family immigrated to the United States to Massachusetts, she quickly became the target of bullies. What made her the target? According to her classmates, she was beautiful and it was her physical and inner beauty that sparked the ire of several female bullies – boys were attracted to her and she caught the eye of the football captain (he’s facing charges of stalking and statutory rape.)

Long story short – one week before Phoebe’s spirit completely broke and she took her own life, she was shoved into lockers and cyber bullies (keyboard bullies) on Facebook encouraged her to kill herself.  She was so frightened of being attacked; she walked between friends at school for protection. Court documents indicate that Phoebe approached school officials for help, but they told her that they weren’t going to take action.

Phoebe was only fifteen.

According to the high school officials, Phoebe was the victim of ‘relationship aggression’ – that means that a group of girls turned on Phoebe when she briefly dated the football captain. Apparently, at the time, he was the boyfriend of one of the girls charged in the crime.  Phoebe also briefly dated a student who had a 16 year-old girlfriend – she, too, is charged in the case.

I could go on, but there isn’t any need.  You know what I’m talking about – what do you think? One teacher described the bullying at the high school as ‘normal girl drama.’  Gee, does ‘normal girl drama’ mean it’s OK to harass someone, push them into lockers, torment them as they walk down the street, or call them racist names? The teacher went on to say, “If you want to label it bullying, then I’ve bullied girls, and girls have bullied me.   This coming from a teacher?  Something, indeed, is very wrong.

The reality is that bullying is, by its very nature, hard to measure.  Although Canada has laws against bullying, they don’t seem to prevent stunts like “kick a ginger day” which inspired over 4,700 Canadians to support the idea of tormenting red-headed people.

In Margaret Heffernan’s book Willful Blindness, she explores the bystander effect which refers to the idea that when individuals are part of a group, they will tend to see bad things happening and yet do nothing about them.  We do not believe that we would stand idly by, but the evidence is pitted against us.

Internet chat rooms have shown just how far bystander behaviour can scale.  In 1998, Larry Froistad, a 29 year old computer programmer confessed to two hundred people in a chat room (for recovering alcoholics) that he had set his house on fire to murder his five-year old daughter.  Only three of the two hundred members of the chat room reported him.  Froistad was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to forty years in prison.

Frightening isn’t it.  The bystander effect illustrates how in a group our moral selves and social selves come into conflict.   Most often this leads to indecision and a moral shortcut.    It can be hard to know what is happening or what response is appropriate so in a group so we simply tend to opt out of the personal accountability.    In many instances, bystanders actually act as ‘reinforcers’, by either providing an encouraging audience or protecting the bully by their failure to intervene.  Only 10 – 20 percent of witnesses ever provide any real help.

If we want to stop this tendency, we must stop turning a blind eye.  We must teach our children (and ourselves) to act when we witness bullying and harassment.   We must engage.  We need to help bystanders turn to their friends and say “Hey – we need to do something here – we have to stop this”.    Research also tells us that a victim is more likely to gain support if they ask for a helper by name – teach your children to make that request.

I believe it often takes very little to stop a bully – people just don’t realize the immense power they truly have.