Why Bullying Is a Serious Public-Health Problem

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A child
A childPhoto: Zigy Kaluzny

Newly published research suggests that bullying has serious consequences for our society, long after middle school ends.

Published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the giant book of research on the phenomenon of childhood bullying labels it a “serious public health problem.” The research, which was partly supported by the CDC, suggests that there are “significant short- and long-term psychological consequences for both the targets and perpetrators of such behavior.” That’s right: Both those who get bullied and those who do the bullying can wind up with “sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal concerns, and headaches.” And the full effects on mental health and well-being are not known.

The report defines 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.” But what counts as bullying can vary from child to child, from school to school, and from city to city. Moving toward a widely accepted definition will help parents, teachers, and children to find solutions and promote prevention.

It will also help if we can determine how common bullying really is. The report’s authors actually note that incident reporting can be problematic: Children often avoid talking about being bullied because they fear the consequences. As a result, accurate numbers are hard to estimate, but the report suggests that bullying affects between 18 and 31 percent of children and young people, and cyberbullying affects from 7 to 15 percent. Percentages are much higher for kids who have disabilities, are obese, or are LGBT.

Today in the U.S., all 50 states have adopted laws that address bullying after a wave of high-profile cases of bullying ended in the tragic suicides of teenagers. Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, died in 2010 when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate livestreamed him hooking up with another man in his dorm room. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd killed herself in 2012 one month after posting a video online in which she said she had been bullied into putting topless photographs of herself online, in addition to being physically assaulted.

Still, we have a tendency to dismiss bullying as an everyday occurrence, or, as chair committee Frederick Rivara said in a press release for the report, “a rite of passage.” The idea that it can toughen kids up is, in some ways, akin to the thinking about spanking, which also has serious negative effects on children. “I was spanked, and I’m fine,” the common wisdom often goes. But studies show that we’re not fine, and a cursory glance at the world around us should speak in favor of trying to do things differently than previous generations did, even if we don’t want to criticize our own particular parents. We, the adults walking the planet, are not, as a whole, in the greatest emotional shape possible.

Overall, the report’s findings are essentially this: It would be great if we could raise children who don’t want to bully other children. That’s a tall order when parents are overworked, tired, and undersupported. Even those with strong networks of emotional and financial support may find themselves feeling helpless in the face of a child who is bullied at school. It is undoubtedly also awful to be the parent of a child who is bullying other kids.

Though the report doesn’t fully or specifically outline what approaches we should take moving forward, it’s clear that prevention — though easier said than done — is the most effective tactic. And that changing the tone of the conversation is everyone’s responsibility.