Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2011

Should We Rethink Our Anti-Bullying Strategy?

On Sept. 19, news broke of yet another adolescent suicide related to bullying. The boy, Jamey Rodemeyer, was 14 years old and identified alternately as gay or bisexual. He had withstood years of bullying, especially online. Just days after his death, many of the country's leading experts on bullying convened in Washington for the second annual National Anti-Bullying Summit.

This tragedy, one of more than a dozen similar suicides in the past two years, prompted researchers to ask one simple question again: Why does this keep happening? Despite a major boost in federal funding for anti-bullying programs, a sixfold increase in peer-reviewed research on bullying over the past decade and 47 states with specific anti-bullying legislation, young teens — especially young, gay teens — seem to be taking their lives in greater numbers.

Rodemeyer's suicide was all the more disturbing because he seemed to have a solid support system. By all accounts, his parents were accepting of his sexuality. His mother told the local news that he seemed to be doing well lately. He had some close, supportive friends. He was seeing a social worker and seemed better able to cope with the children who taunted him.

As recently as early May, he posted a video to writer Dan Savage's anti-bullying site, It Gets Better. The site is devoted to testimonials from the famous and the not so famous that aim to give hope to kids who are tormented for being different. Rodemeyer's submission to It Gets Better made it seem more as if he'd made it through the worst of teenage bullying and was now trying to encourage others. "They would taunt me in the hallways, and I felt like I could never escape it," he said in the flat pitch of a boy whose voice is changing. Looking into the camera, his jittery energy propelling him from screen left to screen right, he changed tacks. "I have so much support from people I don't even know online — I know that sounds creepy, but they're so nice and caring, and they don't ever want me to die."

And yet all that wasn't enough to keep Rodemeyer from dying. Why? A growing number of education psychologists and childhood-development specialists are beginning to ask whether our approach to anti-bullying education is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the research. They suggest that the underlying motivations for bullying are a great deal more complicated than what's addressed in anti-bullying policy: What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?

Studies show that kids who are involved in bullying — bullies, victims and a third subgroup of particularly problematic kids who engage in both behaviors and are referred to as bully-victims — are more likely to have started out with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that predispose them to lashing out and to self-harm.

The concept of the menacing bully with problems at home is as established in the culture as it is in the research, but most people shy away from addressing the existing mental-health struggles of the bully's victim for fear of appearing to blame the more vulnerable party. But in viewing the victim as an actor in the relationship, educators and researchers may be able to provide him with the correct kind of support.

"Children who tend to gravitate to these [enemy] relationships repeatedly throughout their childhood are ones that warrant more attention and concern," says Maurissa Abecassis, an associate professor of social sciences and education at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire who studies antipathetic and enemy relationships among schoolchildren — some of which can be classified as having bully-victim dynamics. But others are something else, something more common, often just two people who really don't like each other. "If you ask college students if they've ever had an enemy, roughly 70% will report they have — it's not such atypical behavior — but it's a little bit different for this other group."

Indeed, in an evaluation of 153 studies that looked at the psychological profiles of those reported by their teachers to be bullies, victims or bully-victims, Clayton Cook, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, and several of his colleagues found that all those groups were more likely to test poorly on measures of social competence, self-awareness and emotion regulation than were children who had nothing to do with bullying. In other words, they are opposite sides of the same coin — and they are all in trouble.

Meanwhile, an emerging area of psychological study is looking at the formation of enemies — the adversarial and antipathetic relationships that are prevalent in classrooms (and, most likely, in the faculty lounge too). The research shows that many of these relationships of mutual dislike indicate well-developed social skills, and yet they can look very much like bullying. The problem is that without a clear definition of what constitutes bullying, children who exhibit any type of unfriendly, negative or exclusionary behavior are punished as bullies. And the punishments are increasingly elaborate and severe as schools struggle to cope with the phenomenon.

"It's easy to take it a step further to think of dislike and bullying as the same, but they're not the same," says Melissa Witkow, an assistant professor of psychology at Willamette University and author of a landmark study that found an association between mutual antipathies and a higher level of social development. "As adults, there are people we don't like, but we're not beating them up. We're not harassing them. A lot of adults think that kids should only have positive relationships, but that's not possible."

As in the bullying-depression connection, this antipathy-sociability association contains a paradox: Are children with more highly developed social skills more likely to have the healthy kind of adversarial relationships? Or does having such a relationship help foster more sophisticated social maneuvering? Witkow suspects the former. In her 2009 study of over 2,000 sixth-graders in 99 classrooms at 11 middle schools throughout the Los Angeles area, Witkow found that pairs of children who reported disliking each other's company on surveys (they were asked to list people they didn't like to spend time with) were more likely to be rated as well-liked by their peers than were children for whom dislike was only one-sided. And teachers of mutually antipathetic students scored them higher on measures of social development and classroom behaviors like impulse control.

Even if they enter these entanglements with a more sophisticated ability to socialize, such children are still practicing valuable skills — how to interact with people whom they don't like and who don't like them and how to resolve conflict, manage their emotions and control impulses. They even learn the fine art of ignoring those who bother them. In fact, according to Witkow, many of these antipathies may simply be mutual because one party senses the other's dislike and decides not to waste energy on an already prejudiced classmate — a sophisticated calculation. In sum, they learn the essential life skill of dealing with adversaries in the adult world, where no teacher or principal can mediate the interaction.

"For children to really internally grasp what it means to be right and wrong — they do that during unsupervised play," says Helene Guldberg, an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University and the author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. When parents are constantly refereeing, she explains, children "listen to what adults say is wrong or bad, but that's very externalized morality. In their interactions with other children, they have to negotiate and come up with rules. They internalize it."

While most anti-bullying programs involve important lessons on conflict resolution and compassion, they also often involve reporting systems that mean children must relinquish control of the situation to an adult. Karin Frey, a research associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington who helped develop the anti-bullying curriculum Steps to Respect echoes a great number of researchers when she says children are hesitant to report bullying because they anticipate a dysfunctional response from authority figures that vacillates between overreaction and inaction.

Part of the reason adults vary in their reaction is that there is no set definition of what constitutes bullying. To that end, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has convened a task force to create a standardized definition of bullying for use in research and policy work. Meanwhile, researchers are calling for a more broad-based mental-health curriculum instead of a targeted anti-bullying program.

Clayton Cook, who is part of that CDC task force, hopes for a curriculum, concurrent with other subjects, that helps teach social skills, impulse control and coping mechanisms for a wide range of problematic situations — divorces, deaths in the family, illnesses and financial problems. Such a holistic approach could help children who are not bullied as well as help defuse some of bullying's power. "Bullying is just one of many life stressors that can affect kids," Cook says.

Imagine if kids such as Jamey Rodemeyer and the classmates who tormented him weren't treated like either criminals or victims but like children who needed to be taught social skills alongside their social studies. Imagine if they all learned not that everyone has to be friends but that they could not be friends, with compassion and decency.