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Child Watch® Column: "Let's Take Bullying Seriously"

Release Date: May 23, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman

A youthful tough who got his growth spurt early gets cruel gratification from intimidating weaker peers. The popular jock cruises the locker room looking for "nerdy" kids to torment. The clique of "cool girls" ridicules female classmates that "look different" and excludes them from their circle. Some young people are using email, chat rooms, social networking websites, and text messages to spread rumors about others and mock and deride them online. These are just a few of the examples of the kinds of bullies that thousands of children and teens face every day.

Bullying is the aggressive, intentional, physical, verbal or psychological abuse of a chosen victim carried out through a pattern of behavior that is repeated over time. It can take the form of violence, threats, name-calling or cyber attacks. Children and adolescents who bully thrive on controlling or dominating others and often do it to feel more important, popular or in control. Research shows that male bullies are more likely to use physical intimidation or threats and might direct their behavior toward boys or girls. Girl bullying is usually verbal with another girl as the victim. Research also shows that bullies often target children who are passive, easily intimidated, or have few friends. Victims are likely to be smaller or younger than their tormentors.

Bullying is harmful and should not be brushed aside as "innocent teasing" or dismissed as "boys will be boys." Bullying can inhibit victim children's social and emotional development, causing them to be depressed and lonely, lowering their self-esteem and impairing their ability to build relationships with others. Physical symptoms include complaints of headaches and stomach aches. The grades of children who are picked on may suffer and they may begin to skip school. For some children, the scars of bullying can last a lifetime.

We must understand, however, that many bullies also are victims. Some children and teens that torment others are being mistreated themselves. Children who bully others are more likely than their peers to get into fights, drink alcohol, smoke and drop out of school.

Some bullying victims strike back with devastating consequences. It is believed, for example, that part of what motivated Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to go on their shooting rampage in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, was revenge for being bullied by athletes at their school. Twelve students and a teacher were killed and many others were wounded. It shouldn't take a Columbine to force adults to realize that bullying is serious and that we must take steps to prevent it.

Bullying is common in the schools our children attend, the parks where they play and the streets where they walk. Millions of children are vulnerable regardless of their gender, race or the economic status of their families. Some surveys indicate that as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis. Victims of bullying shouldn't be left to just "tough it out."

Bullying at school can be significantly reduced through comprehensive, school-wide programs designed to change behavior norms. Most bullying occurs on playgrounds, in school lunchrooms and restrooms, in unsupervised halls or on school buses. Local school boards and principals can help create safe school environments that respond immediately and appropriately to incidents of bullying, attending to the needs of both victims and those who bully them. Complaints from students and parents must receive the attention they deserve and should be dealt with in a timely manner. Tested and successful strategies that address the causes of bullying must be put in place. And teachers, school administrators, counselors and parents must be trained on how to best prevent bullying and to effectively intervene when bullying occurs.

To find out how you can help keep children safe, go to the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov. No child should be afraid to go to school in the morning.


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