Bullying and Popularity and Brain Damage and Prosecution and, and and…..

Bullying. It’s the cause du jour. It’s the new disease, the new focus. We’re off of childhood depression, past social phobia and onto bullying, which we’re criminalizing as well as stigmatizing, theoretizing, and philosophizing. We do everything but empathizing (with the bullies.) Of course we also point out that being the victim of bullying leads to depression, social phobia, and stigma. We don’t look at what being the perpetrator of bullying leads to except that it should lead to correctional facilities and straightening out.

There’s an article in the New York Times (02/14/11) by Tara Parker-PopeĀ  about, well, what’s the title up there? Bullying and Popularity .” Web of Popularity, Achieved by Bullying” . There’s also an article in the Boston Globe, “Inside the Bullied Brain” that speaks about “damage” and differing formations that occur in children who are bullied that appear similar to children who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse.

The basic argument in the Times article is that the teasing and jockeying for position and popularity that goes on is only different by degree from the Bullying that gets lots of attention in the press. These cause stress as high schoolers vie for status. The Boston Globe article is a bit more honest, saying that although these differences are seen on scans it’s not clear whether the bullying causes the differences or the differences cause the bullying. The Globe does say that showing that there’s a physical effect could make it easier to prosecute bullies.

As unpopular as the view I’m about to express might be, I’ve got to disagree with these findings and this urge to label all “aggression” on the part of students as harmful and prosecuting bullies (even at the school level) unless there is real, physical damage like broken bones, just like any other case of battery.

We are over-reacting towards trying to correct a situation in which some individuals have an exaggerated and inappropriate response to the beating down that they’ve received, including the lack of support from the schools and parents.

I’ll be very clear – I’m not condoning bullying. I’m condemning the reactions we have to it. Most of the methods used to stop bullying just give the “bullies” more power and get them sympathy from their fellows, rather than shunned. Labeling someone a bully is labeling. Period. Having the school intercede and tell the “bullies” to stop rarely works.

Brain scans look great but, honestly, do we really know what we’re looking at when areas of the brain “light up” in reaction to a stimulus? Is it glycolization, blood flow, or pixies? We really don’t know. We can just guess. I can safely say that somebody getting hit in the head will cause some form of brain damage but I don’t know about the verbal alternative to “sticks and stones.” An aside to the bullies: if they’re only calling you names, don’t tell them that names will never hurt you – it doesn’t pay to hip the squares.

What’s missing in every one of these studies is the support given by family and school to build up the ego strength of both the bullied and the bullies. Just labeling someone a “bully” is also a form of bullying, but it’s OK because it’s us doing it, right? We’re on the side of good, yes? NO! The so-called bullies aren’t criminals (until they commit battery, rape, etc.) As Izzy Kalman points out in his Bullies to Buddies website & a past newsletter if we have to legislate against bullying we are admitting that we are failures as psychologists.

Before we look at brain scans, before we decide that schoolyard squabbles for pecking order are just another example of behavior we need to stamp out, lets look at the family systems involved. Let’s look at what is being done to help the victims and the perpetrators. Let’s look at what we’re doing to help the families, the schools, the society to deal with the situation. Without stress steel doesn’t become forged and strong, but it also needs to be quenched and tempered, all by a guiding hand. Without stress children don’t strive to become better, people don’t strive to be more than they are, but without support the stress can break a child or an adult.

Let’s not rush to judgment and condemn the bullies without looking at what we’re doing that feeds the situation.

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