Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The recent bullying-motivated suicide of 14-year-old Dolly Everett in Australia has made worldwide headlines and spurred Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to declare, “Dolly’s passing highlights the devastating impact that bullying can have on its victims. Every step must be taken to reduce the incidence of bullying, whether offline or on, and eliminate it wherever we can.”
Politicians the world over make similar declarations in the wake of a heartrending bullying story in their dominion. Yet the worldwide bullying crisis continues unabated, and we continue to hear heartrending stories with tragic frequency.
From PM Turnbull’s response, we might think that it was Dolly’s suicide that brought awareness of the bullying problem to Australia. But Australia has been at the forefront of anti-bullying efforts for almost two decades.
The conventional wisdom about bullying is that society is not doing enough to stop it; if we increase awareness of bullying and intensify our anti-bullying policies, bullying will finally go away.
But bullying awareness is coming out of our noses; we’re already doing way too much about bullying. The real problem is that the orthodox approach to bullying is a Catch-22; the harder we implement it, the worse the bullying problem becomes. What’s needed is a fundamentally different approach to the problem. A truly effective approach would require less effort and get better results.
And such an approach exists. The reason the world hasn’t embraced it yet is that researchers have convinced us that only researcher-validated approaches should be used. But researchers are reluctant to conduct studies on anything other than the orthodox approach.
The orthodox approach is best characterized as a law-enforcement approach. It treats bullying as an unbearable crime from which children need to be protected, and violators need to be apprehended, interrogated, tried and punished and/or rehabilitated.
This approach to bullying was created by Norwegian psychological researcher Professor Dan Olweus in the 1970s in response to a series of suicides by bullied teens. The bullying prevention program he produced has become the most widely used in the world and is often referred to as “the gold standard.” All scientists that subsequently became interested in bullying found his work, spread his teachings as gospel truth, and based their own programs on his. Furthermore, they have successfully lobbied for anti-bullying laws that require schools to implement Olweus’ approach to bullying. Thus, the entire field of bullying is an inverted pyramid based on the teachings of one individual.
The problem is that the law-enforcement approach doesn’t work very well. While Olweus’ original research studies reported a 50 per cent reduction in bullying after two years of implementation, such results have rarely been replicated. The most massive study of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, conducted a few years ago in Pennsylvania, found a mere 12 per cent reduction in the number of children who complain of being bullied twice or more per month in those schools that implemented it with fidelity for two years. That’s a failure rate of 88 per cent! Numerous meta-analyses of research on anti-bullying programs and laws have consistently found that they rarely produce more than a minor reduction in bullying and often result in an increase. Strangely, bullying researchers never recommend that we abandon these ineffective programs and policies, only that they be intensified.
The law-enforcement approach promotes what cognitive behaviour psychology recognizes as irrational beliefs, which are bound to intensify problems. We must realize that the great majority of bullying is verbal and relational: insults, rumours, gestures, social exclusion and nasty posts in cyberspace. Though these acts are negative, they are ordinary aspects of social life kids are bound to encounter. But bullying education teaches kids that: they are entitled to a life without bullying; words can scar them forever; they are too weak to handle bullying on their own; everyone – teachers, parents, police, their fellow students – must protect them; that they must inform the school authorities when they experience or witness bullying because the authorities can make the bullying stop.
These irrational beliefs promote vulnerability, helplessness and a victim mentality, causing children to get upset more readily, leading them to get bullied even more. Even worse, when they inform the school authorities, who must then proceed to investigate and judge, hostilities immediately escalate as each side tries to convince the authorities that they are innocent and the other side is guilty. Informers often become known as tattletales or snitches, which can be a social death sentence.
There is a better way of dealing with bullying. It is a psycho-educational approach. This involves teaching children the dynamics of bullying and how to make it stop on their own. It is surprisingly easy to stop being bullied when one knows how. It is far easier than learning the 3 Rs, which takes months or years of instruction. A few short classrooms lessons, a properly trained counsellor, and a rational school discipline policy are all it takes to dramatically reduce bullying.
Life is replete with challenges, and bullying is one of them. Children deserve to be taught how to handle it. When they no longer require everyone else to protect them and solve their social problems for them, they grow in self-confidence, resilience and popularity.
Unfortunately, the psycho-educational approach is unpopular because focusing on victims rather than bullies is bound to get one accused of “blaming victims.” Such an accusation can destroy a researcher’s career. So researchers continue to be committed to eliminating bullying, an approach that will never succeed. And our children will continue to suffer.
Izzy Kalman has been a school psychologist specializing in bullying for four decades, and authors a Psychology Today blog, Resilience to Bullying.
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