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Society Suffers When Bullies Win


by Richie Bernardo

In the next seven minutes, a child in the United States will be bullied. It may be the son or daughter of someone you know. It may be someone close to you. Meanwhile, only four out of 100 adults will step in to stop it. And only 11 percent of the child’s peers might do the same. The rest — 85 percent — will do nothing.

Every day in America, more than 160,000 children miss school out of fear of being bullied, according to National Education Association estimates. Bullying takes many forms, ranging from the seemingly innocuous name-calling to the more harmful cyberbullying to severe physical violence. It happens everywhere, at all times to the most vulnerable, especially those who are obese, gay or have a disability (up to 63 percent more likely to be bullied).

And besides the physical, emotional and psychological tolls it imposes on victims, bullying produces adverse socioeconomic outcomes. The Association for Psychological Science recently found that those who are bullies, victims or both are more likely to experience poverty, academic failure and job termination in their adulthood. In addition, they are more likely to commit crime and abuse drugs and alcohol.

bullying interventionFor schools, the financial burden caused by bullying is not to be ignored, either. According to a National Association of Secondary School Principals report, the average public school can incur more than $2.3 million in lost funding and expenses as a result of suspensions, expulsions, vandalism, alternative placement and lower attendance.

In light of Stop Bullying Day earlier this year, WalletHub measured the relative levels of bullying in 42 states and the District of Columbia to help bring awareness to the financial implications of such pervasive violence. They did so by analyzing nine key metrics such as bullying incident rates and truancy costs for schools. Their findings and methodology are in 2015’s Best & Worst States at Controlling Bullying.

Bullying can result in many negative consequences not only for the victim but also for the bullies themselves, their parents, their schools and society as a whole. In order to understand the causes of bullying and identify ways to prevent it, WalletHub enlisted the help of several experts with extensive knowledge of bullying including Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of Psychology at Stetson University. His responses follow.

Chris Ferguson, Ph.D.

Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of Psychology at Stetson University.

Q. What are the main factors that put a child at risk of being bullied? 

Ferguson: Bullying phenomena are complex of course, so there really are multiple factors involved, and I don’t want to give the impression that all bully victims (or perpetrators) are similar. In fact, I could kind of half-joke (not that this is a joking matter) and say #1 = alive, as bullying victimization at least on an occasional scale is rather common (although bullying has actually been declining in recent decades).

However bullying can be particularly common among children who are different or don’t fit in…this can be the consequence of social skills issues, a disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Second, school climate can contribute to bullying, such as a dysfunctional school or a school in which adults or peers do not challenge bullying. Victims also tend to come from families with issues ranging from discord to lack of cohesion to (sometimes) over-protectiveness.

Q. What are the main factors that contribute to a child becoming a bully? 

Ferguson: Most kids probably bully occasionally. But for chronic bullying, having a pre-existing antisocial personality, particularly when mixed with depression, associating with delinquent peers and exposure to family aggression, are particularly critical risk factors.

It’s also probably worth pointing out one element that is commonly mistaken as a risk factor. Specifically, contrary to common fears, there is no good evidence that playing violent video games or watching violent movies contributes to bullying. Indeed in one recent study (Ferguson and Olson, 2014) violent video game use was associated with reduced bullying among some groups of kids, although this finding was correlational.

cyberbullying intervention onlineQ. How can parents protect their children against cyberbullying in our socially connected society? 

Ferguson: The main thing really is simply to be involved. If parents believe they are going to “shield” kids from technology, they will likely fail. I believe it is much better to be involved, and have frank and open discussions with kids about issues like cyber safety and what to do if they are being bullied.

The research I’ve seen is that open channels of communication between parents and children tend to be a protective factor. Find ways to use the Internet, new technology or video games with your child. And make sure your home has an open access policy so you have access to your child’s social media accounts.

Q. Which is the most cost-efficient method of treatment for kids who have been bullied? 

Ferguson: There are certainly therapeutic approaches that can help assist with mood or anxiety symptoms, and can also look at dealing with chronic stress. However, a big part of this would involve parents and school officials working together to identify the source of the bullying and identifying a constructive way to reduce or stop it.

It’s actually probably best to examine this as a whole community, as a preventive effort rather than to try to “whack-a-mole” isolated bullying incidents. If you can change a school community, it will be the kids themselves who challenge bullying; this is where you’ll see the most positive outcomes.

Q. Are bullied kids likely to be more or less successful later in life? 

Ferguson: It’s certainly a risk. Not so much directly, but through the effects of chronic depression, anxiety and stress, as well as reduced social contacts, that could result from chronic bullying. And, although much of the attention is on kids, adults bully, too. Workplace bullying has been one subject that’s gotten some attention recently.

Q. What kind of programs should state and local governments develop in order to prevent bullying incidents? 

Ferguson: This is actually a tricky question, since the efficacy of individual anti-bullying programs has been controversial. It’s safe to say there are a fair number of ineffective programs out there, but also some good ones.

In general, government officials should be wary of programs that use alarmist language or imply that bullying is the worst it’s ever been (it isn’t). Nancy Willard (director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age) is an excellent resource on anti-bullying programs, and government officials would probably want to consult with someone like her without a stake in individual programs, and take a good hard look at the research on the efficacy of individual programs. Programs that can’t point to peer-reviewed research should immediately be discarded, but even those that can range in actual effectiveness.

Q. Are schools or parents at risk of any liability, should their kids bully others? 

Ferguson: I’m not a lawyer so I have to answer this one carefully. The short answer seems to be yes, at least potentially, particularly should the bullying result in severe harm to another. Anti-bullying laws have been controversial. At present most states have been looking into them or have something on the books, but there’s also concern about their potential misuse. My advice would be, should parents or school officials really be concerned about ongoing bullying, they should consult with their legal representatives about their potential liabilities.

Richie Bernardo is a personal finance writer at WalletHub.

This article originally appeared on WalletHub.com and is reused here with permission of the publisher.