Bullying is a major problem in schools and workplaces all over the world. It is a “multifaceted form of mistreatment, characterized by the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumors” (17). The World Health Organization has documented a wide range of bullying prevalence worldwide. As all public health and societal problems, bullying is the consequence of a complex network of socially constructed image and personality stereotypes and ‘labels’ promoted and fueled by mass media, interconnected discriminatory behaviors and actions against people from with different race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body image, and even hobbies and interests. In the realm of public health, bullying is an enormous problem—it is the emotional and/or physical abuse that has detrimental effects not only in the physical and mental health of the victim—even mortality, but also on their academic/professional performance, self-esteem, continuous systematic and interpersonal discrimination of ethnic/sexual minorities, and future of the victim as possible victimizer.
The U.S. government’s StopBullying.gov campaign is failing to protect victims and prevent further victimization of individuals in schools, as most of its proposals are innately misled from individual health behavior models, such as the Health Behavior Model, the Transtheoretical Model, and the Theory of Planned Behavior—as analyzed below, the approach towards bullied students fuels victim-blaming and helplessness, the response towards bullies fails to address the roots of the abuse, and the advice for parents and teachers is not strong enough to change their behavior in a progressive, understanding, way, maybe only their attitudes—then they become an authoritative figure nobody wants to listen to. Today’s Western value system emphasizes the ability of the individual to control his or her own personal fate. However, this focus on the connection of social conditions to single diseases via single mechanisms at single points in time neglects the multifaceted and dynamic processes through which social factors may affect health and, consequently, may result in an incomplete understanding and an underestimation of the influence of social factors on health (11).
Social epidemiologists and psychologists have continuously concluded “multidisciplinary efforts are needed at a community level to provide effective interventions” (13). There is also an urgent need to reframe the issue (22) in the social construct of how bullies, victims, and bystanders react. StopBullying.gov fails to acknowledge and respond to the intersectionality of other oppressive systems that facilitate bullying, such as racism, discrimination, sexism, homophobia, stigma, domestic violence, mass media reach and patriarchy. We urgently need a “reconceptualization of lifestyle” (7) in collective action instead of individual, self-interested competition. The intervention #WeAreAllWorthy is a multidimensional movement using social networks, allyship, the urge for safe spaces, good citizenship, and the prevention, protection, and respect of basic human rights for all to defeat bullying.
Critique Argument 1: Victim Blaming Is Counterproductive and Fuels Stigma
The Federal Government’s campaign’s advice to victims is, “If speaking up seems too hard or not safe, walk away and stay away. Don’t fight back. Find an adult” (19). This advice is innately flawed because of three reasons, all connected to individual health models with wrong assumptions or to a wrong approach to social health models.
First, asking children to walk away and not fight back automatically gives more power and control to the bully. Control is a crucial core value that people want in their lives, and by giving it to the bully, the victim feels even more dependent on and further victimized by the system.
Second, this continued “victim-blaming” of the campaign, through further Labeling, saying not to provoke or go near the bully, not to fight back or speak back at them, only strengthens the victim’s hopelessness: if he/she’s the victim and the system is telling him/her that it’s impossible to fight back and one must only stay away, it’s turning the blame on the victim for being in the same space as the bully. It’s like blaming a rape victim for what she’s wearing or what party she was in instead of blaming the rapist or the bully for the abuse.
Third, the campaign tells students to report to the school, but often this reporting is not anonymous and the victim sufferes further abuse—this point thus assumes that the victim is in a vacuum and that the environment is receptive to reports. Social Cognitive Theory (15) is the least restrictive of the individual models, but it still assumes a dynamic, ongoing process in which personal factors, environmental factors, and human behavior exert influence upon each other” (14). The intervention is asking too much of the victims- if the environment is abusive, violent, and full of stigma, its influence on the individual’s thoughts and actions will be negative and victims will not feel comfortable or safe reporting to a school that continues to fail them.
Critique Argument 2: Punishing the Bullies Fails to Address the Roots of Abuse
The campaign follows a traditional approach towards the bullies, or abusers, punishing them in the same way that other students are punished for completely different reasons. Bullying is thus treated in school rules as just one more behavior that is forbidden, yes, but not adequately handled. Bullying is a much more complicated problem than smoking, or eating in class, or speaking during a test—this abuse permanently scars the emotional and physical health of another human being. Following are three reasons why this privation of freedom is counterproductive and also fails to address the roots of the abuse.
First, bullies are punished through not being able to go outside during recess, or an extra study period, etc. and also sometimes through forced instructions on how to stop bullying other students. This is based on the Transtheoretical Model (9), which concludes that a model where change takes place in stages is best (Pre-contemplationà contemplationà preparationà actionà maintenance). Unfortunately, it not only fails to find incentives for good behavior and maintenance of that good behavior, but it also doesn’t even consider the roots of the abuse. Bullies aren’t going to sit during lunch break on Monday contemplating how their abuse might be hurting their victim, and by Thursday they’re Most Compassionate Student. Any trigger, such as being abused themselves, can absolutely take them to an unpredictable jump, backwards or forwards in this model. Furthermore, the alternative model of Psychological Reactance (18) states that whenever an individual feels that its freedom is being threatened, it will do whatever it takes to restore that anxiety and get that freedom back. This means that anytime a student is punished at school for bullying or breaking any other rule, they’ll react to that threat or that punishment by exerting their power and control over other students even more than before. The bully wants to maintain his/her position of power and autonomy to call others names or beat others up, so maybe
Second—and maybe the most important failure of this campaign, is that it doesn’t directly address the psychological causes of bullying. Teachers recognize that the abuse may be a consequence for past or parallel victimization of the abuser, but in the context of school rules and action steps, the bully is not a victim, but a rule-breaker. Studies have continuously shown that the victim-bully cycle is fueled by the Social Learning Theory (the most comprehensive of the individual theories). Studies of violence and abuse have discussed the role of social learning theory in the victim-offender cycle of abuse, finding that “victims of abuse are often more likely to be disruptive, aggressive, and violent than their non-abused counterparts” (12, 15).
Third, the campaign explicitly tells kids to “be nice” (which again touches on Psychological Reactance), but it fails to consider the social norms of schools and of mass media telling kids that abuse and name-calling increases the social status of the bully within their individual social networks. The campaign is advocating for the Theory of Planned Behavior (9), where individuals should go through a rational, cognitive decision-making process. However, this model fails to consider subjective norms associated with that behavior. Even if the bully considered decreasing or stopping the aggression, peer pressure of more bullies or of the popular or ‘cool’ kids in the school would encourage him to act irrationally and continue the violence. Some bullies are bullied to bully, and individual models fail to recognize the social network where students face this stigma, abuse, and norms.
Critique Argument 3: How Adults Are Promoting the Wrong Values
StopBullying.gov also has an unrealistic and incomprehensive approach towards teachers and parents in the community. The campaign fails to understand the unrealistic optimism of parents who don’t believe in bullying and teachers who choose to ignore the problem; it also stresses the adults’ attention on victim-blaming again; lastly, it fails to recognize the social norms of reinforced prejudice and stigma that kids mimic from adults around them.
First, it is worth mentioning again the Health Behavior Model’s (9) assumption that it’s the victim’s fault that he or she is being bullied. The model states that each individual considers his/her perceived susceptibility, severity, benefits of action, and barriers of action—meaning the costs and benefits of particular actions, which should result in rational decision-making. This theory then rationalizes that a situation of youth violence is a consequence of a victim not measuring the costs and benefits of their behavior correctly and ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Second, this campaign fails to acknowledge the predictable irrationality (1) of the parents and teachers who are supposed to be role models and examples for their students and children. As the adults in the community, these individuals are responsible for not only advocating for kindness, respect, and equality, but also for showing these behaviors and actions by example. The campaign fails to address the normalized and institutionalized racism, sexism, prejudice, homophobia, and abuse within families, communities, and workspaces also. If students are being told not to bully but they’re being shown violence, discrimination, and injustice, they’re going to mimic the behaviors and silence the advice. (15)
Third, the campaign is unaware of the Theory of Optimistic Bias and of the Law of Small Numbers, therefore, parents and teachers choose to ignore signs of abuse rationalizing it as unlikely to happen to their students or their children. These theories have shown how that people tend to think they’re invulnerable, but they expect others to be victims of misfortune, not themselves. Studies have repeatedly confirmed that “cognitive and motivational considerations lead to predictions that degree of desirability, perceived probability, personal experience, perceived controllability, and stereotype salience would influence the amount of optimistic bias evoked by different events” (21). Therefore, just as police departments and administrators of universities deny sexual assault prevalence in their schools because it must be sure happening somewhere else, but not here, teachers and parents rationalize that because they didn’t suffer bullying or because they’ve never seen it—because they know only a few kids who aren’t bullied they assume nobody is, especially their kids (Law of Small Numbers), they don’t assume the problem with all of its complex causes and connections to other forms of violence, aggression, and bad parenting or teaching.
Intervention idea: #WeAreAllWorthy
The StopBullying.gov campaign is failing to recognize the importance of social health behavior models. It isn’t acknowledging the negative impacts of victim blaming, the strong propaganda-like effects of violent, disrespectful, competitive behavior of celebrities and TV stars in their shows and movies and in real life. The campaign also fails to recognize the victim-bully cycle and the psychological causes of youth abuse. It doesn’t create safe spaces where victims, allies, and victimizers can safely learn about stigma, about community values, or about taking control of their own safety and actions through a collective effort of everyone remotely involved. Most importantly, the campaign fails to identify the real cause behind bullying, discrimination, and physical and mental health consequences of the abuse: the real cause is the socially constructed culture and space of competition, individuality, injustice, racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and corporate control of people’s (including children) identity and desires. The World Health Organization states “enacted legislation has placed the responsibility of prevention on the shoulders of organizational (educational or workplace) management with no apparent input expected from the public health sector” (17). This must stop as we re-think the role of public health professionals and public health frameworks for public policy and social norms. The intervention #WeAreAllWorthy is a multidimensional campaign and movement the crucial function of understanding social networks, allyship, the urge for safe spaces, good citizenship, and the prevention, protection, and respect of basic human rights for all (freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom from persecution and violence, etc.) in the fight against bullying.
Intervention Defense 1: #TakingControl
First and most essential, the campaign must be understanding and appealing. For victims and allies, the intervention should not just be a policy or a new rule or a new punishment for against their bullies and only in the classroom. The intervention should be a movement that gives the victims of bullying the control and autonomy that they lost from the abuse. It’s important to note that in order for this movement to be appealing, it must be as inclusive as possible. Using the Diffusion of Innovation Theory (16), it will start with victims and their friends/siblings, but as soon as enough people consume the product (or join the movement), then everybody will join as well. This movement will be called #WeAreAllWorthy, #TakingControl. It would be not only a social media campaign and also a very comprehensive, well-developed curriculum in schools. The program would be branded (using Advertisement and Marketing Theories) with a positive message, nothing about victims but about survivors, not about bystanders but about allies, not about individuals but about a team. The curriculum would have an extra class with discussions on different mental health and community development topics, collective reflection, safe space discussions, and conversations on diversity, acceptance, respect, body image, stereotypes, etc. It would also have an anonymous confidential section where students could speak to a peer ally and also a counselor about their experience with youth violence or abuse.
Another key point of this intervention is that the leaders of this movement will be older peers who stand as allies to the younger student survivors. Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (10) explains that “all epidemics have tipping points,” as soon as a specific number of students join the movement and become part of the campaign, everybody else will also join. Studies have shown that in schools with severe bullying problems, students believe and are committed to peer support systems, and teachers have a mostly positive view of the intervention (3). Furthermore, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains that unless students have their basic needs met—including safety, community, belonging, love, etc., then asking them for personal development and understanding of others is not realistic or reasonable. This is why the campaign would have to address basic needs: after water, housing, food, there’s family, community, security—these are the most important requirements for children to develop as community members and leaders: belonging and love.
Intervention Defense 2: #AllyForSafeSpace
The most critical point to address when including the bullies and victimizers into the campaign above is to acknowledge the high probability that they have of having been victims themselves, and of understanding the social norms and also social community, environmental, psychological causes of their actions and behavior. The victimizers would also be part of this campaign and group counseling sessions—and it is essential that these conversations foster core values of love, security, equality, role models, safety, and belonging. Older kids will be trained and serve as the leaders of these groups along with mental health professionals and teachers—however, these older “cool” or more popular kids will be the ones passing the message on, with the theme and title #AllyForSafeSpace, as Social Expectations Theory (2) has shown that people are social beings, they depend on and follow those who they deem more fit, more popular, more able, more attractive, more intelligent, etc. If this campaign has as leaders, trained and educated older kids who will serve as mentors for younger peers and talks to them about the above-mentioned topics, then it is more likely to be attractive to young victimizers instead of a campaign where the teacher reprimands all students who participate in aggression.
There’s another important point to mention: discrimination and aggression against sexual minority though is significantly higher than among heterosexual populations. Homophobic bullying is pervasive among children and adolescents in schools- as well as in workplaces:
“Students who frequently experience homophobic bullying are at an elevated risk of several negative outcomes, including depression anxiety, hostility, mental health symptoms, health problems poor school functioning school absenteeism, substance use risky sexual behaviors post-traumatic stress disorder self-harm and suicidal behavior…. Researchers and practitioners have recognized the importance of a framework that considers assessment of risk and protective factors beyond the individual-level, as emerging evidence suggests that certain environmental factors have a profound effect on homophobic bullying in school… There’s been some initiatives for interventions in an ecological system of individual, micro, exo, and macro actions and campaigns.” (17, 20)
Intervention Defense 3: #PassItOn
The last point of this intervention would be a mass media campaign with celebrities and personal stories aimed not only at changing kids behavior but also parents and teachers’ behavior and attitudes with regards to their everyday lives. These adults are examples/role models for their kids, and because of the intersectionality of this problem—with racism, homophobia, discrimination, individualism, etc. Parents and teachers thus will therefore learn from celebrities about bullying, good citizenship, the extra class, and the vulnerability of their kids to any form of mental and physical aggression by other kids (because of Optimism Bias, they didn’t think their kids would be bullied…). The message for teachers will also talk about the damage of bullying and of allowing for a normalized level of youth violence in schools, because studies have proven that “Teachers with stronger beliefs that bullying is normative were less likely to intervene to stop bullying, and lack of intervention was in turn related to higher levels of peer victimization in their school” (8).
The most important part of this campaign is that the message is not shooting statistics and blaming adults of bad-parenting, but it’s going to show them, with subliminal but well-structured messages, how to act in front of their kids to be more consciencious about their words, behavior, and actions with regards to race, gender, respect, violence, and conflict resolution. This campaign will appeal to strong core values of family, equality, and safety, and it’ll be successful due to Agenda Setting Theory (22) and also to Advertisement and Marketing theories (mentioned above).
It’s important to change the framing of this issue of bullying and stop blaming the victim, punishing the victimizers with no rehabilitation or dialogue, and start including parents, older kids, friends, and teachers alike in the movement to end stigma, end discrimination, and end youth violence. “
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