How Is Bullying Linked To Violence In Society?

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In the first part of a weeklong series about bullyingHere & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Dorothy Espelage (@DrDotEspelage), professor of psychology at the University of Florida, and Nadine Connell (@nmconnell), director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, to look at whether bullying is connected to other kinds of violence.

"It really is this continuum of perpetration," Espelage says of bullies. "It's not just that bullying is a cause for concern. It's the type of aggression that follows."

"We're not just talking about, 'It all goes away after a school age, or after high school,' but it continues on into patterns of adulthood that can be really dangerous, problematic and costly for society," Connell says.

Interview Highlights

On the lifelong effects of bullying

Dorothy Espelage: "When we think about being victimized chronically through bullying, we know from the research that decades later, maybe 30 years later, if you're chronically victimized, you will have a full-blown diagnosis of major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. So it's serious consequences for the victims. We also know that those kids that engage in high rates of bullying through childhood and adolescence actually go on to become much more kind of skilled in their aggressive behaviors, and that their bullying turns into a homophobic name-calling, sexual harassment, and as we track these kids into high school, they actually perpetrate more teen dating violence in their dating relationships."

Nadine Connell: "I want to add to what Dorothy has just said about the bullying perpetrators. Not only, as she mentioned, do we see these later aggressive behaviors in high school, but we have actually been able to follow up with self-identified bullies into later adulthood and they are more likely to engage in higher rates of criminal offending."

On why someone becomes a bully

NC: "We know a little bit, but not a lot, or not as much as we would like to. I can speak to some of the work that we've done, again, looking at more delinquent populations, which speaks to a variety of different reasons. In our research, we found that childhood trauma could actually have an impact in later bullying perpetration. So more traumatic events spoke to the need for earlier intervention."

DE: "Certainly we know that it's complex, right? So there's not just one predictor, but we know that there's individual characteristics. Kids that engage in high rates of bullying tend to have lots of anger. They have difficulty in regulating their emotions. They may come from families in which they witness violence. They may be in schools where the adults bully one another, and are modeling that behavior. We do know from our work that by early adolescence, if you hang out with kids that bully, you will become more like them. It's kind of a 'birds of a feather flock together.'

"So we do really see it as a complex interaction between individual characteristics, family context, the school context and then certainly society, as we see these types of behaviors being modeled on the television. So all of these together place you at a risk. We're seeing some of these meaningful behaviors emerge in preschool playgroups. So we do know that it's something that we need to intervene and stop early, but we need to intervene in different ways to be able to address those individual characteristics that place kids at risk: talking with families, creating safe spaces in schools where bullying is not seen as a positive thing. So it's a very complex problem. Unfortunately, our solutions have been too simple. And we are having challenges in reducing bullying in our schools in our communities."

"It's not just that bullying is a cause for concern. It's the type of aggression that follows."

Dorothy Espelage

On how cyberbullying has changed things

DE: "I think that certainly the flavor of it has changed. And so when I was younger, decades ago, when I left school, any issues I had at school stayed at school. Here it follows them. We do know from the national data, however, that online bullying, about 7 percent of kids report experiencing that on a regular basis. But we know face-to-face ranges from 15 to 20 percent. So the approach is certainly that social media has changed things, has had us think about our intervention programs differently, but certainly we need to recognize that kids are still engaging these behaviors they still face at school."

On how the current political climate might affect bullying

NC: "We are certainly at a time where there is a greater spectrum of behaviors that appear to be appropriate, especially when it comes to social media and being online, than used to be in the past. And it would be silly to presume that students and young people don't notice that and don't act accordingly."

DE: "Absolutely. And I'll add to that — we spend a lot of time in the schools since the election, and it is very, very clear that boys engaging in sexual harassment are defending their behaviors by pointing to the president."

On hearing that past school shooters have been bullied

DE: "I had someone call me and say that exact comment after the shooting in Parkland, and my immediate question was, 'Well what else do you know about him?' "

NC: "I can add to that, in part, because we are undertaking the first comprehensive data collection of all school shootings that have happened in the United States. And I think when we look at those students in previous school shooting events — such as at Columbine, such as in Jonesboro — and we take a look because there have been claims made that they were victims of bullying, those claims don't hold up to the level that we would expect. It seems that victims of bullying are much more likely to internalize. You know ... major depressive disorder, anxiety, things that do not include harm to others. And that is not to say that there aren't some individuals who do lash out as a result of their experiences, but it is much too complex to suggest that bullying is the only reason, or is the most important reason, as to why somebody decides to bring a gun to his school. And, in fact, in many cases, several of the individuals have turned out to be ... bullying other students, so not even so much a victim as much as possibly a perpetrator."

This article was originally published on March 19, 2018.

This segment aired on March 19, 2018.

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