BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Who hasn’t had an experience with a bully in their lives? No matter where you come from, you’ve probably been teased, taunted, sometimes even terrorized by someone who’s taken a dislike to you. Maybe you have bullied someone, knowingly or unknowingly. Whether it’s a flying fist or a cruel word, bullying always leaves a mark on its victims in some way, shape or form.
Psychologists have long since tried to get to the root of why kids often harass one another. Jabs, jeers, and jibes often represent a power struggle, a kind of reflection of the same atavistic urges that drive dominant male chimpanzees and gorillas to ritualistically intimidate would-be usurpers into submission. At our core, all humans want to be accepted by others, and, in some cases, bullying others allows the bully to feel on top. Bullying might simply be a defense mechanism.
Unlike chimpanzees, however, humans are far more complex creatures, with a rich internal and external social life which we express through thoughts and feelings. North Carolinian psychologists at the Duke University School of Medicine have studied bullying – its roots, perpetrators, and long-term effects – for years. Now, they’ve determined that those childhood words can have big effects down the line: kids who had been bullies were more likely to be at risk for a host of other mental and social problems, including anxiety, poor social skills, and panic disorders as adults. Psychologists identified young men who had either been bullied, or who had had a history of bullying others, as especially at risk for suicidal thoughts.
The good news, however, is that these same psychologists determined that bullying is not a necessary part of the childhood experience. Indeed, bullying and other repetitively aggressive behaviors appear to be entirely a consequence of nurture rather than nature: meaning that with the right socialization, kids will never feel the urge to give one another swirlies.
Several schools in the United States have implemented test programs aiming to circumvent the problem altogether. One major key point in Duke’s findings was that the key messages of anti-bullying programs – that everyone belongs and that bullying is a zero-tolerance behavior – could not come from adults or other positions in authority. (We were all teenagers once. Who didn’t do the opposite of what your parents and teachers told you do to out of spite?) No, if you wanted to change bullies you need to go straight to the source, nipping the bullies in the bud by changing the attitudes of their peer group.
Researchers at Princeton University have eagerly accepted this challenge and implemented a series of test programs targeting the student body. They named their new program “Roots.” Not only are children and their attitudes the “root” of the problem, but extensive focus-groups also revealed that it was the name most difficult to make fun of (Give ‘em time, I say. “Toots” springs to mind already).
Princeton researchers invited several New Jersey high schools to participate. Activities included socialization programs, designed to foster tolerance and cooperation while reinforcing the idea that bullying was an unacceptable behavior. Results were positive. At Ridgefield Park Senior High School, teens even came up with several new ideas of their own volition. One such innovation was the “mix it up” lunch hour, where kids were encouraged to sit next to new people and meet new friends. After one year of the Roots program, bullying and bully-related incidents dropped more than thirty per cent. Roots has helped to let kids open up about their feelings and let others know when they’re being bullied – or perhaps, when they’re being the bully themselves.