Bullying: Warning Signs Have Shifted

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This is the second post in a three-part series about bullying. The first article defines bullying and the third discusses the legal implications when a student is accused of bullying.

By Elizabeth Englander, PhD

If you were to pick up an advice column about recognizing the signs of bullying written in 1975, it’s likely that you would be told to look for physical signs of injury. Black eyes, torn clothing, and other signs of physical altercations were routinely listed as warning signs as late as the turn of the century. Today, however, bullying has changed, and with that change has come a shift in the warning signs. The essential nature of bullying, however, has not changed. It’s still a problem between two children that has several key characteristics: it’s intentional; it happens repeatedly; and the “bully” has more power than his or her target.  But the signs that a target may show have changed. 

Forms of Bullying

Today, most bullying is psychological in nature. It often happens through digital communications, in the form of messages, texts, photos or videos, comments and postings on social media.  In person, it typically takes the form of “gateway behaviors”— words or actions that express contempt toward another person.  Examples of gateway behaviors include name calling, rolling ones eyes so that a target feels disrespected, ignoring someone when they talk to you or talking about them right in front of them as though they weren’t there, or laughing at someone. Gateway behaviors can happen between youth who are fighting or among those who are simply annoyed with each other.  But while the presence of gateway behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean that bullying is happening, bullying is usually done using gateway behaviors. 

Today, most bullying is psychological in nature. It often happens through digital communications, in the form of messages, texts, photos or videos, comments and postings on social media.

Cyberbullying Complicates Detection

All this complicates the ability of adults to look for warning signs that bullying or cyberbullying is happening, because it means that bullying generally doesn’t leave visible signs. Still, bullying and cyberbullying leave targets with problems that can become visible. Kids who are bullied often show problems such as depression, social anxiety, and issues with eating or sleeping. Teenagers who are bullied may become tearful, reluctant to go to school, or excessively anxious. The problem is that these symptoms can mean lots of different things; they don’t necessarily indicate bullying is occurring. Because these are general symptoms that only indicate psychological distress, the only way to find out the source of that distress is to discuss the current situation with your child or teen. You may find that your child is depressed about academic work or their social lives, or you may determine that they’re being bullied.

There may be no ripped clothes or visible injuries, but bullying via gateway behaviors still injures young people. Talking to youth about their social lives, including their digital social lives, can help uncover the source of any signs of psychological distress that adults may notice.

Dr. Elizabeth Englander is the founder and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers programs, resources, and research to more than 400 schools every year nationwide. As a researcher and a professor of psychology for 25 years, she is a nationally recognized expert in the area of bullying and cyberbullying, childhood causes of aggression and abuse, and children’s use of technology. She is the author of Understanding Violence, a standard academic text in the field of child development and violent criminal behavior, and of Bullying and Cyberbullying: A Guide for Educators, published by Harvard Education Press.

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