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Teen Internet Bullying: Effective Coping & Prevention Techniques
10 CEUs Teen Internet Bullying: Effective Coping & Prevention Techniques

Section 18
How Accurately Defining Bullying will Aid Prevention

Question 18 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Bullying CEU Courses
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

State-Level Bullying Practices
Unfortunately, in the rush to address the new perceived threat of school shootings, insufficient time was taken to formally define bullying. Consequently, efforts to pass state laws and to implement local policies have had limited coherence (Limber & Small, 2003). Many state statues, in fact, do not define "bullying" other than to use the word itself; others equate it to peer harassment; and yet others include hate crimes of all types including those directed against gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. New Hampshire, for example, actually requires a school employee "who has witnessed or has reliable information that a pupil has been subjected to insults, taunts, or challenges, whether verbal or physical in nature, which are likely to intimidate or provoke a violent or disorderly response shall report such incident to the principal, or designee who shall in turn report the incident to the superintendent" (2001). These codified definitions of bullying are at times inconsistent with international perspectives and research (Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Juvonen & Graham, 2001; Rigby, in press; Smith et al., 2002).

Collection of Information About State-Level Bullying Practices
To explore state-level policies and practices, information about state-level bullying policies and resources was gathered in three waves of data collection. First, representatives from each state's department of education were identified and contacted via e-mail in January 2003. They were asked to complete a survey regarding bullying laws and policies in their state. Representatives identified were most often the people responsible for "School Safety" or "Safe and Healthy Schools." Representatives from whom there was no response received an e-mail reminder approximately 2 weeks after the original e-mail was sent. If there was no response following the second set of e-mails, attempts were made to identify a second person in the state department of education and they were sent the survey. Responses were obtained from representatives from 39 states.

Second, a search using the LexisNexis search engine (for the full text of Statutory codes, Advance Legislative Services, and the state constitutions) was conducted to obtain information on state laws related to bullying. A search was conducted for each state, using the words "bully" and "bullying." Fifteen states have enacted laws that include the term "bullying" (as of July 2003). Results from this search were compared with responses from state representatives. When there was disagreement, information from the state representatives was used. For states from which there was no response to our survey, the LexisNexis search provided the information.

Third, data from state legislators and LexisNexis were summarized. This table was sent to state representatives in June 2003 for feedback, corrections, and updates. Twenty-two state representatives responded to the e-mails, including representatives from seven states that had not responded to the original request for information.

Summary of State Policy and Practices
Formal state legislation. As Limber and Small (2003) reported, 15 states have enacted bullying legislation. When state representatives were asked whether their state had a law addressing bullying, 13 additional representatives wrote that their state legislation addresses bullying, but does not explicitly use the term "bullying." Instead, bullying behavior is subsumed under the heading of another law (e.g., harassment, assault, injurious hazing). As Limber and Small discuss, failing to accurately label bullying makes intervening more challenging. Such misunderstandings may also lead to punitive laws, rather than a commitment to supporting and guiding bullies toward change.

State definitions of bullying. State definitions of bullying (defined by state law or the state representative) were compared with the primary components of Olweus's (1993) definition of bullying. Olweus's definition is composed of three primary components: intentionality, an imbalance of power, and repetition. In addition, Olweus (2001) explains that a wide range of behaviors can be considered bullying, including physical aggression, relational aggression, systematic exclusion, and destruction of property.

In addition, several definitions of bullying specify outcomes of the behavior. To be considered bullying, the behavior may need to disrupt learning or the school environment, cause emotional stress or distress in a victim, or result in physical harm to a student. The number of states that included a discussion of the effect of bullying on victims indicates an increasing awareness of victims' experiences. However, most formalized legislation continues to focus on actions to be taken with bullies, to the exclusion of responding to victims. Although laws in New York and Rhode Island require that schools provide mentors for students concerned about bullying or violence, victim issues and needs are notably absent from most legislation.

State-level bullying resources. This special issue is evidence that practitioners and researchers are moving forward in defining bullying and developing targeted evidence-based interventions. Nonetheless, the definitions provided by state legislation and state representatives do not appear to be based in a strong research grounding. Not one of the 15 states that have enacted bullying legislation provides a definition of bullying that includes all components of Olweus's definition. Further, none of the other state representatives who provided a definition that was not formalized into legislation cited all aspects of the definition. This disconnect between research and policy leads to questions about the development of legislation. In particular, there may be political pressures from various constituencies that influence the wording and scope of bullying laws. For example, if legislation is partially or primarily a response to media-intensive school violence, as mentioned above, then the most immediate response is likely to be the quick fix (i.e., punitive and controlling through strict disciplinary provisions).

One way to move beyond legislation is to gather further information about what is actually being implemented in practice by looking at bullying resources provided by state departments of education. Almost all of the states that responded to the survey indicated providing some type of resource related to bullying. In particular, 39 states responded that they provided trainings or workshops about bullying (respondents said that the targets of trainings and workshops included students, school personnel, and teachers) and 33 provided Internet resources. In addition, 21 representatives indicated that their state provided resources that were not captured by the other items on the survey, such as hotlines, statewide conferences, lists of service providers, and practitioner-friendly reviews of recent research.

Researchers in many countries (e.g., Finland, England, Canada, Australia) have intensively focused on the problem of school bullying far longer than those in the United States by seeking an empirically based understanding of bullying (Smith et al., 2002). As a result, an international dialogue on theories of bullying has accumulated over the years based on careful investigation and intervention. In contrast, the interest in the U.S. on the topic of bullying has been more recent. Now that bullying has passed through a period of awareness building, the time has come to move into a period where research is conducted with more precision and complexity. The clarity provided will support more effective, targeted, evidence-based practice.

Ironically, although the U.S. Department of Education has developed a flier (U.S. Department of Education, 1998) with evidence-based definitions and research on bullying, state legislators have produced diverse legislation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, bullying is defined as: "intentional, repeated hurtful acts, words or other behavior, such as name-calling, threatening and/or shunning committed by one or more children against another. The victim does not intentionally provoke these negative acts, and for such acts to be defined as bullying, an imbalance in real or perceived power must exist between the bully and the victim. Bullying may be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual in nature" (p. 1). This definition is closely aligned with well-accepted research definitions (e.g., Olweus, 1993), yet state departments of education have not incorporated all components of this definition.

One conceptualization of bullying is that of a continuum of verbal and nonverbal aggressive behaviors that are commonly exhibited by students (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). At the extreme end of the continuum are behaviors of students who repeatedly victimize other students; their actions are not qualitatively distinct from those of other students on the continuum, they are simply more frequent and persistent. This idea that bullying lies on a continuum and that most students engage in some form of peer victimization suggests that perhaps bullying should be addressed in conjunction with other forms of peer aggression. However, this does not preclude accurately assessing this form of aggressive behavior. For example, a recent study by Solberg and Olweus (2003) indicates that the frequency and duration of victimization has a significant effect on victim outcomes. Specifically, marked negative consequences were found among those students who experienced bullying events two to three times in the previous month. Although the threshold of how "repetitious" bullying needs to be to have a generalized negative effect on a youth may vary by child, Solberg and Olweus's (2003) analysis provides a marker to possibly differentiate general aggression from bullying.

In addition, increased precision in defining bullying will affect prevalence research. Among the most commonly cited work on bullying prevalence in American schools is work by Nansel et al. (2001). In their survey, the definition of bullying provided to students included the following statement: "We say a student is BEING BULLIED when another student, or a group of students, say or do nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is teased repeatedly in a way he or she doesn't like. But it is NOT BULLYING when two students of about the same strength quarrel or fight" (p. 2095). Failure to specify that bullying is necessarily a pattern of behaviors or a relationship may produce higher prevalence rates and fall short of recognizing the unique functions that bullying serves. Taking a peer-relationship approach to understanding bullying has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Defining bullying as a specific type of peer aggression will aid in this pursuit.

As Limber and Small (2003) discuss, antibullying legislation is unfortunately intertwined with definitions and legislation addressing harassment. Harassment is defined as actions that are intended to target a member of a group of identifiable individuals who are protected by state and/or federal antidiscrimination legislation. This confusion and overlap of terms leads to political quarrels that could be avoided if bullying were more precisely defined. For example, although a law requiring school districts to develop policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying now exists in the state of Washington, some conservative groups in this state have expressed concerns that antibullying laws could infringe on students' rights to speak freely about their opposition to homosexuality (Zehr, 2001). The question of whether anti-bullying legislation should specifically include a clause protecting identifiable groups (based on characteristics such as sexual orientation) remains a topic of public debate. For example, antibullying legislation in the states of New Jersey and Washington currently incorporates a definition of bullying that includes a clause stating that bullying is motivated by a (real or perceived) distinguishing characteristic. It should be noted that many state antibullying laws do not pertain specifically to "bullying"; rather, they often address "harassment, intimidation, or bullying" or include the term "hazing." This combination of concepts and terms has repercussions for definitions, community responses, policies, and consequences.

A definition of "bullying" that takes a relational approach has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Interventions designed for victims of chronic peer aggression will differ from those developed for youth experiencing single or unrelated aggressive acts. If bullying is a relationship, then responses to bullies focus on changing a pattern of behavior and relating. If most aggressive acts are called bullying, it will be more difficult to develop an accurate knowledge base about bullying in American schools. In addition, none of the current definitions of bullying have formally operationalized the essential elements of the bullying definition: imbalance of power (one youth can and is using coercion) and intentionality (the bullying is done purposefully and with the intent to harm). Such information cannot be assessed merely through the self-report of either the bully or the victim because this assessment of necessity involves a reciprocal relationship. One strategy to explore power differences that have been attempted is the use of obvious size differences in stick drawings of possible bullying situations (Smith et al., 2002). Ultimately, only the bully knows his or her motivation (although they may have rationalized it in a self-supporting manner) and the victim only knows if she or he experienced harm (although even here there may be some forms of denial or self-protective reframing of the experience).

On the other hand, bullies and victims may not be the best judges of the motivation of their behavior and the interpretation of their emotional reactions. Cornell and Brockenbrough (in press), for example, found that self-reported bullying and victimization was inconsistent with teacher and other peer ratings of bullying behavior. The teacher and peer ratings were the most consistent and they were better predictors of future school discipline referrals. The findings of this study suggest that teachers and peers may be more objective judges of whether or not a power differential exists between students and if the impact of the bullying behavior was harmful. Even the most basic unanswered bullying research question: "How prevalent is bullying in American schools?" depends completely on how the term bullying is defined.

We have suggested that the prevention of the negative consequences of bullying in American schools will be enhanced if researchers, practitioners, and policy makers develop a shared understanding of bullying as a type of school aggression that has unique effects on bullies, victims, and bystanders. It is also necessary to recognize that most youth do not engage in bullying behaviors. Many students are in a position in which they are more powerful than another student and yet they do not abuse this power. Research is needed to better understand what prevents a student from using this power to bully other peers. For research to move forward in determining why many students do not chronically victimize their weaker peers, it is necessary to understand the specific aggressive behaviors of bullies and the functions that they serve.
- Furlong, Michael J., Morrison, Gale M., Greif, Jennifer L., School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32, Issue 3
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information about American reactions to the special issue on school bullying.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, how is bullying defined? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

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Table of Contents

The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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