Taking the issue of bullying seriously

With another school year right around the corner, now is the time for me to come clean: I haven’t taken the issue of bullying too seriously.

Even as an education major in college, the bullying “epidemic,” as it's so often been called, is one I brushed off. I was one who considered bullying as nothing more than a right of passage based on the premise of what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. And admittedly, just the word “bully” still brings to mind jokes of Scott Farkus, Ralphie Parker's bully with yellow eyes in “A Christmas Story.”

But a recent study published in “Psychological Science” is proving otherwise. According to the study, bullying proves to have long-term consequences for children and young adults that persist long after the bullying has stopped. It’s a statement that seems like common sense, but researchers found that kids who were bullied, as well as the bullies themselves, have more health problems when they grow up than those who weren't bullied. Moreover, bullying victims show more financial problems, trouble retaining a job, and are more susceptible to health related issues such as asthma, obesity, diabetes and cancer. These problems continue well into their mid-20s.



The study examined kids ages 9-13 beginning in 1993 and continued assessments until they were 26 years old. Of the 1,273 kids observed, about one-quarter had ties to bullying either as a victim, a bully, or both. While all these kids had some health or financial issues as adults, it was targets of bullying – the so-called freaks and geeks – that got the real short end of the stick. Kids who were perpetually bullied were most likely to have mental and physical health problems, relationship trouble, and difficulty in the workplace.

A childhood of being kicked leads to a lifetime of self-kicking. Go figure.

So if studies find that bullying has severe long-lasting effects, what is it that makes people like myself sweep the issue under the rug? Perhaps it's because bullying is over diagnosed. It's so often mistaken for the typical childlike “drama” and two-way teasing seen particularly among adolescents, which blurs the line between adolescent behavior and the real harmful aggression. As New York Times columnist Emily Bazelon asked, “If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it?”

Irrespective of your take on the matter, bullying remains a clearly consistent problem. In fact, according to the most recent data from bullyingstatistics.org – an online resource for information on all things bullying – bullying is actually on the rise, thanks to the advent of cyber bullying (something I still don't entirely understand. If it had existed while I was in school, I would have been told by my dad to turn off the computer and go mow the lawn).

The statistics site also notes approximately 77 percent of students nationwide have admitted to being the victim of one type of bullying or another – about 42 percent that say they have been harassed online.

All this beckons the question, what's to be done? It goes without saying that bullying will always be an issue. It is, after all, one of the unfortunate underlying afflictions of our society. But that certainly doesn't mean we can't mitigate the problem.

In my opinion, empathy is key. In an interview, novelist Barbara Kingsolver once said “Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own.”

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...@evesunshawn

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