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Bullying Is Not Part of Growing Up

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There is a wide assortment of misconceptions about bullying out there. Many people picture bullies as sad, unpopular loners, but this is usually not the case. In fact, recent studies have found that it is often the popular “cool” kids that engage in much of the bullying.

So, what are bullies all about then? In order to understand bullies and the harassment they inflict, one must understand the social structure in today’s schools in which they operate. In the latter days of elementary school, children begin sorting themselves by sex and forming separate social hierarchies. Traits that enable boys to rise to the top of their hierarchies include athletic ability, toughness, money, and social skills. A trait that sometimes lowers the status of boys is good grades, as being seen as a “nerd” can be a liability.

Traits that enable girls to rise to the top include good grades, their family background, money, and the good looks required to attract the popular boys. In short, it is a hierarchical system based on physical prowess and material wealth, and this rigid social structure maintains itself well into the high school years.

Within this rigid social structure, there are several types of bullies. One type, the “cool” type, is well connected socially and has obvious talents, such as athletic ability. He or she will bully members of the same sex as well as utilize prosocial strategies as a means of maintaining their dominance within the social hierarchy. The male equivalents of this type of bully would be the bullying jocks, which many bullying victims report as being their worst tormentors.

The female equivalents would be the stereotypical “mean girls.” Not every athlete or popular kid is a bully, of course, but there are a significant number of them in the popular crowds. Contrary to popular belief, such bullies have very high self-esteem. A few bullies actually do lack self-esteem, but this trait is generally found in bullies that are either not too attractive to the opposite sex or are victims of constant bullying themselves. This particular type of aggressor bullies others in order to acquire a social status that constantly eludes them. Bullies are generally heavier, stronger, or better coordinated than the average kid and, by extension, their victims. Bullies would not be successful otherwise, and this is especially true among boys.

Typical victims among boys are physically weaker than average. In light of this, the advice to hit a bully in the lip to get them to leave you alone is often useless. Just try putting yourself into the shoes of an uncoordinated 120-pound teenager being harassed by a gang of well coordinated athletes weighing between 170 to 220 pounds. Are you going to be able to hurt them? One could certainly lift weights or learn a martial art, however, it could be years or never before you get to a point where you can actually take on a larger attacker. What’s worse, going to a teacher is often useless because not only are their punishments ineffective, but going to a teacher makes the victim appear cowardly in front of his or her classmates, resulting in even more bullying. Bullies generally bully to demonstrate to an audience that they can dominate.

It has been observed that in incidents of bullying, crowds of kids will stand around and cheer on the more popular bully rather than the victim. So even when kids are not bullies, they are often accomplices or impassive bystanders. Sadly, kids will often shun bullying victims in order to avoid becoming targets themselves, resulting in the eventual social isolation of the chronic victim. Such isolation can continue for years, and if this continues into high school, one can forget about dating. If your tormentors happen to be jocks or mean girls, you get to watch in pure frustration as they get the prettiest girls or the shiniest hunks in the whole school.

Solitary confinement is considered to be one of the cruelest punishments that can be dished out to our most vile criminals, and victims of chronic bullying often endure this right in the middle of their crowded schools on a regular basis. This is much worse than simply being teased or beaten. I know this for a fact, as I have endured it myself. It gets to one’s head after a while, and it cannot be considered part of growing up because it robs one of the experiences of growing up.

Another reason why bullying should not be considered part of growing up is that the bullies themselves often do not grow up. It has been found that as many as 60 percent of bullies will have at least one criminal conviction by the time they are in their 20s. They do not “mature” as many assume. In light of this, it makes sense to stand up for a bullied kid instead of simply requiring that kid to “pull himself up by his own bootstraps.” If a bully learns at an early age that he or she can victimize the defenseless without any significant interference from others, they will simply continue such behavior into adulthood.

Speaking of adults, I think that perhaps teachers and administrators should monitor hallways and playgrounds more closely for bullying and support the use of corporal punishment on repeat offenders. While that sounds harsh, when you have incidents such as the one that involved a pair of 15-year-old bullies going as far as burning a 10-year-old special needs student with a lighter, I think it is justified. Have suspensions worked?

This is all very disturbing because similar patters of behavior can be observed among nonhuman primates. Olive baboons provide an excellent example. Olive baboons live in large troops containing as many as 100 individuals and, as is the case with many social animals, there are aggressive pecking orders formed within their troops, especially among the males. The male hierarchy consists of older and stronger males occupying dominant positions, and younger as well as less athletic males occupying subordinate positions. Those at the top of the hierarchy carry out the bulk of the matings with the females and basically rule the troop.

Females will form pecking orders as well. The subordinate baboons are second-class citizens and are often socially isolated. This system is enforced and maintained by bullying behaviors such as lunges, chases, and biting. Dominant males generally bully low-ranking males as a way of showing off their dominance. They do not behave in this manner because they have self esteem problems. They behave this way because they are in a superior position, and their biological instincts command that they maintain their superior position.

All of this ensures that the older males, who have been socially skilled and are strong enough to escape predators, disease, and other dangers for a long period of time, get to pass on their genes to the next generation. Many children and teens appear to be acting on a similar biological impulse. However, in the modern world, (and even hundreds of years ago) physical prowess among humans has a limited value. Nature has not caught up, and many human beings are still acting on this impulse, creating much stress for other human beings.

In mammals, responses to stress are regulated by a pair of glands known as the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. When someone is experiencing a low level of stress over a long period of time, such as a stressful month at the office, or constant harassment from a menacing classmate, the outer portion of the adrenal glands will release extra amounts of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, which include a hormone known as cortisol. Glucocorticoids function to elevate blood glucose levels and prepare the body for fight or flight. Under optimal conditions, the stressful situation ends and the glucocorticoid levels drop.

However, a consistent amount of stress over a long period of time can result in glucocorticoids being constantly elevated beyond their normal parameters. This can be dangerous, as large amounts of stress hormones released over long periods of time will accelerate the aging process, which can lead to any number of health problems. Glucocorticoid levels are often measured by wildlife biologists as a way of monitoring stress levels in wild animals, and this has been done with olive baboons. Among olive baboons within stable dominance hierarchies, dominant males generally have low resting levels of glucocorticoids because of the high level of control they have over their social interactions.

Dominants also tend to have an elevated glucocorticoid response to stress. Subordinate males, on the other hand, because of the lack of control they have over their social interactions and the high levels of harassment from dominant males they have to endure, generally end up with high resting glucocorticoid levels and a blunted glucocorticoid response to stress. Their blunted glucocorticoid response to stress might be the result of a loss of sensitivity to their high resting levels of glucocorticoids in their bodies.

Obviously, being in such a situation for a long period of time does not create good chances of a long and prosperous life. Researchers are beginning to measure the cortisol levels of bullied children, and so far, it has been found that they have stress hormone issues similar to that of subordinate baboons. One British study involving identical twins, (twins are often separated in schools in Britain) where one twin was bullied and the other was not, found that the bullied twin always had a blunted cortisol response to stressful situations. Another study showed that verbal bullying resulted in lower secretions of cortisol than physical bullying.

Indeed, chronically bullied kids often develop health problems and depression later on in life as a result of the stress that they had to endure. If your child is being chronically bullied, get him or her on an exercise program. Hard exercise will help burn these stress hormones out of their system and the exercise program should, for obvious reasons, have an emphasis on building upper body strength. This may spare them a lot of health problems in the long run.

Also noteworthy, a curious culture developed in one baboon troop that defied the textbook norm. A typical troop of baboons began feeding at a garbage dump that contained tuberculosis tainted meat. The aggressive males that monopolized this food source simply died. When these males were out of the picture, the entire nature of the baboon troop abruptly changed. There were still dominants and subordinates as before, however, the bullying behavior largely disappeared and was replaced by high levels of grooming behavior. When fights did break out, it was usually between males that were close in rank. The dominant males were much more tolerant of low-ranking males and, as they became more tolerant of low-ranking males, they became less abusive toward the females as well. Every baboon in the troop was enjoying less stress, better health, and likely worked as a team much more effectively, probably enhancing the chances of the survival of the troop as a whole.

What’s more, this relatively peaceful baboon culture continued to maintain itself for a long period of time. When young newcomer males arrived from more violent troops, it typically took them only six months to learn that in order to be accepted within this new troop, they had to be nice.

If a troop of wild baboons can learn such behavior on its own accord, then why can’t today’s middle schoolers? After all, we human beings are capable of ethical reasoning that far exceeds that of any primate. It is not rare for school athletes, whom bullied kids often report as being their worst tormentors, to be given preferential treatment by school administrators. This must stop. If school administrators can keep their biggest and strongest boys under their thumb, or better yet, get some of them to act as anti-bullying police, then the social environments of entire schools might transform into something better – and we need this to happen because whatever kids learn there will stick with them all the way into adulthood.

Unfortunately, little extensive research has been done on what happens when bullies grow older. With most of them, it is likely that when they have their first run in with the law, it will be enough to turn them around. Others may require two or three run-ins, and many may simply shift gears and become the office bullies we hear so much about. All things considered, one has to expect that some bullies will remain as they were as children throughout their entire lives. We should be concerned about this because levels of bullying, narcissism, and sociopathy are high among millennials (I should know because I am a millennial). It is reasonable to believe that this young generation is poised to cough up a record number of violent thugs.

The question is, “How does one prevent a child from turning into a bully?” To answer this question, one must know where bullying behavior comes from. Preschoolers, like baby chimpanzees, often engage in a behavior known as exploratory aggression. Small children instinctively aggress against other children to test their own abilities, and the strengths and weaknesses of others. Within day care environments, it has been observed that physical aggression represents roughly one in four of the interactions among children. In a nutshell, the children are trying to assert themselves in a dominance hierarchy with other children.

The trouble with this behavior is that we cannot have a stable society full of dominance hierarchies based on physical prowess. Responsible adults don’t tolerate this behavior among children and, ideally, children learn from adults and other children how to control aggression. The rush of pleasure that a preschooler might feel from hitting another child might be followed by the pain of getting hit back or being reprimanded by an adult. But one has to ask, “What happens with a really big kid?” A study conducted on hundreds of 3-year-old children from the island of Mauritius that involved follow-ups on them later in their young lives, concluded that children with large body sizes at the age of 3 tended to be aggressive at 11, and those that hit growth spurts later on in life were less prone to aggression.

This study is consistent with others done here in the West, indicating that cultural differences have no effect on this trend. This makes sense not simply because larger children can be more effective bullies, but also because at the age of three a child’s brain is not fully grown and is still quite malleable. If a large toddler learns that it is easy for him to knock over other toddlers and he is never reprimanded by an adult, then the behavior will end up being hardwired into his brain, resulting in a habit that will be very difficult to break. So, this is probably the basic recipe for the creation of a bully, though there are often other factors that can be involved as well.

Bullies often report things such as poor parental supervision, intense family conflicts, and sometimes abuse. In other instances, the parents themselves are bullies and encourage the behavior. If one wants to teach a child to control aggression, the time to do it is when they are toddlers and their brains are still growing. While there are certainly genetics that render some people more prone to anger and aggression than others, overall, the control of aggression is a learned behavior. If you wait until the kid is six years old, it will likely be too late.

Contrary to popular belief, exposure to TV violence has nothing to do with the development of aggressive behavior. Toddlers can show signs of aggression before they get a chance to watch TV. Ever seen a small child try to bite another child? They do not learn such behavior by watching TV or by imitating adults. It is a built-in biological impulse that society tends to restrain, provided that the society in question is healthy.

TV violence can simply be thought of as the byproduct of an already violence-prone society trying to express itself. One tends to think that physically aggressive adults will always do themselves in, but I tend not to think like that. Highly aggressive thugs can be extremely useful cannon fodder for criminal gangs, terrorist organizations, or politicians with malevolent intentions. While working along the Mexican border, I stumbled upon the body of a Mexican man who had been executed by drug cartels. While extreme poverty no doubt herded many people into these cartels, I wondered how many of these guys were the school yard bullies that no one was ever able or willing to stand up to.

Sources and Further Reading:

1. Juvonen, Jaana and Graham, Sandra. “Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims.” Annual Review of Psychology. Department of Psychology, Department of Education, University of California (2014): 164.

2. Raine, Adrian, DPhil., Reynolds, Chandra, PhD., Venables, Peter H., DSc., Mednick, Sarnoff A., DMed., and Farrington, David P., DPhil. “Fearlessness, Stimulation-Seeking, and Large Body Size at Age 3 Years as Early Predispositions to Childhood Aggression at Age 11 Years.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 55 (1998): 745-751.

3. Sapolsky, Robert M., and Share, Lisa J. “A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission.” PLoS Biol 2 (2004): e106.

4. Adler, Patricia A., Kless, Steven J., and Alder, Peter. “Socialization to Gender Roles: Popularity among Elementary School Boys and Girls.” American Sociological Association: Sociology of Education 65, No. 3 (1992): 169-187.

5. Olweus, Dan. Bullying at School. Malden, MA., Oxford, U.K., and Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 1993

6. Farmer, Thomas W., Petrin, Robert A., Robertson, Dylan L., Fraser, Mark W., Hall, Cristin M., Day, Steven H., and Dadisman, Kimberly. “Peer Relations of Bullies, Bully-Victims, and Victims: The Two Social Worlds of Bullying in Second Grade Classrooms.” The University of Chicago: The Elementary School Journal 110, No. 3 (2010)

7. Pellegrini, A. D., Long, J. D., Solberg, D., Roseth, C., DuPuis, D., Bohn, C., and Hickey, M. “Bullying and Social Status during School Transitions.” New York: Routledge: Jimerson, S. R., Swearer, S. M., and Espelage, D. L. Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective. (2010): 199-210.

8. Klein, Jessie. The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools. New York and London: New York University Press, 2012: 40 and 32. 

9. Fleming, M., and Towey, K., eds. “Educational Forum on Adolescent Health: Youth Bullying. Chicago.” American Medical Association. (2002): 12. or 2002.pdf

10. Dijkstra, J. K., Lindenberg, S. M., and Veenstra, R., “Beyond the Class Norm: Bullying Behavior of Popular Adolescents and Its Relation to Peer Acceptance and Rejection.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 36 (2008): 1289-1299.

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About Author

Kevin L. Reichling is a naturalist. He has written articles for Lets Talk Nevada, the Boulder City Review, and the Wilmington News Journal on environmental and political issues. He worked for a state park as a naturalist, for the National Park Service on an exotic plant control crew, and at a county park as a conservation technician. In college, he majored in wildlife management and educates others on environmental and social issues.

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