Is bullying on the rise?
It certainly seems to be. Journalists are writing more stories about it. Documentary filmmakers are producing features about it. School boards and administrators are writing new policies to address it. Parents are more concerned about it.
The National Center for Education Studies reported that bullying at schools increased 25 percent from 2003 to 2007. A Massachusetts study found a 50 percent increase in reported bullying from 1983 to 2003. An estimated 160,000 children stay home from school each day for fear of being bullied.
The 2008 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a comprehensive study sponsored by the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, found that more than 60 percent of American children had been exposed to violence within the previous year.
The numbers certainly seem alarming. But it’s hard to know whether the national statistics indicate that bullying is increasing or whether students are simply more willing to report it.
One of the problems with emphasizing the increase in bullying is that it may have the effect of encouraging even more bullying by making it seem more prevalent than it actually is. Sociologists have long warned about a phenomenon known as “misperception of norms,” in which the false belief that a certain behavior is normal will tend to increase the behavior. For instance, college students who believe that a majority of other students drink alcohol regularly are likely to drink more often themselves.
What this means is that simply drawing attention to bullying may not be the best way to prevent it. It is just as likely to cause kids to regard bullying behavior as normal and inevitable.
But just as it is possible to increase bullying by making it seem normal, it may be possible to reduce or even eliminate bullying by making it appear unacceptable.
Skeptics, of course, insist that it is impossible to eliminate bullying. They say it is human nature for some kids to tease other kids; it is just part of growing up. You might be able to reduce it somewhat, but you can’t eliminate it.
But consider an analogy. For decades it was accepted as fact that serious accidents will happen at construction sites, especially when workers are dealing with inherently deadly products, such as electricity. But then Pieper Electric changed the perception. They made it their goal not only to reduce but to eliminate serious accidents at their worksites. And year after year they have achieved that goal. Once again, in 2011, with 625 employees, they reported zero deaths, zero days off from work and zero days of job transfer or restriction due to injury.
How do they do it?
They take safety seriously. They train their employees in the latest safety techniques. They evaluate safety. They reward safety. And they do all of this with a greater purpose. They want to eliminate serious accidents because they care about their employees. They live out their motto: “Our people are our power.”
Of course, Pieper Electric can’t prevent all serious accidents in their community. They can only influence what happens on their worksites.
In the same way, preventing bullying in schools won’t stop all violence against children. But it will stop some, and it will provide a place of safety for children who face violence at home.
Just as an electric company that cares about its employees won’t tolerate unsafe working conditions, a society that cares about its children won’t tolerate bullying in its schools.
Whether or not bullying is on the rise, it happens often enough that adults should get serious about stopping it. It harms the children who are subjected to it, it harms the children who witness it, and it harms the children who do it.
If we care about our kids, we will make their safety our priority. And if it is our priority, it will become theirs as well.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.