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Texting and social networks provide an unsupervised outlet for bullies to target kids, said Marc Atkins, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Less opportunities for bullies equals less bullying

by Kelly C. Doherty
April 15, 2010

At 19, Preston Whitt has only recently escaped the wrath of bullies.   

“I would have to worry about making it safely from one class to another,” he said.

Whitt, who grew up in Alabama and is now a freshman at George Washington University, said he was targeted by bullies for his sexuality from elementary school through high school. He recalled incidents of food being thrown at him, harassment during gym class games and verbal aggression.

Child and adolescent bullying has become a more pressing and complicated issue in recent years with the emergence of cyber-bullying and extreme effects on victims such as depression and suicide. Psychologists said those results are rare, but bullying does have severe consequences, and school and parental involvement and prevention is the key to keeping kids safe.

“As a community, we’ve got to step in and take responsibility for the environment the kids are in,” said Marc Atkins, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Atkins explained that the biggest issue with bullying is the opportunity to bully. Unsupervised situations at recess, in school hallways and online all provide a chance for bullies to target victims, he said.   

In order to combat bullying, the culture of the school must be changed in order to show kids  it won’t be tolerated and there will be consequences, Atkins said. Monitoring kids outside the classroom is a challenge for schools, especially for ones that have had recent budget and staff cuts, he said, but it needs to be a priority.

Donna Tennis, principal at St. Philip Lutheran School in Chicago, said her school chose to implement a formal program to prevent bullying, which will kick off this fall.

The program, created by Swedish psychologist and researcher Dan Olweus, will involve training for staff, weekly meetings for students and will also involve parents as well, Tennis said.  Part of the significance of the program is the notion that teachers and staff will be more present to observe and help monitor situations among students.  

"[It will] kind of let students know that they’ve got people watching them,” said Tennis, who received federal funding for the program.

Whitt agreed that school involvement and support is vital when it comes to bullying. He looked back on his school years as a “long, arduous, torturous path.” Whitt said his teachers either overlooked situations where he was bullied or may have not been sure how to intervene, and said he wished they had provided an environment where he felt comfortable reporting the incidents. 

Whitt is an intern for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which advocates for safe and positive school environments for students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The organization's most recent survey, conducted in 2007, showed that nearly nine out of 10 of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported being harassed in the previous year.

But Whitt said he doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t been involved with bullying in some way, and that other things such as weight and skin color can also make kids a target.

Jenny Grindle, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Lincoln Junior High in Plymouth, Ind. said her school has seen improvement in student behavior since instituting its “Storm Watch” program last year, which rewards kids for positive behavior. Teachers give tickets to students for a raffle at the end of the year, and praise them for responsible and respectful behavior.   

Atkins said some common but subtle types of bullying among middle- and high school-aged children are exclusion and relational aggression, which includes peers spreading rumors, or turning on friends.

The psychological effects of bullying are damaging in a number of ways, said Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. When choosing to bully, he said children and teens are generally impulsive and often don’t anticipate these effects on their victims.

 A recent bullying case in Massachusetts resulted in the suicide of a 15-year-old girl, which Reinecke said is rare, but when adolescents feel their situation is intolerable, suicide becomes the solution.

“A large majority of suicide attempts are precipitated by a social break,” Reinecke said.

Less severe psychological effects include mood changes, reluctance to go to school, symptoms of depression and self-esteem issues, Atkins said. He advised parents and teachers to encourage children to talk about it, and to take it seriously when a child reports a bullying situation.  

“Bullying is not a part of growing up,” Atkins said. "Everybody has a right to feel safe.”