Bullying: Stop Overusing the Term

As bullying continues to be a huge topic of discussion, I think the term itself has become too all encompassing. As a society, especially in schools, we have a tendency to use “bullying” for any kind of intentionally harassing type of behavior. Society screams “bully” as soon as somebody doesn’t get along with someone else, or calls somebody a name. And that’s not accurate.

I love the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program’s definition of bullying:

“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

Bullying must have a hostile intent behind it. Bullying also has to be something that involves an imbalance of power, and while the stereotypical idea of a big kid physically picking on a smaller kid, imbalance of social power can be far more damaging. A final important part of the definition of bullying that we have a tendency to forget is that it’s a behavior that happens repeatedly over time.

Some people have started to define bullying as anytime somebody does something cruel or picks on somebody. When two students get in a fight on the playground, we immediately look for the instigator and refer to him, or her, as the bully. That’s not bullying, that’s assault. It likely has nothing to do with being a bully.

There seems to also be a tendency to immediately believe someone when they say that they’re being bullied. And I think that in some cases, it’s not necessarily the whole story. Too many students today know that claiming to be a target of bullying can deflect attention from their own behavior. I’ve even heard of situations where parents claimed their child was being bullied in order to secure a transfer to another school. I’m certainly not discounting that there’s a lot of bullying going on, but I’m not sure it’s increased as much as the media makes it seem. Bullying has been happening in schools for years, but it didn’t make the news. The introduction of various forms of digital communication has provided a large, almost instant, audience for both the bullying, and the resulting attention when it’s identified .

Schools need to help students, parents, and their community understand what the definition of bullying is. Then we all need to work hard to not feed into a media machine that wants to create news and associate every incident of school violence or harassment to bullying. You can do this in various ways, including by offering professional development to your staff. I would love to hear your ideas as well.