Rutgers professor conducts research on bullying
School is a place open for discussion and debate, but not for bullying, an issue students are constantly dealing with.
Hana Shepherd, a professor in the Department of Sociology, conducted research with colleagues in hopes of finding new ways of combating bullying.
“Bullying is the intentional (alienation) and belittlement of someone done out of some reason by someone who has power over them. I would say teasing and bullying are different because there’s a playful connotation that goes along with teasing,” said Jacob Paul, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
It is important for people to first understand the difference between an argument and the outlines of what is considered bullying, Shepherd said.
“There is discussion of what the distinction is and there are lots of metrics for trying to decide what bullying is. The common metrics involve a sort of asymmetry of power between the two people," she said. "Is this an ongoing thing versus a one off sort of event?”
Christian Taveras, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said the bullying he has experienced taught him a lot.
“I'd get called names, ridiculed and punched in middle school. None of it mattered to me," he said. "I learned that I had to love myself in order to bring the bully to his own level, to show him that he didn’t affect me."
For middle school and high school students, bullying is a traumatic and unpleasant experience that causes unneeded suffering, Shepherd said.
“So there are a lot of consequences for (a bully’s) actions," she said. "Kids will be more likely to stay home from school if they’re being bullied. There are academic outcomes, and a lot of mental health consequences for how they feel about themselves and whether they’re depressed, things like that."
Anti-bullying campaigns nowadays may not be so effective because they are led by adults, Taveras said. These same adults may not relate to children in the way that they need to.
“Kids listen to people they trust," he said. "It’s natural for a child to trust another child, because they have much in common. Kids don’t avoid adults because they're not the same age, but rather wish to avoid criticism or being asked to do something they may not want to do."
Rather than having adults and professionals advocate an anti-bullying program, Shepherd and her colleagues asked the more influential students of schools to take the lead in the campaign.
“In any group, there are certain people who disproportionately set the tone. These influential kids are the ones who set the tone of the school. If you can get them to sort of participate, then your influence can be much greater because other kids are looking to them,” Shepherd said.
Some kids have the ability to establish norms and grab the awareness of their peers because of their position or status, and hopefully this can be harnessed in a positive way, Shepherd said.
Research was conducted during the 2012-2013 academic year with 56 middle schools participating. Students to act as bully prevention “leaders” were randomly selected, and participation was completely optional. The program decreased bullying in the schools in which it was implemented.
Both Paul and Taveras question whether social media will play a larger role in schools in the coming years.
Everyone has a cell phone and everyone is connected to the Internet, Paul said. It is much easier to bully someone electronically.
“There's been an ever-growing prevalence of youth on social media networks such as Instagram and Facebook, which provide a medium for more kids to bully one another. In turn, this makes the battle for a bully-free world harder, because bullying spreads,” Taveras said.
Shepherd hopes that social media can be used to reduce cyber-bullying, instead of intensifying it.
People can communicate more quickly through social media than they used to be able to through passing notes and whispering rumors, she said. While this can be used to spread negative messages, it can also be used to fight bullies.
Although bullying is not typically thought of as a positive action, it is sometimes vital to the intricate social system built into schools, Shepherd said.
“Kids working out aggression in conflict is just a feature of how they try to figure out who they are in the world and what their position is. I think what we can do though is to make it more or less acceptable among students themselves,” Shepherd said.
Paul agrees, but still empathizes for victims of bullying.
Some students will always be bullies, Paul said. Many of these children simply do not know any better as they are still growing up and determining how to react to new and different social experiences.
Shepherd's research has taught her a lot about social media, she said.
“The study taught me that kids really need someone to talk to. Unfortunately, counselors are often overworked, and run around trying to put out fires as opposed to doing more preventative work. That really doesn’t allow them to seek kids out and talk to kids in a sustained way,” Shepherd said.
In regard to future bullying, one can only hope that the future generations will have it easier than the ones before them, she said.
“I hope that there will be less bullying, because a future with less bullying is a future where there can be more time spent on positive things,” Paul said.
Nicole Osztrogonacz is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in English. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Find her on Twitter @nikki_osz for more.