To many adults, teasing and taunting among children and teenagers are natural and inevitable parts of growing up. But, as a new school year begins, experts say such behavior is anything but normal.
"Bullying is a public-health problem [tied to] the larger issue of youth violence in this country," said Joseph Wright, medical director of advocacy and community affairs at Children's National Medical Center. Allowing it to go unstopped, he said, fosters crime and mental-health problems that can last into adulthood.
Wright and other child-health experts urged parents, teachers and community leaders to give the problem greater attention following the publication of a study done in rural Germany of 22 adolescent boys who had bullying behavior, and who were treated with six months of family therapy sessions. The report, which appears in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics, is a reminder that the United States lags behind other countries in dealing with bullying, Wright said.
"We are really just at the recognition phase [in the United States].... We have defined the problem and are recognizing the problem and trying to adapt," Wright said. "This [study] just points out how far behind we are in even accepting bullying as something that's not a normative behavior."
At least 22 states have passed anti-bullying laws since 1999, some motivated by a 2002 U.S. Secret Service report that found that bullying had played a major role in several school shootings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The intent of such laws is to prohibit intimidation, bullying and harassment in schools, reports the conference. Defining these unacceptable behaviors has been challenging, but guidelines generally consider the length of time that threatening behavior has persisted and whether a perceived imbalance of power lets a student or group of students victimize others.
The German study described measurable reductions in anger and improvement in quality of life and interpersonal relationships after family therapy. But several U.S. child-health experts said that, because the study included only families who lived in rural areas, the findings are not likely to be applicable to large, urban school systems in this country. They also doubted that family therapy by itself could offer a solution, and disagreed with the measures used in the study to identify bullies.
U.S. researchers who have studied bullying say part of the problem is that such behavior is often accepted, even encouraged by adults.
"There's a real value system around [bullying] that basically teaches kids that it's not just OK -- it's more than OK," said Howard Spivak, a professor of pediatrics and community health at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "Social acceptability of bullying is a consequence of many complex things," including adults' approval and the influence of television, video games and movies that "teach them that being mean is not only acceptable, but good."
More than 16% of U.S. schoolchildren report having been bullied, according to a 2001 survey of nearly 16,000 students in grades six through 10 funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. An estimated one-quarter to one-third of U.S. students are involved in bullying, either as a victim or perpetrator, Spivak said.
Research has linked bullying with violent and criminal behavior later in life, as well as emotional, psychological and social problems. A federally funded study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine reported in 2004 that bullies and their victims had more health problems and poorer emotional and social adjustment than their peers.
But that relationship is often poorly understood by parents and school officials. Parents often "have some concern if their kids have been victimized," said Bennett Leventhal, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. "But there are a lot of people who believe that bullying builds character, [that] if you get through it, you're better off." He called that thinking dangerous.
According to the Department of Justice, bullying encompasses a variety of acts repeated over time that involve "a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful." Bullying can take any of three forms: physical (spitting, pushing, stealing, hitting and kicking), verbal (name-calling, teasing, taunting and making threats) and psychological (social exclusion, extortion, intimidation, spreading rumors and manipulating social relationships).
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development survey found that bullying was especially common in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Principal players include the bully, the victim and a third type who alternates between the two roles.