Middle school: The meanest years
Bullying is devastating to victims and community
PORTSMOUTH — Bullying remains a problem in schools despite efforts to prevent it, and the effects on the target student can be devastating.
Most schools have programs in place to teach students that bullying is unacceptable, yet kids are bullied and the health risks from physical injuries and emotional damage are real. Stories in the news about students who commit suicide after being the targets of bullying are not uncommon.
The middle school years have been called the meanest in terms of bullying — this is an age where students taunt others without apparent empathy for the harm they are causing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one-third of children age 12 to 18 have reported being the victims of bullying. Grades 6-8 are noted as the most prevalent years.
Bullying generally increases during elementary school, peaks during middle school and decreases at the high school level.
Pediatrician Eileen Forrest of Core Physicians in Exeter said bullying takes several forms. She said a 2010 survey by the National Center for Education indicates that 39 percent of middle school educators report that bullying takes place in their schools on a daily basis.
“Physical bullying involves punching, kicking, shoving, spitting and throwing objects,” Forrest said. “Boys are more often involved than girls in this type.”
Forrest said verbal abuse is most common for both girls and boys. This includes comments about a person’s appearance or sexuality, name calling, spreading rumors or gossip, taunting and threats of physical violence or racial slurs.
“Relational bullying involves excluding the victim from a peer group through verbal threats or spreading rumors,” Forrest said. “It’s a form of social isolation, exclusion from clubs or groups, shunning and silent treatments that victims may be reluctant to report.”
Bullying can take place in cyberspace, where anonymity gives the freedom for particularly vicious attacks. Students can be targeted because of their perceived sexual orientation, disabilities, racial or religious differences.
Justin Looser, director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, said he has seen a marked increase in cyber bullying as the use of technology by students grows.
“Kids at that age have no real sense of permanence,” Looser said. “They do not get that what they put out is out there forever. Middle school kids get fired up about something and then they move on to something else. But that message stays. It’s easier to take control of something happening in real time. On the Internet, it’s out of our hands.”
Bullying is a health issue because of the risk of physical injury and the less apparent emotional harm that can affect a child’s development and self esteem.
“The victims of bullying frequently suffer from bouts of depression, mood swings and the loss of self-esteem,” Forrest said. “School work suffers as the victims are easily distracted and lose interest in daily activities. They may complain of frequent illnesses to avoid going to school. They may develop more chronic symptoms of depression, anxiety, and tragically may end their lives in suicide.”
Looser said bullying has different but real effects on the victim, the bully and on the bystanders who witness the events. He said bullying is finding a weakness and exploiting it.
“The one thing I think is a misconception is that it directly leads to suicide,” Looser said. “I am not sure one can be bullied to death. I think there are probably other co-conditions present and the bullying may be a factor.”
Looser said bullies suffer their own emotional problems.
“I think this is a learned behavior, that the bully is exposed to anger somewhere else,” he said. “It is about feeling power when in some other aspect they may have no control. It produces an effect, positive or negative.”
Forrest suggests that schools can help by having staff visibility in the hallways and student bathrooms and during recess and lunch.
“School buses can be a place where bullies rule due to difficulties with supervision,” Forrest said. “School anti-bullying programs are also another way to address bullying and educate students. The most effective deterrent to bullying in middle schools is a zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of verbal or physical abuse. There is no simple solution to cyber bullying but some states are enacting laws by which cyber bullies can be prosecuted.”
Forrest said parents should watch their child for signs of behavior or physical changes, such as bruises on his body, decreased academic performance, skipping school or low self-esteem.
“Ask your child if something or someone is bothering him/her at school,” Forrest said. “Sometimes a question is all it takes to open a dialogue about bullying.”
If there is a problem, Forrest said do not criticize your child or make him feel in any way responsible for what is happening. Contact the school. If there is danger, contact police.
Sometimes a therapist is a good solution, if the victim feels they cannot talk to someone with a personal connection.
“If it is not addressed, it gets worse,” Looser said. “And, kids try to deal with it themselves eventually and that can come out in not so great ways.”
“Resist the temptation to contact the bully’s parents directly,” Forrest said. “This could make the situation worse so it is best to let the school contact them. Never encourage your child to fight the bully. This only escalates the severity of the situation and gets your own child into trouble.”
For a child who does feel they are in danger, or who needs an anonymous person to talk with, Looser said Portsmouth Regional Hospital has a suicide hotline number open 24/7 at 433-5135.
Cyberbullying Tips for Parents
- Keep your home computer in easily viewable places, such as a family room or kitchen
- Talk regularly with your child about online activities that he or she is involved in.
- Talk specifically about cyberbullying and encourage your child to tell you immediately if he or she is the victim of cyberbullying, cyberstalking, or other illegal or troublesome online behavior.
- Encourage your child to tell you if he or she is aware of others who may be the victims of such behavior.
- Explain that cyberbullying is harmful and unacceptable behavior. Outline your expectations for responsible online behavior and make it clear that there will be consequences for inappropriate behavior.
- Although adults must respect the privacy of children and youth, concerns for your child’s safety may sometimes override these privacy concerns. Tell your child that you may review his or her online communications if you think there is reason for concern.
- Consider installing parental control filtering software and/or tracking programs, but don’t rely solely on these tools.
- Contact Law enforcement or Cyber Tipline if:
-You find child pornography on the computer
-Your student has received sexually explicit images or communication.
-Your student has been sexually solicited by someone first met online
*** Keep all evidence
Cyberbullying Tips for Students
KNOW WHAT TO DO WHEN CYBERBULLIED
- Ignore harassing or rude comments posted on your profile
- Save or print the evidence
- Tell an adult you trust
- Try to identify the individual doing the cyberbullying
- Block future contact if possible
- Change your account
- Call the police if the contact involves threats of violence, stalking, child pornography, sexual solicitation, obscene calls or text messages
KNOW HOW TO PREVENT IT
- Only share your password with your parent/guardian
- Change your passwords often
- Set your page and blog to private
- Keep your personal information private
KNOW HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH
- Use a nickname that doesn’t identify your gender, age or location
- Think before posting or sending photos-they could be used to hurt you now and later
- Alter your pictures before you post them to remove identifying information
- Don’t post your plans or whereabouts online
- Never meet in person with anyone you meet online
- Think about the real-life consequences of what you post