New study on bullying

My attention was drawn to a recent news story, which reported that bullying can be good for children. Oh, really?

Assuming for a moment that the Daily Fail story was accurately representing the results of the research, I drew a very different conclusion from the one in the headline (and URL).

A study has shown that youngsters are more popular and more admired by teachers and friends if they return schoolyard hostility in kind.

Although the researchers accept that bullying can be damaging to children, leading to depression and anxiety, those who are not afraid to stand up for themselves can benefit from being picked on. […]

Boys who stood up to bullies and schoolyard enemies were judged more socially competent by their teachers.

Girls who did the same were more popular and more admired by teachers and peers, the researchers found.

The key words here are “admired by”, “judged more socially confident by”. No evidence is given that bullied children are actually more socially confident, more admirable, or in any way better people as a result of the experience. Rather, we’re simply told that teachers and other kids will respect them more if they respond to violence with more violence.

Well, any cynical victim of bullying could have told you that. School has always been a vicious Darwinian zoo only a few steps from “Lord of the Flies”. The only piece of news I get from this story is confirmation that on the whole, the teachers don’t give a shit.

So teachers and other students rate the social competence of bullied kids more highly when they retaliate? Big deal. Why should I value the opinion of people who apparently don’t see the value of protecting others, and who seemingly want violence to continue?

But was the Daily Fail accurate? The Times adds some details carefully omitted by the Mail:

Melissa Witkow, now at Willamette University in Oregon, who led the UCLA study, said: “The children who are not disliked by anybody are the most well-adjusted, not surprisingly.

“However, among kids who are disliked by a peer, our research suggests it may be [helpful] for some young adolescents to return that peer’s dislike than to either not be aware or to continue liking that peer.”

In other words, bullying isn’t good for children at all. The healthiest, most well-adjusted children are the ones who aren’t bullied at all. The study merely suggests that the best option for bullied children is not to be friends with the bully–well, no shit Sherlock?

The Times also mentions a Glasgow study:

Donald Christie, a professor of childhood studies at the university, said: “When we asked them to tell us about the time somebody did something mean or nasty, we had chapter and verse. We couldn’t write it down fast enough. But when we asked them to tell us when somebody did something nice, we had blank looks.

Well, duh. That’s because for lots of children, nothing nice ever happens at school. It’s day after day of violence, meanness and spite, where the most pleasant thing ever directed your way is a good grade. Actual positive interactions with other students are so rare and mild compared to negative ones that it’s not surprising they’re harder to recall.

The New York Times coverage is better than that of either of the UK rags. While both the Times and Mail restrict themselves to heartwarming declarations from bullying victims about how much they gained from the experience, the NYT at least takes a little time to remind people that students sometimes commit suicide because of bullying. It also provides the following revealing analysis:

One reason may be that people tend to prefer symmetry in their relationships, balance in their shared antagonism just as in their shared affection. Growing up is in large part an exercise in self-definition. From a very early age, psychoanalysts have long argued, children develop objects of hatred onto which they can project the traits in themselves that they find most offensive.

The same is true of groups: a shared enemy enhances cohesion and a sense of self-approval. In psychology jargon, focusing on so-called out-group members can strengthen bonds among members of a clique.

So to summarize: Bullying is endemic. The children who aren’t bullied don’t care. The teachers don’t care. Both groups will respect you more if you give in, sink to the bully’s level, and join a clique. It won’t help you be a better person, but it’s the best option you have.