History of Bullying

Bullying isn't a new problem, but people are becoming more and more aware of its negative impact on kids. In the past, bullying was seen as a harmless rite of passage, a normal, unavoidable part of growing up. Taunts, social isolation, rejection, gossip, pushing, shoving, and tripping were often dismissed as child's play or simply kids being kids. Bullied children were told, “Don't let it get to you,” “You're too sensitive … toughen up,” or that bullying builds character.

The problem with this approach is that while some children have the confidence and social skills to stop bullying when it happens, many do not. Bullying is abuse, and expecting a victim of abuse to handle it on their own is unrealistic. After all, we don't tell victims of traditional child abuse or domestic violence to toughen up or just not let it get to them.

The Bully in Books

In literary works, children have been singled out and systematically harassed since the beginning of time. Oliver Twist is likely one of the most memorable examples. Written by Charles Dickens and published in 1838, Oliver Twist was one of the first novels in the English language to focus on the bullying and criminal mistreatment of a child protagonist.

Lord of the Flies, another memorable novel, written by William Golding and published in 1954 (a book that is required reading in some middle school English classes), describes the actions of a group of young children who, in the absence of adult supervision, make a swift descent from civilized to barbaric after being stranded on a deserted island.

S.E. Hinton's well-known 1967 novel The Outsiders is the coming-of-age story of a 14-year-old boy who is bullied and victimized by rival high school students. And Blubber, written by Judy Blume in 1974, tells the story of the mean-spirited and cruel bullying of an overweight fifth-grade girl.

Granted, these books are extreme examples of bullying behavior, but in the broader cultural picture, the bully/target, perpetrator/victim, predator/prey experience is deeply entrenched in our nation's subculture. Just when did it become acceptable, even expected, to have a bully included in the cast of characters of almost every book, movie, and television show?

Defeating the Bully

Often the bullying in movies is viewed as a challenge to the character of the kid being bullied. The entire outcome of the movie depends on how the kid being bullied eventually deals with the bully.

This usually means one of three things: the bullied child can stand up to the bully, like when Michael J. Fox travels back in time and helps Marty McFly's father stand up to the class bully in the film Back to the Future; the bullied child can “take it like a man,” as in the movie Stand by Me, where the older boys beat up the younger boys and the younger boys do their best to fight back; or the bullied kid must defeat the bully or bullies, as in The Karate Kid, where Daniel, a bullied boy, learns karate in order to fight and defeat his tormentors.

In each of these examples, you root for the bullied kids to fight back and win; and when they do, you feel that all is right in the world. Unfortunately, real-life bullying situations rarely end with this type of Hollywood cinematic victory. The majority of children who are being bullied can't or just don't know how to fight back on their own. They need help, support, and, most importantly, intervention. All children have the right to feel safe from bullying, and not one of them should be forced to face it alone.

The First Bully Related Research Study

Prior to the 1970s, bullying wasn't considered a significant social problem. It wasn't until Swedish researcher Dan Olweus, a psychology professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, completed the first large-scale, scientific study of bully/victim problems among school children and youth that the public was alerted to the magnitude of the problem. Olweus's study was published as a book in Scandinavia in 1973, and was published again in 1978 in the United States under the title Aggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys.

The findings of Olweus's study opened the eyes of researchers and demonstrated that bully/victim problems were quite prevalent in school settings. In the 1980s, Olweus conducted the first systematic intervention study that highlighted the positive effects of his “Bullying Prevention Program.” Since then, several more large-scale intervention projects have been conducted in schools, most with good results.

In 1993, Olweus wrote Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do, and is now widely considered to be the world's leading authority on bullying behavior. Olweus's groundbreaking research and intervention programs have played a significant role in increasing awareness that bullying is a growing social problem, one that must be taken seriously by researchers, educators, lawmakers, parents, students, and society in general.

Today, slow but steady progress is being made. Schools are beginning to adopt anti-bullying intervention and education programs, and states are starting to pass comprehensive anti-bullying laws. By 2003, 15 states had enacted anti-bullying laws, most in direct response to the school shootings that occurred between 1997 and 2001. And as of June 2007, a total of 35 states had laws that address harassment, intimidation, and bullying at school. With a clear definition of bullying, schools will be required to enforce uniform standards of conduct.

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