Bullies seem to be as old as time. We listened in as Carlow University faculty Keely Baronak, EdD, chair of education, and Joseph Roberts, PhD, chair of graduate psychology, discussed some of the aspects of bullying, and why it can be more complex than it used to be.

Carlow University Magazine:How common is bullying? And are there differences in gender and age?

Baronak: Approximately 20 percent of children will be bullied or experience bullying. So it ranges in terms of the number of students involved in bullying between 28 and 32 percent depending upon the study or researcher, it really is complex. Some of the nuances are that some of the children who are bullied are also being bullied, so there is some crossover there. Definitely more males are involved, especially in more physical bullying. Boys are more apt to bully boys and girls. More girls are reported as being bullied by boys, but for girls especially, the relational aggression, while on the surface doesn’t seem like it would be as bad, is actually pretty devastating in its consequences.

Roberts: Yes, it’s funny, you know the old adage “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you”? It doesn’t bear out. In longitudinal studies, most people —both boys and girls—find relational bullying more painful over time than physical bullying. That’s an interesting shift in the way we understand the complexities of bullying. I think adults are mostly looking for physical bullying, thinking that is of course the thing that can lead to the most damage,
but that doesn’t seem to fit the longitudinal models.

Baronak: Long-term ramifications occur even into adulthood for those individuals who have experienced that type of bullying, loss of self-esteem and struggling in relationships, and a whole host of negative consequences. Interestingly, the majority of children being bullied are younger. It peaks in late elementary school age and statistically it seems to decline. Although the shift is that it becomes more relational and less physical.

Carlow University Magazine:So getting pushed down on the playground is not necessarily as traumatic as being made fun of or some other constant cruel behavior like making fun of your name?

Baronak: Or (teasing about) physical attributes or like making up rumors about you that aren’t even true...

Roberts: Think of it as exclusion. In relational aggression exclusion is the byproduct. Getting pushed down on the playground or intimidated physically is stressful in the moment; however, over time what seems to be the worst culprit for developing depression or anxiety disorders with teenagers is if they were excluded from events like parties, or the entire class is attending an event but one person specifically has had the knowledge [of the event] kept from them. I think that those have much more lasting effects of people’s perceptions of themselves and if they are even worthy of friendship. It’s more insidious across the lifespan.

Baronak: These are pretty sophisticated social structures that a lot of bullies operate in. Bullies for the most part are no longer what we used to think of as the poor children with low self- esteem—not poor in the socioeconomic sense—but [in the sense] he is acting out because he doesn’t feel good about himself so he has to tear me down. The truth is most of those who bully have elevated self-esteems and are actually pretty aggressive and/or strong, and are considered to be top students. That makes it even more difficult because then they negotiate a pretty sophisticated social structure. It is an intentional design of ‘we’re going to target this particular student and we’re all going to coalesce around it.’

I think that’s where bullying gets its power, is in the silence of those who are the bystanders or are participating in a peripheral sort of way. Because they tend to target those who don’t have a lot of social supports or who already are isolated in some way.