Research Scientist Dr. Dorothy Espelage Explains Five School Bullying Misperceptions

November 10, 2015
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Messages surrounding school bullying as portrayed in the national media lately might be summarized like this:

School bullying has reached epidemic proportions, leading to destructive havoc in the classroom, hallways, and grounds, up to and including victim suicide, as young would- or will-be criminals, many from dysfunctional families, find an outlet for their frustrations by aggressively harassing their peers.

Consider how above-the-fold results from a recent Google search on “school bullying in the news” reveal the heightened tenor of the school bullying discussion as it plays out in mainstream media. From an ABC 20/20 news article, “Tragic Consequences of Bullying in School,” we read that “experts say bullying is a serious and widespread problem that can lead to school shootings and suicide. At the same time, they say, it is dangerously underrated, as schools and adults are not taking the problem seriously enough.” Sometimes the titles alone suffice—from CNN: “Kids get violent: China’s school bullying epidemic.” From CBS News, “Bullying: Words Can Kill.”

These media reports are most likely accurate. But in a broader sense, are they true?

We recently had a chance to talk with Dr. Dorothy Espelage, an international expert in bullying and youth aggression and professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the CPI podcast series Unrestrained. In the interview, Dr. Espelage identifies and explains five common misperceptions surrounding school bullying:

  • Bullying is an epidemic
  • Bullying and suicide are linked
  • Bullies are young criminals
  • Bullies need to be punished
  • Bullies come from dysfunctional families

Bullying As an Epidemic
Speaking to the first misperception, Dr. Espelage explains, “I've been studying this phenomenon for 22 years, really trying to draw attention to it even two decades ago. But it was only five years ago that our president had the first White House conference on bullying. And what it served to do was to really raise the awareness around bullying. But at the same time it almost instilled a panic in parents and teachers and administrators out there. And we were left with this notion that it's an epidemic. In fact it is a public health concern because there's a long-term kind of outcome that is rather dark. But the reality is that we do know in some context and some schools bullying has gone down.

“And so I think when we take that epidemic approach there's almost a reactionary approach versus a prevention approach. And it's interesting because many of my colleagues are like, ‘Dorothy, don't say that it's going down in places.’

“And I'm like, ‘I'm a prevention scientist. I would like to understand in which schools do kids not experience this. That we do have kind of healthy climates.’ So I'm not saying that it's not a public health concern, but it certainly is not an epidemic.”

Cartoon children with face masks

Photo: Zubada / iStock

The Bully-Suicide Link
From Dr. Espelage: “So when we think about this notion of instilling panic in parents, you know, it's the media and other folks—‘experts,’ if you will (in quotes)—that have sent this message that if your child is being chronically victimized through bullying that they will have suicidal ideation and behaviors. So much so that when parents hear my kid is being bullied, instantly in their mind many of them will say, ‘Oh, I'm concerned about suicidal ideation.’

“The reality is that we do know that being chronically victimized is one of a number of risk factors for adolescent suicide. And what we do know though—and this is what the discussion needs to be—is that if a child is being chronically victimized, and maybe doing this in silence not to bother their parents, that what happens is they become depressed, anxious, or withdrawn. Right? And it's that untreated depression or unknown depression, anxiety, that then places them at risk for suicide. So there's not a causation here, [bullying] being kind of one of a multitude of risk factors.

Bullies Are Young Criminals
Dr. Espelage also dispels the notion that most bullies have a similar character profile that signals their progression into criminality in adulthood: “There's also this notion that there's just that one type of kid that engages in bullying. And we, in fact, know that there's a multitude of them.

“But two really dominate in the research literature. And those are those kids that are what we call ‘ineffective aggressors’—the Hollywood depiction of the thug bully. And those kids do go on and have risk for having anti-social personality traits across the lifespan. So certainly those that are ‘ineffective aggressors,’ and again, I put quotes around that because by the time kids enter middle school, say sixth grade, there's a group that emerges that's called the effective aggressor or what we also call ‘Machiavellian bully,’ if you will. These kids have high social capital, they're popular, they're over-represented in athletic groups, and they will never come to the attention of the administrator. And so when we think about those really socially skilled kids that engage in these behaviors, we don't have any evidence that they will go on and have adult kinds of criminal records.”

sullen boys sitting

Bullies Need to Be Punished
In terms of consequences for bullying behavior, Dr. Espelage is plain that she believes they are sometimes necessary, but that equity in their application is critical, as is a preventative approach and the creation of a positive school climate: “I think that we still have school districts that believe that there has to be clear, clear consequences for kids that engage in these behaviors and I often argue with my colleagues about that. I don't disagree with that, but . . . I would like these consequences implemented with equity.

“My concern is if you continue to take the punitive approach then our kids with disabilities, kids in special ed, our ethnic minorities, or our under-represented groups—let’s just say directly, African American kids—are going to be targeted through these punitive approaches. So I think that we need to take a much more preventative approach. We know that kids who engage in these high rates of behaviors do so in schools where there's a less positive school climate and where the adults are modeling this behavior.”

detention written on a board

Photo: dayice / iStock

Bullies Come From Dysfunctional Families
What about the idea that kids who engage in bullying behavior do so because of the influence of negative aspects of their home environment? Dr. Espelage explains why this line of thinking is not so simple: “Again, there’s this notion that these kids that engage in high rates of bullying are dysfunctional. Right? And we need to understand that there's different types of kids that engage in these behaviors, that they have different motivations, and they're likely to come from a host of families. We do know that kids—that there is somewhat of an association between bullying and exposure to family conflicts. So if there's a lot of sibling aggression, you're more likely to enact that behavior when you go to school. But there's certainly many kids that engage in these behaviors where the behavior's not modeled.”

Happy family

Photo: andresr / iStock

Check out Dr. Espelage’s complete interview to learn more about why school climate is so important in the fight against bullying, why she’s optimistic about the forward progress of mitigating bullying behavior, and why we should stop using the word “bullying” to refer to these negative behavior patterns in school.

Dr. Dorothy Espelage headshot

Dr. Dorothy Espelage

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