Pushed Around

(This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of SSA Magazine.)

A changing world lets bullying in between the cracks

The issue of children being bullied is a regular topic in the news these days, in part because it’s on the rise. The percentage of students aged 12 to 18 who reported being bullied at school increased 24.5 percent between 2003 and 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and in 2009, one in five high school students reported being bullied in the previous 10 months.

While in the past bullying was often seen as simply part of childhood, its frequency and how it now occurs has led to a cultural shift in how Americans view the issue. “The introduction of cyber bullying has expanded and intensified bullying behavior and its impacts,” says SSA lecturer Susan McCracken, who teaches Treatment of Children, Treatment of Adolescents, and Diagnosing Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents.

McCracken, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Des Plaines, explains that since children and adolescents usually master and use new communication technologies before adults, it has been very difficult for parents to provide the necessary supervision and guidance. “Bullying used to be seen as verbal and physical intimidation that happened at school, but with technology it now it can take place anywhere, anytime and is readily distributed to a wide audience,” she says. “Technology also allows the bully to remain anonymous and has opened the door for the victims to bully back with anonymity. And others sometimes join in the relational aggression system, seeing themselves as protectors or vengeful defenders.”

Jason McVicker, a lecturer at SSA who teaches Sexuality Across the Life Span and Social Work with LGBT Clients, notes that bullying around LBGT issues is also caught in between changing rules and acceptable behaviors. “We have a strange paradox in our culture in 2012,” says McVicker, a social worker in private practice in Chicago. “We send a strong message that everyone has to come out and be openly LGBT, so young people are coming out earlier and earlier in their naïve way and then end up being faced with enormously hostile responses. So while our culture is encouraging this behavior, the infrastructure needed to deal with this change does not yet exist.”

Still, the future does not look as bleak as the past. McCracken, who has has been working with schools and social workers in Chicago and the suburbs, feels that improvements are being made in finding potential solutions and implementing both damage control and preventative measures. The severity of the problem has necessitated legal action in some cases, changes in laws and mandated school policies and practices in others. Ten years ago, regardless of who was being bullied or why, the prevailing attitude was that bullying was just a part of life, that kids needed to toughen up and that they would live through it. Today, more people—teachers, administrators, community leaders, parents and children—are taking more responsibility.

Many parents no longer think that turning off technology is the solution. “They are helping their children build social and emotional skills to apply in appropriate social networking,” McCracken says. “Communities and school families are coming together to teach media literacy and to help young people navigate through these systems in safe ways.”

However, there are still problems to be conquered. As McVicker points out, bullying is unacceptable, but all of our institutions and infrastructure have not necessarily caught up to these changes.

“So many public schools are stretched to their limits and don’t have any more resources,” he explains. “They just can’t deal with another issue—like kids coming out as LGBT earlier. It’s not that they are necessarily hostile to it, it is more that they are almost unconsciously complicit in keeping those kids in the closet when they allow bullying to continue. It’s a problem. It’s a changing problem, but it’s a problem.” — Robin Mordfin