Epidemic Du Jour

We’ve all seen the headlines, and it seems there is always something in the news of epidemic proportions. Like the proverbial broken clock, the media gets it right now and then, but most of the time, the only epidemic is the media’s hyperbolic use of the term. Sadly, as with so many societal issues, bullying has been no exception. The media fans the flames of fear at every opportunity in a population of parents already suffering from a bad case of what authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) term “safetyism.” A quick google search of bullying statistics would lead one to believe our children are under assault in schools rife with bullies. Being highly skeptical of such fear mongering, I  have to question it’s validity.

The hyped-up epidemic of bullying in our schools.

All forms of violent crime in the U.S. have been on the decline since the mid 1990’s, How could it be that within the context of an ever more peaceful society our children are becoming more aggressive? The answer is simple: they’re not. The numbers telling us there’s an epidemic are due to a semantic shift rather than a degradation of childhood behavior. The bullying of the past has been replaced by a newer, expanded version.

“The explosion we’re seeing in bullying is due to our expanded definition of it, not to a shift in behavior, and this fact alone should serve to calm us all down.”

– Susan Porter, PhD (2013)

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how the concept of bullying has expanded to include a more broad range of behaviors. Dan Olweus, considered the father of bullying research, originally proposed three core elements. Bullying involves aggressive or otherwise negative actions that are directed towards a child by one or more other people, where that behavior is:

  1. intentional
  2. repetitive
  3. carried out in the context of a power imbalance.

Over the past three decades the definition has expanded to include cyber bullying, and workplace bullying, and incorporated the relational or social bullying we see in the new & improved version. It has also loosened it’s emphasis on all three of the core elements. Notice that the Federal definition never mentions intent, and the negative actions need only have the potential to happen more than once. The power imbalance was traditionally “understood primarily in terms of size, age, or number, as when one child was victimized by a group,” thus “making it difficult for victims to defend themselves.” Now it has grown to include more subjective standards such as the perceived peer-group status, popularity, or even self-confidence. (Haslam, 2016)

This expansion is quite disconcerting. It conflates a broad range of phenomena, as I discussed here and here, some more problematic than others, and all requiring different responses. This semantical glitch is convoluting the public discourse with well intentioned, but ultimately harmful anti-bully hysteria.

Consider…. While picking up my third grade daughter from school recently, I saw a brief exchange between her and a couple friends. While she was talking to friend (A), another friend (B) came up and asked her if she’d like to play at recess the next day. She replied that she was planning on playing with A, at which point, B walked away in tears, because she didn’t want to play with A. This also happened a number of times last year (repetitive), my daughter is popular (power imbalance, albeit perceived), and she excluded somebody (social bullying). By definition, this could be interpreted as bullying behavior. Anybody who knows my daughter understands the absurdity.

Take a deep breath, and relax. If you come away from National Bully Awareness Month with anything, let it be the knowledge that there is no epidemic.

See you on the mat.

image credit: Alexander Sidorov

Haidt, T. & Lukianoff, G. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for failureNew York, NY: Penguin Press.

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House