Bullying Takes Center Stage
“I got dumped by this group of popular girls. They didn’t think I was cool or pretty enough, so they stopped talking to me.”
Sadly it’s a common story: A middle school student is mocked and excluded by her classmates. They’re mean on purpose; they want her to feel terrible. And they act this way again and again.
“I’d sit in school hearing people saying, ‘This party we’re going to is going to be awesome, and everyone is invited—except her,’” the same person recalls.
What would you call this kind of treatment? If you said, “bullying,” you’re right. According to experts who study it, bullying is aggressive behavior that is intended to harm, usually takes place repeatedly, and involves an imbalance of power. Bullying takes three basic forms:
Verbal: teasing and name-calling (online, texting, or face-to-face)
Social: spreading rumors, excluding people on purpose, breaking up friendships (online, texting, or face-to-face)
Physical: hitting, shoving, spitting
The girl who was tormented by her peers was a victim of social bullying. How did she handle it? She poured her feelings into lyrics. “The whole reason I started writing songs was because I was alone a lot of the time,” she says.
This girl, in case you haven’t put it together, is country music megastar Taylor Swift. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter talked on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and to Teen Vogue about the bullying she suffered in school—before her music career took off.
Swift’s revelation that she had been bullied—and her hit song “Mean,” which is a kind of antibullying anthem—is part of a nationwide move toward recognizing and combating bullying. Other celebrities, including actress Jessica Alba and pop icon Justin Timberlake, have also come forward with stories. Alba has talked about being harassed by classmates: “My dad used to have to walk me into school so that I wasn’t attacked,” she tells Cosmopolitan. “I’d eat my lunch in the nurse’s office to avoid sitting with the others. I’d get beaten up and picked on for being different.”
Even the White House is getting involved. Last March, President Barack Obama held a conference on bullying, where he cited grim statistics—“a third of middle and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year,” he said. Obama also called on adults to take bullying seriously:
“We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults who can help; that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them.”
Obama noted that he, himself, had been made fun of as a kid: “I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune.”
Embrace a Passion
Bullying can cause lasting harm, says Susan Swearer, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska and a bullying expert who helps schools set up antibullying programs. “We know that it increases kids’ feelings of anxiety and depression and really becomes intolerable if left untreated,” she says. In extreme cases, victims of bullying can become so despondent and hopeless that they commit suicide.
What should you do if you’re bullied? Try focusing on your own interests and strengths. Swift channeled her despair into songwriting. “I’d sit there and say, ‘This is OK because I can write a song about this later.’ Here I am at 20, and I’m still saying that when I go through tough times,” Swift, now 21, told Ellen DeGeneres last year.
If you have an activity that you feel passionate about—whether it’s volleyball, gospel choir, or poetry writing—bullying may feel less overwhelming. “It can take on a different meaning because you know there are other aspects of your life,” says Swearer, who was part of President Obama’s bullying conference. This kind of approach also helped Alba, who threw herself into acting classes to combat the trauma of being bullied: “The idea that for an hour I could be someone different was amazing,” she says. “I was determined that this was something I was going to be good at. This was a part of my life no bully could ruin.”
Ask for Help
But at the same time, Swearer adds, kids shouldn’t have to handle bullying alone, and “having an interest doesn’t inoculate you against the pain of bullying.”
“Nobody deserves to be bullied,” says Julie Herzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “If you are being bullied, reach out to an adult for help.”
Who is the right adult? Only you can decide that. “A school guidance counselor or nurse is a good place to start,” says Herzog. If you don’t get what you need from the first adult you ask, keep trying—you will find the right person. “One of the benefits to bullying getting so much recognition is that schools, parents, and adults in general are getting more tools for responding more effectively,” Swearer says. Every bullying situation is different, and your adult adviser will help you decide exactly how to handle yours. But the general advice is usually:
Speak up and tell the bully to stop.
Then walk away. The bully gains power when you engage with him or her.
Protect yourself. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe.
Do the Right Thing
What can you do to stop bullying in your school? If you’re not a bully and you’re not a victim, you have more power than you may think. Often, bullies behave the way they do to impress onlookers. In fact, a recent study of middle school students conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis found that many bullies are kids who are reasonably popular—but they want to become more popular. They bully to try to impress others. “Most kids who witness this either give it tacit approval or outright encouragement,” study author Robert Faris told Time magazine. “Those are the ones who give bullies their status.”
When you witness bullying, make it clear that you’re not impressed. Your simple refusal to react can be a strike against bullying. If you feel you have it in you, take it a step further. “It’s hard for an individual to stand up alone and say, ‘That’s wrong,’” says Swearer. “So find an ally—someone who feels the way you do—then talk to the bully together and say, ‘Hey, that is really not OK.’” If confronting the bully seems impossible, show the victim some compassion. “People who are bullied feel that nobody cares,” says Herzog. “Reach out and say, ‘I saw what happened and I think it was wrong.’ That can have a big impact.”
At the most basic level, the solution to bullying is simple. As President Obama said at the White House conference on bullying, it all starts with the Golden Rule: “We should treat others the way we want to be treated.”