School Bullying Widespread

School Bullying Widespread

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on June 21, 2002
From the WebMD Archives

June 21, 2002 -- When Joe Riggs was growing up in a stretch of rural New Jersey outside Atlantic City, he was regularly taunted by a bully. Finally, the words stopped and the fists started. More that 50 years later, Joe says he remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

"I can still remember being punched and beaten. This boy was much bigger -- he was in eighth grade. Finally, I bloodied his nose and the beating stopped," says Joseph Riggs, MD, an obstetrician from Haddonfield, N.J..

Now a trustee at the American Medical Association, Riggs recalled this episode of childhood bullying on the day the AMA adopted a new anti-bully policy that concludes bullying is not just a matter of kids being kids, but rather a public health problem.

Riggs says that bullying can have long-term effects for both the bully and the victim. "In my case, I'm all right. But these things really stay with you and I remember it like it was yesterday," he says. But children who don't escape the bullying cycle are at risk for serious academic, social, emotional, and legal problems.

Another AMA trustee, Ron Davis, MD, of Detroit is a driving force behind the new policy. Before joining the AMA board, Davis represented the American College of Preventive Medicine at the AMA's annual meetings. A year ago he teamed up with representatives of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to ask for the new report on the effects of bullying.

Davis tells WebMD that his own experience as a public health specialist and as a parent made him aware of the dangers of bullying. He and his wife, Nadine, have worked with their local schools to uncover the true extent of bullying.

He says that often, schools will initially "tell you that they don't have a bullying problem. But if a survey is done, you will find bullying exists in all schools." Davis says that the AMA's report indicates that 7-15% of school-aged children are bullies and one in 10 school children is a victim of bullying.

Sometimes the bullying involves physical violence -- like the incident recalled by Riggs -- but often it is "relational aggression. This was highlighted recently in a story in The New York Times Magazine about girls being mean to other girls," says Davis. Relational aggression usually involves tactics that lead to isolation or stigmatizing of other children. Typically the bullies, or "alpha girls," start rumors that cause another girl to be shunned by peers. "These rumors are often spread on the Internet or through chat rooms," he says, noting that technology has replaced classroom note passing.

According to Davis and Riggs, when authorities ignore bullies, the problem worsens. "Take shootings at Columbine. There was a pattern there involving victims of bullying or bullies themselves," says Davis.

Former AMA president Robert McAfee, MD, of Portland, Maine, has been the AMA point person on a decade-long anti-violence campaign. The campaign has targeted gun violence, domestic violence, and child abuse. McAfee tells WebMD that the new anti-bully policy fits nicely into the anti-violence campaign. "Bullying is a signal, a red flag. If we don't pay attention to that signal, it is likely that the bully will grow up to be the abusive adult," says McAfee.

Both McAfee and Davis say they want doctors to take on bullies by attacking the problem inside and outside the medical office. "We need to ask about this," says McAfee. He notes that physicians have had to "ask tough questions before. When the sexual revolution came along, we had to ask about sexual practices because we needed to deal with an explosion in the number of sexually transmitted disease cases. When drug use increased, we needed to ask patients about drugs. Now we have to ask about violence."

Davis says that if American doctors do what the AMA wants them to do, parents and children can expect doctors to begin screening for signs and symptoms of bullying, as well as for signs of other psychosocial trauma and distress in children and adolescents.

Meanwhile, the AMA has developed these tips for parents to help their children avoid being victimized by a bully:

  • Listen to your children. Get them to admit there is a problem.
  • Help them search for answers and express confidence that the problem can be solved. Don't expect them to work it out on their own.
  • Make it clear that it is not their fault.
  • If your child is harassed at school, encourage him or her to seek help from a teacher, principal, or other adult.
  • Intervene and show that bullying is not tolerated.
  • Get involved in their school and find out what programs are available to help prevent bullying.

The AMA also has a list of suggestions for parents to help their children from becoming bullies:

  • Look at your parenting practices. Model caring and empathetic relationships at home; model appropriate behavior, aggression control, and health temperament to your children.
  • Avoid use of physical punishment, harsh criticism, and violent emotional outbursts.
  • Note any disturbing behaviors such as frequent angry outbursts, fighting, and teasing of other children, cruelty to animals, fire setting, frequent behavior problems at school and in the neighborhood, lack of friends, and use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Seek help from a physician, school counselor, or qualified mental health professional when children display bullying or aggressive behaviors.

Finally, Davis says that zero tolerance for bullies has to be an across-the-board policy: bullies can't be tolerated at home, in school, or on the playing field, and children need assurance that when they seek help it won't make things worse.

"Children are often afraid to report bullies because they think that nothing will be done and as a result the bullying will continue but at an even more intense level. We need to get the message to children that they can seek help without fear of a worse outcome," says Davis.