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The New Definition of Bullying (and How We Can Mobilize Against It)

October 13, 2017

Bullying is an unfortunate reality at most K-12 schools — but are we any closer to stopping it? One professor may have a viable solution.

Bullying in schools is not a new concept. Yet, with the advent of the internet and accompanying rise of cyberbullying, addressing the issue effectively has only become more complex. Kids victimize each other online in ways that their parents would never have imagined, and reports of sexual assault and violence are on the rise in schools.

Dr. Ron Avi Astor, a professor who holds joint appointments in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the USC Rossier School of Education, along with his colleague Rami Benbenishty of Bar Ilan University, is working on defining and decreasing instances of bullying by examining the role of physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts on different kinds of school violence, as well as mapping instances of bullying to open up a more productive conversation about real solutions.

What Bullying Is — and Isn’t

Astor believes that there’s a wide gap between theoretical and practical definitions of bullying. Psychologists generally use a traditional, three-pronged definition to determine whether bullying has occurred: behavior must be intended to intimidate, harm or disturb; occur repeatedly over time; and feature an imbalanced power dynamic between the bully and their victim.

There’s a significant amount of debate about whether this definition of bullying still holds true. “When you ask kids if they’ve been bullied, it can cause confusion because the experience of bullying is subjective,” Astor said. “A child may not realize that what they’ve experienced is bullying, so it’s much more practical to ask about specific behaviors.”

This misconception also extends to school administrators, who often hold varying definitions of what constitutes bullying. Even if two schools are experiencing similar rates of bullying, the nature of the bullying itself could be completely different — i.e. name-calling vs. cyberbullying vs. sexual harassment. A narrow definition also ignores instances where the perpetrator(s) are not necessarily larger, stronger or more socially powerful than the victim, and cases of sexual assault or violent threats that may only happen once but are very serious.

Instead, Astor proposes a definition of bullying which is broader and encompasses multiple forms of victimization. In his book, School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender, he explains that though this broader definition helps schools build out comprehensive anti-bullying policies, school administrators need to examine individual circumstances to come to an effective solution.

“Each form of bullying has its own set of implications, and each kind of victimization — physical violence, social exclusion, sexual assault or cyberbullying — requires different strategies for intervention,” Astor said. “Unfortunately, a lot of bullying literature takes a one-size-fits-all approach that’s usually tailored to not hurting others’ feelings. But if your approach doesn’t address the behavior and its context, then your response won’t be effective.”

Effective Solutions

Whether bullying occurs inside or outside of the classroom, Astor believes that schools must take responsibility for anti-bullying measures. One way that the school climate can be improved for vulnerable students is through the establishment of welcoming practices, which aim to support new students (those who attend many schools and have high transition rates are particularly vulnerable).

“Schools have to be the ones that give guidance, even if bullying doesn't happen during school hours,” Astor said. “Almost all bullying behaviors, including cyberbullying, originate from social groups at school.”

Along with his co-authors, Astor is working to equip schools with new tools for handling bullying with two new books — Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence: Building a Safe School Climate and Welcoming Practices: Creating Schools that Support Students and Families in Transition. In these two manuals, Astor outlines techniques for mapping and addressing bullying at school, as well as preventing new students from being bullied in the first place.

“Mapping started in the mid-1990s, when administrators were focused on tackling violence and juvenile delinquency,” Astor said. “They noticed that violence didn't just happen anytime, anywhere. It was happening in very specific locations at specific times with specific groups.

Astor’s technique involves mapping bullying by interviewing students. This gives students a chance to feel heard without being concerned about “snitching.” Students reveal where bullying happens, as well as the main instigators and reasons behind the conflicts. When those locations are placed on a map, patterns are illuminated.

“In our pilot work, we took those maps to focus groups with parents, students and teachers,” he said. “All parties were much more willing to not only talk about, but try to solve, problems when we were focused on times and places that incidents occurred rather than the individual students involved.”

With surveys and mapping in their arsenal, Astor believes that administrators have the ability to launch a statewide and even nationwide public health program to reduce epidemiological instances of bullying.

Interested in learning more? Get 30% off Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence and Welcoming Practices with the discount code ASFLYQ6.