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Scientists Say Parents and Teachers Overreact to Bullying

"We should not convey the idea that having arguments, falling out, having enemies, hurting someone's feelings, having your feelings hurt, is unacceptable. It's life.”

Anti-bullying campaigns tout big numbers. And here’s the biggest of the bunch: One in five children now report being bullied at school. But when these campaigns describe what constitutes “bullying,” a fuzzier picture emerges. The National Center For Educational Statistics, for instance, reports that 85 percent of bullying victims report being called names, insulted, gossiped about, or excluded. So are modern kids subject to real bullying in record numbers or is bad schoolyard behavior just being more aggressively tracked than ever before? Is every mean kid now a bully and is everyone with hurt feelings now a victim?

From a statistical standpoint, the answer to that question might be “yes” and that might present a real problem. Though no one argues that bullying has net positive effects, some scholars are concerned that pathologizing victimhood wrongfoots children learning to handle interpersonal conflict, which remains — even in touchy-feely times — an inevitability.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying

“Many young people have internalized the view of bullying—or anything that is emotionally upsetting—as damaging and life-changing,” Helene Guldberg, developmental psychologist and author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, told Fatherly. “As an excessively timid child who would dwell for days on a slight—or having been humiliated—I am incredibly glad that adults did not convey to me that I would never be able to get over the hurt. Today, anti-bullying campaigns tell children over and over that ‘bullying damages you for life.’ To me, this is an irresponsible message.”

Guldberg’s concerns about the manufacture of trauma are not unique, but they are also not taking the academic community by storm. And there’s a very specific reason why. There is a glut of what might be called “advocacy research” on bullying, reams of data that suggest that there is an increasing amount of bullying and that bullying is very dangerous to its victims. Studies have shown that children who are subject to in-person and cyberbullying may contemplate suicide; other studies have highlighted strong correlations between bullying and self-harm. No one is saying that these studies are wrong, but Guldberg is questioning whether or not they’re being conducted in the most scientific way possible.

Most bullying research relies on self-reporting via questionnaires and on correlational studies. These are non-observational methods that frequently rely on the idea that everyone defines “bullying” in the same way and dispassionately documents its downstream effects. And even the robust studies are seldom longitudinal. In most cases, the authors haven’t investigated long-term outcomes because that takes an enormous amount of time and a lot of follow-up.

“I think there is very little of interest to glean from these studies,” says Guldberg, who adds that she’s unconvinced that it isn’t in children’s best interest to have a full range of human interactions. When parents or teachers step in aggressively to shield children from each other, that becomes unlikely.

By prying too far into the lives of teenagers, we impinge on the freedom they need to grow,” Emily Bazelon writes in her book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. “We stifle development when we shut down unstructured play at recess, for example, or censor every word online, in the name of safeguarding them from each other.”

That’s not to say bullying isn’t ever a problem or that teachers and parents who step in are always making the wrong call. It’s reasonable for schools to adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to physical violence, Guldberg says, and parents should impress upon their kids that they need to control their anger and always keep their hands to themselves. There’s also nothing wrong with keeping an eye out for the sort of behavior that tends to escalate into tragedy — regularly abusive conversations or texts, sustained efforts by a group of kids to pick on one particular child, or other abnormal behaviors. Perhaps some deaths could have been prevented, had parents and teachers flagged abusive behaviors when they went beyond the pale of normal schoolyard drama.

“But we should not convey the idea that having arguments, falling out, having enemies, hurting someone’s feelings, having your feelings hurt, is unacceptable,” Guldberg says. “It’s life.”