From 2016 to 2019, some research indicates that school bullying increased 35%. Others have noted that bullying is “definitely on the rise,” and while we’ll explore a series of causes of bullying throughout this piece, it’s important to also think of the contextual time we live in. Many people do interact on social platforms, and there’s a degree of anonymity therein -- even if you use your real name, it’s possible that you’re talking to someone you’ve never met in real life. Real-life interactions are obviously substantially different than online interactions, and this can result in cyberbullying.
And while we don’t want to get deeply political here, as it’s a dividing line for many these days, the fact is that the USA President from 2016-2020 was a bit of an online bully, and his removal from Facebook and Twitter by the end of his Presidency somewhat underscore that. There’s actually research about how Trump’s election made men more aggressive, including this snippet:
Over a series lab experiments, conducted before and after Election Day, they observed a striking result: Post-election, study participants were less cooperative, more likely to use adversarial strategies and less likely to reach an agreement with a partner. The effect was driven by an increase in men acting more aggressively toward women.
Perhaps to some, bullying became a badge of honor or cool thing to do, and that’s another cause of the rise in bullying? It’s worth at least considering.
In this article, we will run through the causes of bullying, some of the effects of bullying, cyberbullying, and what to do about bullying.
The main causes of bullying are varied, but there are some bigger buckets that bullies tend to fall into:
Theoretically, anyone is at risk for bullying, especially in a digitally-connected world. Boston Children’s Hospital has noted some population groups that might be at higher risk for bullying, however:
The same hospital has a potential set of warning signs to see if your child or someone in your orbit is being bullied, which includes:
On the victims of bullying, being bullied can increase anxiety, depression, loneliness, and lead to eating disorders and substance abuse. In some cases, it can reach self-harm or suicidal ideation. There’s actually, and quite sadly, a TV show called Web of Lies about people who have been cyber-bullied, and in some examples and cases -- such as Jessica Logan or Tyler Clementi -- it has led to suicide. Being bullied can have very serious effects.
For the bully, there can obviously be punishments and potential work terminations. What’s paradoxical here is that oftentimes, when a bully is punished, they won’t necessarily have the self-awareness to realize it’s time to change. Rather, they will get more mad at “the system” and “the world” (loose constructs) and very likely will continue to bully others, perhaps in a more severe form.
There are also bystander effects to bullying. If an organization or school does nothing about obvious bullying, others will begin to respect the organization less, or assume they can get away with bad behavior too. Now, on the flip side, if a school or organization punishes everything, even basic discourse, as potential bullying, then you create a culture where people are terrified to speak up or do anything real -- and that paralyzing culture has negative effects as well. If you worked at a place where you felt you couldn’t disagree with a co-worker without potentially being labeled a bully and punished in some way, would you feel comfortable with any tough conversation? Probably not. That has massive implications for retention.
The long-term effects of bullying, as described and data-assigned in this Dieter Wolke paper, are vast.
Many of the same causes of bullying in general, but cyberbullying is a bit different largely because cyberbullies often think they won’t get caught behind a vast Internet of anonymized usage. In reality, most cyberbullies do in fact get caught, but the perception is different as opposed to in-real-life bullying. There’s also a much bigger context around revenge in cyberbullying, which you see with revenge porn -- which has become a very litigated space in the last 10 years. Remember: as discussed above, bullies are often retaliating for pain they’ve experienced. That’s essentially what “revenge” is. It’s very common online.
We tend to associate the term “bullying” with youth, and at work, we tend to call the same behavior “harassment,” but they’re often similar in how they look and feel to those involved. Usually professional bullying has several causes, including:
These are some of the causes of bullying you see in professional work. It’s all very serious, and in a functional organization with rules and a solid culture, it can lead to terminations.
This varies by age and context, but some of the best approaches include:
All of these approaches have pros and cons -- if you stand up for yourself, you can get in trouble or get into fights you can’t win. If you go to someone in authority, it can make you appear weaker to the bully, but it can stop the bullying for a period of time. If you leave a professional setting because of bullying or harassment, it can seem like you ran away, letting the bully win -- but ultimately it might be a lot better for your mental and physical health. It depends on what you need in that specific situation. There’s no single answer.
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