For many of us, we can recall at least one moment in our childhood when we were the victim of some form of bullying. That feeling of humiliation, of being socially ostracized, of thinking that you’re somehow different or “less than” the other kids — it’s a feeling that can come with seriously debilitating consequences ranging from lowered self-esteem all the way to thoughts of suicide. For adults, it can be all too easy to write off instances of bullying as just “kids being kids,” forgetting how socially vulnerable children are, and how fragile their budding self-image can be.
According to research, most bullying in school settings occurs as a type of power grab: an attempt to move up the social ladder not by positive value-giving, but by pushing others down to seem elevated by comparison. The social hierarchy of schoolchildren can be a difficult one to fully study and understand, but it’s becoming clear in research that the real X-factor in stopping bullying doesn’t necessarily lie with the victim or aggressor; rather, it’s the bystanders who have the best chance at defusing things. Researchers believe that if the crowd observing an act of bullying sympathizes more with the victim than the bully, the bully’s social power play will backfire and they’ll end up losing status themselves.
This bystander-centric approach to stopping bullying has been used to wide acclaim in an innovative anti-bullying program in Finland called KiVa. The goal is to instill in kids from an early age the perspective that they’re all in this together — that an attempt to belittle or single out one kid is actually an affront to all kids. KiVa uses a classroom-centric approach rather than traditional measures that usually try to focus on the specific relationship with the bully and victim.
There’s only one problem: despite KiVa’s undeniable success in Finland, it hasn’t been able to replicate the same effects when tested in the United States. One main reason for that, quite frankly, is that the scale of the bullying problem in America’s schools goes far beyond the culture in Finland. Social scientists who study the problem of bullying have resigned themselves to the fact that the challenge in the US is far greater than potentially anywhere else in the world.
Why is this? Experts have pinpointed several factors which explain America’s exponentially worse bullying problem. For one, the population in Finland is significantly more homogenous: kids tend to look mostly alike and come from similar backgrounds. This makes it harder to pick on someone because of their race or appearance. Additionally, schools in the US face more budgetary problems and resource challenges, pushing anti-bullying measures far down the list of priorities for many districts. And finally, the teacher-to-student ratio in the US is abysmally high, with many or most teachers underpaid and overworked, responsible for putting out dozens of fires at once and overseeing more students than they can possibly hope to effectively manage.
Still, researchers remain optimistic that the tide will eventually turn against the culture of bullying. In the meantime, the most effective counter-measure seems to still be simple, old-fashioned good parenting that focuses on values of tolerance and kindness towards all.