September 2023

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Dr. Jamie Ostrov on Bullying

Excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Jamie Ostrov, a psychologist studying peer violence at the University at Buffalo.

Read the story Addressing Childhood Bullying: When Peer Aggression Goes Too Far in NIH News in Health.

NIHNiH: Are there any harmful misconceptions about how kids should handle bullying?

Ostrov: The idea that kids should fight back is really not a good one. We know that fighting back actually can escalate the intensity and the seriousness of bullying. So that’s not recommended.

And the idea that kids can work it out on their own isn’t true. That may be possible for some other forms of aggression, like a fight between friends. But it’s ineffective when we’re talking about bullying. Bullying includes a power imbalance. And asking kids to work it out on their own is not likely to be effective when there’s a power imbalance.

Some of the better approaches are talking to a trusted adult, reporting the situation to the school, and coming up with a plan in advance for how to handle bullying should it happen.

NIHNiH: What do adults need to know about responding to bullying?

Ostrov: The idea that parents should be solving the problem directly for the children is a bad idea. It can escalate these problems. So a parent trying to talk to either the child who was the bully, or to the child’s parents, is usually not recommended.

Also, “just ignore the bully” is another frequently suggested tip for kids from adults. Adults will say “just don't worry about it,” “forget about it,” or “ignore it.“ But that may suggest to the child who’s dealing with this that adults are not taking it seriously.

Having open and effective communication between parents and the school can be really important. And not just in the context of reporting bullying. For example, if there are some warning signs you’re seeing at home, like your child seems more sad, more withdrawn, or their eating habits and sleep patterns are changing. And then if you’re also hearing that they’re not themselves at school, those might be some warning signs that something is happening for the child. Having that open line of communication with the school can be helpful at giving you those early signs.

And parents, depending on the age of the child, can work to help teach and promote social interactions for their children. That can help them build those skills to avoid bullying situations or get social support within their peer group. That can help to reduce the likelihood that their child will be a victim and provide them with a sense of wellbeing and companionship if they are bullied.

NIHNiH: Is there anything different about bullying that happens online (cyberbullying)?

Ostrov: The permanency of electronic aggression and bullying make it a bit more of an insidious problem. This is something that will endure. It’s very hard to remove this kind of content.

Bullying includes the notion of repetition, the fear that it may occur again. And with cyberbullying, it can be repeated indefinitely, and can resurface in the future. What kids convey online or electronically can be captured and preserved forever. That can be very hard for young children in particular to grasp.

So it’s important to teach children to be careful about what’s posted online, because it can be permanent. Also, passing it on, or liking somebody else’s mean comment, is a type of repetition and can contribute to someone feeling bullied.