Facebook and social media have exacerbated the problems associated with bullying. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Facebook and social media have exacerbated the problems associated with bullying. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Everyone hates you. You’re a freak. You’re a loser.

Did you react viscerally to these hurtful words? Did the phrases make you cringe or recoil, maybe make your stomach uneasy or your muscles tense?

If so, you just experienced—ever so slightly—the pain, fear and hurt that victims of bullying experience on a daily basis.

Bullying happens every day, in every school building, in every neighborhood throughout the country. But changes in society and technology have brought us to a place where bullying has become especially rampant and particularly vicious.

“There has always been bullying at school,” said Lisa Lowery, MD, section chief of adolescent medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “And it’s gotten worse. What we see behind the change is social media. Now kids can bully incessantly and inflict pain that can literally go around the world.”

Dr. Lowery regularly works with young people who are bullied on a daily basis. While such professionals see firsthand the harm that it causes, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should be blind to it.

The same mechanisms that allow bullying to become widespread—the Internet, social media, instant communication, smartphones—are also tools that inform us about bullying. We’ve all seen stories in the news, or on Facebook, about families and children who have left communities to escape bullying. We’ve read stories about adolescents driven to suicide because of relentless bullying online or at school.

What’s going on and how can we stop it?

Who’s at risk?

Bullies pick targets who are perceived as vulnerable and less likely to fight back or tattle, Dr. Lowery said.

A New England Journal of Medicine report found that gender issues also play a major role in identifying children most at risk of bullying. The study interviewed about 4,270 fifth-graders, following up with them in seventh and 10th grades. Across all grades, the children identifying or perceived as gay, lesbian or bisexual were 91 percent more likely to be bullied.

Many other children are also targeted every day, for different reasons.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, stopbullying.gov, reports that children at risk of bullying are generally associated with one or more of these factors:

  • They’re perceived as different from peers—overweight or underweight; wearing glasses or different clothing; new to school; unable to afford items other kids consider “cool.”
  • They’re perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves.
  • They’re depressed or anxious, or they have low self esteem.
  • They’re less popular than others and they have few friends.
  • They don’t get along well with others, they’re seen as annoying or provoking, or they antagonize others for attention.

Effective school programs, awareness campaigns and legislative protection can help protect children, Dr. Lowery said, but such measures can’t completely erase the harmful behaviors.

Dr. Lowery screens for bullying risk with her patients by asking questions during any exam. She noted a few trouble signs to watch for:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Isolation
  • Mood changes, especially after time on social media
  • School avoidance

Such symptoms can be attributed to many different causes, but bullying is high on the list. It’s important for parents and teachers to intervene early and get help, she said.

The Great Agitator: Social media

Social media and addiction to technology have without a doubt escalated the problems associated with bullying, Dr. Lowery said.

Who bullies?

A bully can be motivated by many different factors, according to Dr. Lowery.

“Sometimes it’s as shallow as materialism—you don’t have cool stuff so you aren’t cool,” she said. “Many bullies mistreat others to hide their own insecurities with a ‘preemptive’ approach. And many bullies have been bullied themselves.”

Stopbullying.gov echoes Lowery’s perspective, identifying two types of children most likely to bully others. They are children who:

• Are well-connected to peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity and like to dominate or be in charge of others.

• Are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.

Other factors that may lead children to bully:

• Aggressive or easily frustrated.

• Less parental involvement, or more problems at home.

• Think badly of others.

• Have difficulty following rules.

• View violence in a positive way.

• Have friends who bully others.

Bullying is potent in itself. Add social media and instant communication, and it takes on a vicious life of its own.

Children today feel tremendous pressure because the bullying doesn’t stop when they get home from school; there are now no limits to how far bullying can spread.

If you’re a bullied child, there is no escape.

“Because kids are so attached to their technology, it can appear as if they are even going along with it, watching their own abuse play out,” Dr. Lowery said, recalling a patient who was being bullied on Facebook. “When I suggested she simply stop looking at her phone, she said, ‘This phone is my life. Social media is all I’ve got.’”

It’s dangerously counterproductive. “It’s a Catch 22 where they don’t have social relationships or social acceptance, but they can’t look away from the social media,” Dr. Lowery said.

Parents need to help their children set proper values on things like smartphones and social media.

“I had a young lady who was suffering and miserable from bullying,” Dr. Lowery said. “I said to her, ‘No more Facebook. You don’t need social media to survive.’ You have to convince them to take steps.”

One of the key differences in children who are equipped to respond appropriately to a threat and those who aren’t: Support.

Support at home, support at school, support in their life.

Lowery said she’s seen children perform better when they’re linked to someone who can provide guidance and support: “An in-school advocate, a teacher, counselor, a bus driver, or any mentor who can help that student regularly while at school.

“Bullying is not easy to stop,” Lowery said. “If a child comes to us for an assessment—particularly if they are reluctant to open up at home—we can at least become more informed and take steps before serious damage happens.”

At home, families need to encourage open communication, especially when it involves technology and social media.

“You’ve got to know what is happening on social media with your kids, regularly,” she said. “Ask about it, check in and tackle it together. Set limits. Get off the social media regularly, so that life without it feels normal, too. Brainstorm for activities to replace social media during those breaks.”

Parents need to help their children understand that social media “checkups” aren’t a form of punishment; they’re simply an added layer of protection that lets kids know “you have their backs,” Lowery said.

Proactive

When bullying happens, it comes down to helping kids know they’re connected and they have options.

Lowery’s team at the adolescent medicine clinic can serve as an advocate at schools, helping parents come up with solutions in individual cases.

“If we can help with counseling resources, assessments or even medication, sometimes we can help navigate the administrative pathways with parents and the teens,” she said.

While Lowery believes a traditional school setting has great value, it must sometimes be set aside for the health of a child. When a bullying situation has become too traumatic or has spiraled out of control, Michigan offers other alternatives, such as homeschooling or an online curriculum.

“Whether it allows a student to take a step back or becomes the permanent solution, (it) depends on the school’s resources and the family,” Dr. Lowery said. “But it’s better than letting a young life spiral out of control. Suicide is a real risk related to bullying.”

State and federal legislators are learning they can take steps to help reduce instances of bullying. In 2005, the federal government began tracking statistics on bullying; since then, analysts have tracked a drop in the number of students reporting bullying.

In 2005, 28 percent reporting being bullied. This past year, 20 percent reported.

One of the drivers: It appears state anti-bullying and cyber-bullying laws are having a positive effect, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association study.

The study indicates children in states with at least one anti-bullying law—particularly laws aligning with key Department of Education legislative components—saw a 24 percent reduced chance of reporting bullying.

Such states also saw a 20 percent reduction in reported cyber-bullying, compared to states whose laws had no Department of Education legislative components.

A great possible starting point: stopbullying.com provides tips that can help schools and institutions create rules and policies on bullying. It outlines expectations, consequences and how to report cases.

Concerned about a child with a physical or mental health problem? Contact the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Adolescent Medicine Clinic.