Saved by the bell? Serious science brings hope to victims and bullies – Frontiers – Brief Article

Saved by the bell? Serious science brings hope to victims and bullies – Frontiers – Brief Article – Interview

Nancy K. Dess

FOR MANY SCHOOLCHILDREN LUNCH PERIOD IS THE WORST HOUR OF THE DAY. THE PLIGHT OF VICTIMS IS PAINFULLY EVIDENT SINCE THE COLUMBINE SHOOTINGS AND OTHER DESPERATE ACTS BY CHILDREN WHO FEEL HARASSED. SANDRA GRAHAM, PH.D., PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES IN EDUCATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT LOS ANGELES, IS EXPLORING VICTIMIZATION FROM INSIDE YOUNG MINDS.

Nancy K. Dess [NKD]: You distinguish between harassment and aggression. What’s the difference?

Sandra Graham [SG]: No sharp line separates the two, but whereas aggression implies severe physical acts, harassment encompasses everyday serious, as well as not-so-serious, bullying and intimidation.

NKD: Why is school victimization research so new?

SG: Until now, bullies have gotten more attention. Perpetrators create more discomfort for everybody, and aggression is a well-known risk factor for later maladjustment. The perception of victimized kids was that they stayed in school and recovered by young adulthood. Now there’s more evidence of the long-term risk associated with being a victim.

NKD: How do you identify bullies and victims?

SG: For bullies, teacher and peer reports are very reliable. Finding victims is trickier. A lot of bullying goes on in the absence of teachers, and peers don’t always know because harassment is often covert. So self-reports are a better way of identifying victims.

NKD: Don’t peer self-reports roughly agree?

SG: Sometimes, but the discrepancies can be interesting. Kids known as, for a lack of a better term, “paranoids” see themselves as victims, but their peers don’t. While “deniers” don’t see themselves as victims, but peers do. The implications for psychological and social adjustment are an important new avenue for research.

NKD: What about gender?

SG: In contrast to aggression, the victimization literature is inconsistent. Overall gender differences probably are obscured by variation in puberty. Late-developing boys may be more likely harassed, whereas early-developing girls may be at risk. We are including development measures to explore these questions.

NKD: Is the picture muddled for ethnicity too?

SG: My colleague Jaana Juvonen and I are among the first to look at victimization in multiethnic contexts. Some ethnic minorities may be more likely targeted, but it probably depends on context. We have purposefully selected schools that vary in ethnic composition so that we can look at the dynamics it may create.

NKD: The role of context reminds me of work by neuroscientist Yvon Delville, showing that young male hamsters who are “bullied” grow up to be more aggressive toward smaller hamsters.

SG: The assumption used to be: Either you are a bully or you are a victim. But some kids are bullies and victims. And, in terms of adjustment, they do especially poorly. They have all the negatives associated with being victimized and don’t get the peer support that other aggressive kids do.

NKD: Who is responsible for harassment?

SG: How people answer that question is critical. We’ve asked, “Why do kids get picked on?” Middle school kids–and some teachers–say victims bring it on themselves. And if you blame someone for a problem, you don’t help. Some victims even blame themselves, making stable, uncontrollable attributions such as, “I’m so stupid.” As for us, we are more interested in studying attributions of blame than in making them.

NKD: You must have ideas, though, about who should intervene and how.

SG: Oh, yes. Instead of thinking, “I’m stupid,” a victimized kid can learn to think, “It wasn’t smart to go into the bathroom knowing that kids were smoking in there.” In addition, having just one good friend lowers the risk of being harassed or feeling bad about it, so help from parents and teachers in establishing one friendship will be beneficial. School-wide approaches also are essential. The entire community has to take responsibility for preventing and dealing with victimization.

NKD: So there is hope?

SG: People used to think, “Once a victim, always a victim.” But we now know that victim status can change. With consciousness-raising and sound, research-based tools, schools can become healthier places for all sorts of kids to grow up.

Nancy K. Dess is a professor of psychology at Occidental College and former senior scientist at the American Psychological Association.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group