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Bullying on the rise, experts say

Social media adds new layer to problem that crosses all ages

Mary Ann may be in high school now, but she can still remember how it felt when, as just a 10-year-old, she became the victim of bullying.

A transfer student, Mary Ann, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, came to her new school with a different background in the basics of reading and math.

That, plus being the new kid, made her a target.

“They’d make fun of me,” she said. “Everywhere they could get a group.”

Only a fifth-grader then, Mary Ann dealt with the taunts as best she could.

“I’d just slink along and say it’s not going to bother me, but it does hurt that other people take joy in that,” she said. “There is no joy in that.”

However, those early experiences gave the young woman coping skills she uses today to handle those who want to be verbally unkind.

“I say something nice and walk away,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt someone and sink down to their level.”

Ugly names. Rumors. Shoves down the hall. Anyway you define it, it is all the same. It’s bullying.

And in Ohio, it’s against the law.

In February Gov. John Kasich signed an anti-bullying law where schools had to revise their policies to address the reality that bullying can happen face-to-face or through cyberspace.

Heather Schwamberger spent four years as a guidance counselor at Chesapeake Middle School before returning to the classroom this school year. She sees bullying as a behavior that crosses all age groups.

“Bullying starts really young,” she said. “It can even start with kindergarten. It’s the little things. If a kid comes in wearing glasses. It’s mostly the differences with the younger one.”

As children mature, bullying can take on different forms, often depending on the gender of the attacker.

“Girls tend to be a little sneakier in that they are more toward social bullying,” Schwamberger said. “They start rumors, start gossip. Boys tend to be more physical. They will push. They will nudge and travel in groups. Girls are quieter.”

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 16.5 percent of students interviewed had been the subject of rumors. Nine percent were pushed, shoved, tripped or spat upon. Almost six percent had been threatened with significant physical harm.

At Symmes Valley High School, guidance counselor Crystal Bloomfield sees the same kind of gender distinction in the older age group of students she deals with.

“The boys will use more aggression, be more physical,” she said. “The girls are the gossips. We have had several incidents with Facebook and it always has been the girls … What rumors can I spread about you?”

In the same National Center survey, students reported being threatened or insulted via text messaging, instant messaging or email; had hurtful information sent about them over the web or were deliberately excluded from an online community.

Internet bullying can take on more reckless forms since the bully can maintain his or her anonymity through cyberspace.

“Bullying does seem to be on the rise,” said Mollie Stevens, a certified prevention specialist with the CAO Family Guidance Center. “I think the rise in our social media has a lot to do with it. It is easier to type something about someone when you don’t have to deal with raw feelings, when you probably won’t see the person when the item comes out.”

Cyberspace may offer a new avenue for the bully since it is often out of the immediate visual reach of parents and teachers. That’s why experts contend adults should remain constantly alert for signs of all forms of bullying.

“We are watching the hallways and classrooms,” Schwamberger said. “A lot of times if you are in the cafeteria and typically see a girl with a group and then the next week she is not with that group, I will talk with her. And teachers will notice in the classroom.”

Taking the time to talk to their children is one of the best ways parents can determine if they are the victims of a bully, Stevens said.

“Parents can talk to their kids about their day … what did they do at lunch,” Stevens said.

Lunchtime at a school cafeteria can often provide a frequent opportunity for bullying since there are so many more students in proportion to teachers monitoring the area.

“Lunch is a good gauge,” Stevens said. “Ask them if they ever feel lonely. Growing up is a tough thing. They need someone to talk to and be there for them.”

What causes bullies can vary as much as the methods they employ. Many times the bully is bullied by a parent or sibling.

“There are certain students who become bullies because they see it at home,” Bloomfield said. “They use it to make themselves feel better. … like I have more control and power. There are some who consider it a phase of adolescence or teenage years. And in the past it might have been. But I don’t see it like that. I see it as a threatening violation of basic rights and respect. I take it very seriously.”

As painful as the experience of being the victim of a bully is, counselors say it can be a method for growth and a way to develop compassion and respect for others.

“I believe there is some good (from the experience),” Bloomfield said. “It has to do with their character and how they treat other people. I think they learn to respect in a deeper and greater way and not be as judgmental. I think if a student can see that the other person has issues and has problems, they can learn to be a better person.”