What to do about bullying?

| Nov 7, 2016
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Both U.S. schools and workplaces have generally failed to deal with the problem of bullying despite laws and several programs designed to reduce bullying. Bullying involves both physical and non-physical aggression that is designed to humiliate and dominate others. Transgender people are especially vulnerable because being transgender is a violation of culture. Many people choose to defend the culture by bullying transgender people; culture sanctions bullying. It is not just a transgender problem because GLB, women and other folks are also subject to bullying. We know that bullying contributes to depression and suicide attempts. So what works to reduce bullying?

We have the Europeans to thank for starting the study of bullying and potential solutions back in the 1980s. Europeans are big on the science of ergonomics which you have probably only heard of in relation to design of comfortable chairs. Ergonomics is the science of work and includes all of the activities we call work including design of machines like man-computer interfaces. For example, the Europeans led the way in the study of nuclear power plants operator activities and successfully reduced errors. Later they moved on to study school bullying. The most effective approach to school bullying, maybe surprisingly, comes from Finland.

While workplace bullying is illegal in the U.S., cases of bullying are hardly ever solved on the job. In spite of being illegal and required employee training, bullying continues to occur. The person being bullied is almost sure to part ways with their employers. The person being bullied will typically be tagged as a troublemaker by the employer and other workers. Employers may continue to allow bullying to continue or find some subtle way to lay off a complaining transgender employee. Best advice for those being bullied on the job is to formally complain and in doing so be sure to quantify the costs to the employer of replacement. But complaining hardly ever works and the person should start looking for another job. They should not just let the bullying continue because it is injurious to their mental and physical health. When people are bullied, their body reacts emotionally and these emotions and their memories can lead to depression and suicide.

In the early years of this century, bullying was recognized as a significant problem in the U.S. schools. Many of them started to address this in 2012-2013 by establishing anti-bullying programs and student training. Students were taught what constituted bullying and urged to refrain from doing it. Unfortunately, the results of these well-meaning programs were that they actually increased bullying. They made bullies into better bullies and taught teachers to look the other way because of liability. The only remaining thing of value in these programs is that some did establish anonymous ways to report bullying.

These unsuccessful U.S. programs were followed by programs designed to change the “school environment.” Everyone, including bus drivers, janitors and administrators received training on how to improve the interpersonal environment. The results have been a dismal failure.

Enter the Finns, who had been working on other solutions. Yeah, those are the people who live way up north in Europe with the reindeer. They had obvious been reading the social psychology literature on “bystander behavior” which seems to have yielded a possible solution to the problem. I am well acquainted with bystander research because most of it was done at my graduate school. The Kitty Genovese murder in 1964 was infamous because there were reports that large numbers of people (about 75), who heard Kitty being stabbed to death over the course of an hour, refused to call the police. The murder triggered newspaper articles lamenting that we no longer cared about one another and societal alienation. So John Darley, one of the professors in my psychology department, and his colleagues at my school decided to run some experiments. The first experiment involved inviting college sophomores to earn money by filling out a questionnaire. They were seated in a conference table with several other students. The experimenters then simulated an emergency by wafting smoke into the room. Even though the smoke got really thick, none of the students reported a problem. So the temporary conclusion was that people in a group would not care enough to report emergencies.

Then the experimenters decided to run experiments with participants from the general population and got a big surprise. In the first experiment they ran, one person got up and went out of the room to report the emergency and he was — a ship’s captain. He had been trained to recognize and deal with emergencies! The results were replicated with firemen, policemen and other first responders.

Some of the graduate students involved in this research were friends of mine and had great good fun simulating emergencies like the fire. Blowing smoke into a room got boring real fast so they started using videotape of them getting electrocuted and having heart attacks which showed up on the tape after the graduate student left the room. (It is ironic that later investigation into Kitty’s case and published in the American Psychological Association journal revealed that bystanders actually had intervened. While the Kitty Genovese case may have been a bad example, the fact remains that many bystanders do not report emergencies because they “do not want to get involved.” Despite this irony, the bystander behavior science findings appear to be valid. )

So from the bystander behavior science the Finns developed a program they called “KiVa” (simply means “against bullying” in Finnish), to teach student bystanders to recognize and deal with bullying. The idea was to teach bystander students to recognize bullying situations and how to intervene to stop them. And the program actually worked! 98% of those who had previously been subject to bullying in test schools reported that the bullying was reduced. The program later demonstrated bullying reduction in a study that involved 30,000 students. The KiVa program was implemented in 117 schools. The program was not implemented in an additional 117 schools that served as scientific controls. As of now, over 90% of Finnish schools are enrolled in KiVa and in their online training and resources.

But does the program really work in a different culture? One possibility is that it was only effective with a traditional, literate, educated culture like Finland. And how early and how long should the program be implemented? The KiVa program has now spread to Germany, Japan and to schools in the state of Delaware, U.S. We should soon find out.

But what if your school does not adopt KiVa? How should you deal with bullying? Although it takes some courage, one way that seems to work is to form networks of friends in school who could intervene. This takes courage because many people who are subject to bullying retreat into themselves and do not reach out to form new friendships. What is needed is persistent peer pressure to stop bullying. Gay-Straight Alliances and other student groups can spread the word about recognizing and dealing with bullying if a student is a bystander. There is no guarantee that this will work without school support, but it must be better than previous or current programs.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at danabevan@earthlink.net.

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