Are you tired of bullying? It seems like every time we turn around, yet another behavior is described that way. The word is sometimes used to describe virtually any situation that involves anger or unkindness, but researchers and experts clarify that bullying is actually more than just meanness; it’s cruel, repeated abuse against a less powerful victim. Now, new data from a study of mine suggests that the term is being used too broadly, at least by teens. Over the last six months, I’ve asked more than 300 college freshmen if they were bullied or cyberbullied during high school. An astonishing 70% answered yes. But when I confirmed whether the incident was repeated, the percentage dropped to 40%. It dropped even lower, to 17%, when I ruled out incidents where the “victim” felt they had as much (or more) power than their “bully.” Incredibly, 53% of the teens in this study were using the term “bullying” to describe either fights or single acts of meanness. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t truly upset or traumatized. It just means that the source of the trauma probably wasn’t bullying, per se.
Outside the lab, I’ve seen the same trend. Name it, and I’ve probably been told that it’s bullying. Even doctors overuse the term – one told me that being honked at on the highway was bullying.
You could argue that all this doesn’t really matter; but in reality, it does. I think that overusing the word is actually harming kids. Calling a severe assault “bullying” trivializes that crime. On the flip side, labeling an equal-power quarrel between friends as “bullying” puts all the blame on one participant – instead of both kids just making up. After a fight, it’s difficult to say you’re sorry and repair a relationship; it’s much easier to just claim victimhood. Maybe worst of all, branding every conflict as “bullying” waters down the very real pain and trauma of a victim who’s endured a litany of vicious cruelty and who cannot defend themselves.
I’m not suggesting that anyone is trying to deliberately minimize bullying, or to prevent children from learning how to resolve conflict in their relationships. There are clearly more innocent motives at play. Sometimes, children use the word “bullying” because they want or need adult attention. Or, they might be angry at a friend, or want to avoid the hard work of resolving a problem. Parents may worry that if a problem isn’t “bullying,” then the school won’t take it seriously; or worse, decide that their child is partially responsible. At times, using the word “bullying” loosely can avoid difficulty or unpleasantness. But learning to deal with some of these difficulties is part of the hard work of childhood. If a child doesn’t learn how to resolve a quarrel with a friend, how will they cope with conflict as an adult? Next column: now that we know we should tell the difference between a fight and bullying, here’s how to do it.