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Psychologist: Bullies Know They Are Bullying

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The much-talked about documentary Bully hits select theaters on Friday. The film follows one year in the lives of bullied kids and their families.

I sat down with L.A. based psychologist Dr. Joel Liebowitz to talk about the issue. Liebowitz deals with children and teens and issues involving bullying, which he explains can carry long term effects on the victim akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. This obviously not only leaves lasting marks on the victim, but society as well.

Zorianna Kit: What makes this generation of bullies different?

Dr. Joel Liebowitz: I think ultimately there is no difference. The only addition to this generation is what we now call cyber bullying. There are electronic means of being anonymous and doing the same things that were done usually face to face. But I don't think it's any less or any more than it ever was.

ZK: Has the attitude towards bullying changed in our society?

JL: It's beginning to change. When teachers and other administrators used to say, 'Let the boys work it out; let the girls work it out,' we know that is not realistic. Kids don't have the tools very often to work it out, they don't know how to deal with conflict resolution. In fact they don't have the ability to do it. They need the administration. They need other professionals to teach them how. There has to be an attitude of zero tolerance so they all feel safe.

Schools -- in many cases not enough -- are beginning to understand there are liabilities that they didn't appreciate before, both social and financial, if they do not address the issue.

ZK: Why didn't this change happen sooner?

JL: I think the cultural attitude was such that kids will just work it out or 'This stuff just happens, don't make a big deal about it.' So there was kind of a conspiracy of silence, not with intention to leave people at risk, but because it was just not recognized to have long lasting effects. Some kids who were bullied suffered loss of self-esteem and issues of relationship throughout their life as a result.

ZK: Do bullies know that they're being bullies?

JL: The current thinking is that bullies mean to inflict emotional and physical pain. They expect the action to hurt and they take pleasure from the distress it causes. That is what we believe to be the case, typically. The bully is quite aware. It's an imbalance of power. And the bullies understand that. Bullying also tends to be an ongoing event. It happens more than once and it happens over and over again. There's a pattern.

ZK: Why does someone decide to bully?

JL: We used to think maybe they were kids with low self-esteem. But it's not so. There are bullies that range from confident and sometimes popular kids who actually enjoy throwing their weight around and having a feeling of a sense of superiority over others. There are friendless loners who look for opportunities to bully when no one will stop them. There are all kinds of bullies. They don't come in just one form.

ZK: Are we getting better as a society in handling this issue?

JL: I don't think it's getting worse. In fact, I think it's much more clear to people that there is a real problem and it needs to be addressed. People are now becoming more conscious and more responsive in a way that they did not previously in other generations. It used to hide in the shadows but kids are becoming aware and bystanders are being more proactive. Administrations are being much more responsive. And while parents perhaps don't always see or understand, I think they can be brought to an awareness through education, through intervention programs, and through media.

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One Bully in theaters, but bigger bullies on Web