11/11/2013 07:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Bullying in the NFL? Why We Need To Differentiate Between Youth and Adult Bullying

"Even football players are bullied!" This was the headline that rang out from nearly every news outlet this week. But is what happened bullying? There is no doubt that the racial slurs, death threats, and social exclusion Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin reports experiencing from teammate Richie Incognito was traumatic and damaging and something that needs to be investigated and solved. Calling what happened bullying, however, is not productive, for both understanding what happened to Martin and for the 28 percent of school-age youth who report being bullied.

Although bullying is used colloquially to describe everything from the US's involvement in the Syrian Civil War to company turf preservation and everything in between, such expansive use of the term dilutes our efforts to prevent bullying among who its traditionally been about - school-age youth. Although adults, companies, and countries will often engage in aggressive behaviors, sometimes even those marked by what researchers purport are the other key components of bullying, repetition and power imbalance, and are often hurt by those behaviors as well, the experience of being bullied and bullying others is likely fundamentally different for youth. Martin and other adults experiencing hazing or workplace harassment can certainly be hurt by these behaviors. But, in order to effectively respond to and prevent bullying among youth and similar behaviors among adults we must not lump them all in the same pot and recognize key developmental and contextual issues that make them different, and make our approaches to treating them different as well.

Here's why I reserve "bullying" for school-age youth and why I think we need a different term for such behaviors among adults:

1) Research

Although more research is emerging in the niche field of "workplace bullying," the vast majority of research using the term "bullying" is that studying the behavior among youth or studying retrospectively with adults the effect of bullying they experienced as youth. Such studies are how we can identify what are known as risk and protective factors and possible outcomes of behavior. They are also how we understand what efforts are needed to prevent the behavior. Because such efforts thus far are limited to youth, it is hard to say whether the same strategies will work with older adults. We simply do not know enough about how bullying behaviors in youth operate similarly or differently to related behaviors in adulthood.

2) Brain Development

Until the age of 25, the prefrontal cortex, or the area of the brain that controls impulse and also helps us process social cues, is still developing. Because this part of the brain is still developing in youth, its functions are still naive and vulnerable. Youth may engage more in bullying behaviors because their prefrontal cortex is not yet developed enough for them to think through the long term consequences of the behavior rather than any short term gain they may receive in the form of social safety or popularity. On the other hand, youth who are bullied may be more vulnerable to developing long-lasting fear and anxiety as their brain responds to trauma. Developing vs. developed brain systems most certainly play a role in differentiating behavior between youth and between adults.

3) Peer Influence

As youth enter adolescence, gaining peer acceptance becomes a top priority. Adolescents are more easily influenced by their peers than they are by adults, and are more likely to engage in risky or hurtful behavior if their peers are also doing so. As teens enter emerging adulthood and then adulthood, this orientation once again changes towards more intimate friends and family, rather than their broader peer group. Adults are less likely to engage in risky and aggressive behaviors as a social response, rather these behaviors are more likely to be individually driven.

4) Involuntary Social Groups

Jaana Juvenen and Adriana Galvan propose, in a 2008 chapter, that the school or classroom is an "involuntary social group," in which youth do not chose to participate, but are rather assigned to and required to engage with. Most youth do not have the ability to choose with whom they go to school or have the flexibility to easily change schools should the climate support pro-bullying norms. Although it may not be easy for adults to change jobs, they have much more ability and autonomy to do so. Adults also have broader networks from which to form friendships and are not as dependent on the workplace for social support as youth are dependent on their schools.

5) Law

The law surrounding the behaviors that can be used as part of bullying is differently applied to minors than it is to adults. There are laws that cover some of what would be considered bullying - stalking, harassment, assault -- but for a minor to be charged with these offenses, there is a high bar of being able to prove criminal intent. Charging minors for bullying behaviors is rare and this is a good thing. As mentioned above, bullying is very much a social behavior rather than an individualistic one, and as such the solution should be the same -- changing the social norms, not punishing individuals. Even in the rare, and unfortunate, cases where youth are charged with crimes, they are usually charged as juveniles, where their records will disappear upon adulthood.

Nevertheless, adults can and are charged with these crimes and that changes the dimension of these behaviors. Instead of calling them bullying, then, they should be rightly called what they are defined to be under law.