Stealth Bullies: The Hidden Face of Bullying

09/16/2011 12:51 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2011

Bullying is one of the biggest issues in education today. There are articles in professional journals and parenting magazines about it. There are news stories, it seems almost weekly, about it. There are websites and organizations dedicated to fighting it. There is plenty of advice about preventing it. There's even legislation against it. This month, New Jersey passed an anti-bullying law that's been called the toughest in the nation.

But what if none of it is enough? What if all of it misses the mark? What if preventing bullying is as simple as paying closer attention? The research indicates this may be the case.

Stan Davis, a social worker and school counselor and founder of Stop Bullying Now, was a recent guest on Body, Mind and Child. Joining him for the discussion were Karin Frey, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, and Sarah Sparks, who pens "Inside School Research" for Education Week and who has written quite a bit about social aggression.

According to the Stop Bullying Now website, there is adult intervention in only 4 percent of bullying incidents. Davis indicated during our conversation that that's an older statistic but didn't say whether or not it was now higher. Still, even if it's, say, 100 percent higher, it's a startling figure. How could there be so little adult involvement in an issue as huge and as potentially damaging as bullying?

Here are some of the reasons my guests cited:

  • Adults believe kids should solve their own problems.

  • If adults only see it once, they're not inclined to intervene.
  • Teachers often don't have a clear procedure to follow.
  • Kids are taught from an early age not to "tattle." (This helps us understand why two-thirds of children don't go to adults for help.)
  • Dr. Frey's research adds further support to the contention that adults aren't paying enough attention. She discovered that gossip contributes greatly to bullying and certainly can lead to physical disputes. But her study showed that teachers were unable to identify playground gossip even though it was "semi-public in nature" and gossip sessions lasted quite a while. I asked how that could be. The answer: the gossips are rarely the kids who are problems in class. In other words, they don't fit most adults' idea of what a bully "looks like."

    And here was yet another reason why teachers fail to intervene: There's much confusion about what constitutes bullying. "It's only bullying if... " One significant ending to that sentence is "... the behavior is perpetrated by those kids we expect to be bullies." We don't imagine that friends would bully each other, but my guests assured me that bullying does indeed occur between and among friends.

    Given the amount of attention bullying receives in the media, I thought that everything possible was being done to eradicate this problem. At the very least, I thought that teachers and parents would know it when they saw it. Clearly, I was wrong.

    Stan Davis offered this succinct piece of advice for teachers and parents: "If we see mean behavior we should stop it." But first, of course, we have to see it! For more advice from my guests, click here.