Skip to main content

He's bright, has great social skills and comes from a good family. The valedictorian? No – the class bully.

Bullying is getting a lot of attention these days, but many people still believe in a stereotype that simply isn't true. Ask the average person to describe a bully and you'll get something like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons – big, dull-witted, angry and from a broken home. Yet, nearly 200,000 children and youths engage in bullying worldwide every year.

Research shows that these children often have average or greater social skills, popularity, leadership, cognitive empathy and physical or mental health. It's true that not all bullies show these traits, particularly the 10 per cent who are also victims themselves. But it's clear that, for most of those 200,000 children who are bullies, bullying is a choice rather than the consequence of maladaptive minds or behaviours.

Why do bullies make the choice to bully? We don't have all the answers, but evidence seems to point at three reasons: to get resources (lunch money, for example), to get or maintain dating partners, and to get social power that can be cashed in to get resources, dates or other favours.

Why do these goals matter? Because without understanding them, anti-bullying efforts are doomed. Sadly, most current anti-bullying efforts are failures, while only a few are partial successes. So how can we stop bullying?

First, we shouldn't be looking at victims as the solution. They are strategically chosen by bullies because of an inability to harm the bullies' social status. Teaching them to fight back is a common answer, but how do you fight back against 10 more popular teens who are spreading vicious rumours about you? Who you can't even identify because they attack anonymously over the Internet? Instead of looking at victims for solutions, we should support them as much as possible, particularly since mental health problems are both a trigger and a consequence of victimization.

Second, we can look at bystanders. Research from Finland has shown that targeting bystanders can be an effective way to reduce bullying. Bystanders aren't directly involved, so they don't have a horse in the race, so to speak. But they can change the metrics of bullying by making bullying less cool or less intimidating, and thus less effective as a tool for obtaining social power. One major problem with this approach is that it only addresses "public" bullying. Bullies who secretly target victims aren't affected by bystander opinions.

That leaves going after the bullies.

Research from Norway shows that, when a country cracks down on bullying at all levels, from government to schools to parents, bullying is reduced. Unfortunately, the same research shows that, the moment you let up, the rates climb right back. This may be because we're asking bullies to stop using a strategy that serves their interest with few costs.

Yes, bullying harms others, but bullies have already decided they don't care about harming others, so appeals to their empathy generally don't work. Nor does punishment, as they can find new ways to bully without being caught (such as bullying anonymously over the Internet).

So how do we get around this? By using a carrot as well as a stick.

This isn't to advocate that bullying shouldn't be punished – it certainly should be. But we should also be offering bullies alternatives to getting what they want without hurting others. An example I like to use is for a Grade 12 student who bullies Grade 10s to get social status and power. An alternative route to social status and power could be for the Grade 12 to stand up to the Grade 11s who are bullying Grade 10s. Same social outcome – only no one is hurt. What's more, research is clear that, while bullying makes you popular, it doesn't make you well-liked. Being pro-social and dominant is the best road to social power.

This won't always be an easy sell. As adults, we give children plenty of examples of how bullying can work. Children quickly figure out that bullying can be a way to get what they want. But if children are such good learners, and we teach them there are better routes and punish the alternatives, we might start down the road of eliminating bullying completely. Naturally, this involves adults acting as good role models.

But given that bullying and its effects often carry into adulthood, it behooves us adults (as well as our children) to recognize what's in it for bullies, and to start showing them better ways of getting what they're looking for.

Anthony Volk is a developmental psychologist and an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.