Valerie Strauss

Monday, November 1, 2010

 A recent poll getting a lot of attention says that half of the students in our high schools admit to having bullied someone in the past year. That’s hard to believe.

The survey was conducted by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, and results were gleaned from 43,321 students. The margin of error is said to be less than 1 percent.

The teens were asked, according to the institute’s Web site, whether they had “bullied, teased or taunted someone” (at least once in the past 12 months.)

Fifty percent said they had. Forty-seven percent said they had been physically abused, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset them. The institute’s president, Michael Josephson, was reported as saying that the study proves that more bullying is going on in high school than previously thought.

Here’s the problem with the survey: The question about bullying asked students whether they had “been a bully” at least once in the previous year. Bullying is not a single action.

One fight on the playground does not qualify. Pushing someone in line once or twice doesn’t cut it, either. There is such a thing as childhood nastiness that is unfortunate but not pathological.

The question is also too broadly drawn: It lumps bullying and teasing in the same question, indicating a distinct misunderstand of the differences in behavior. Teasing can be mean – and part of a bully’s repertoire – but it can also just be in fun.

As a result, the answer to a very open-ended question gets reported in a very narrow way. “Half of tons said they bullied someone,” when, in fact, this poll doesn’t prove that at all.

Here’s the definition, according to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, developed by Dan Olweus, considered the father of research on bullies and their victims. (The program is a comprehensive school effort that involves every person in the school and teaches kids not to be bystanders but to get help when someone is being bullied.)

A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.