Amanda Nickerson of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, specializes in school crisis
prevention and intervention, and especially violence and bullying. After the
school shootings of 2013 and the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, she weighs
in—not only about her personal experiences, but also about her opinion of the
media’s recent focus on school shootings and bullying in general. Dr. Nickerson
concludes with tips to help you pursue the psychology of bullying and provides
expert advice on what you should do if you witness someone being bullied.
is a complicated issue,” Dr. Nickerson says, "and it definitely continues into
adulthood, though not for everyone. In fact, we have quite a few longitudinal
studies at this point showing that bullying has long-lasting effects. If I had
to give a conservative estimate, I would say that one in three bullies tend to
go on to have criminal and relationship problems. However, some individuals who
bully in the workplace are actually helped to get ahead and evaluated very
Dr. Nickerson first started conducting research, she has always been interested
in peer relationships. "I did my undergraduate thesis studying peer and sibling
relationships, and then I became interested in individuals with emotional
disorders in graduate school. I went on to study school crises that can affect
children in extreme ways. However, crises like shootings are fortunately very
infrequent occurrences, whereas bullying happens day in and day out with
devastating effects. Therefore, studying this became a growing interest as
many of us, Dr. Nickerson’s first exposure to bullying occurred during her childhood
in sixth grade. "I don’t think I recognized it as bullying at the time,” she
says, "but I certainly do now. For a week or two, I was subjected to relational
bullying from a group of girls, mainly who talked behind my back, said things
to me, and showed some physical aggression. Now that I look back, I know I was
a bystander in other situations too. I remember another girl in particular who
was tormented mercilessly, and I did what a lot of bystanders do. I laughed and
inadvertently reinforced it though I didn’t understand that until much later.
we don’t really have solid longitudinal data to show if bullying has increased
from 20 or 30 years ago, although one form of bullying that has increased is
cyberbullying, simply because of the increased availability of technology. Cyberbullying
has helped us to recognize that there are more forms to bullying than the
typical schoolyard bullying. Now we see that bullying can also be verbal,
social, or indirect.” The perception of bullying has also changed due to the
recent media attention of high-profile school shootings and suicides, which has
driven legislators and the general public to take notice of the issue.
presently have laws about bullying in 49 of the 50 states. In the public eye, people
are realizing just how severe the consequences of bullying can be.
Unfortunately, this media attention causes some people to overuse the term bullying
by making over-simplified connections. For example, my phone was ringing quite
a bit after the Miami Dolphins football scandal. On the plus side, this event
showed that even strong athletes can be targeted by the behavior of bullying.
It really opened a dialogue, and of course disagreement always comes with
conversation too. Some said ‘we need to change the culture we have and what is
appropriate.’ And others said ‘there’s no way we can understand what happens between
proathletics and the locker room culture.’ ” However, Dr. Nickerson is not entirely
convinced that it was what we would call bullying. "It might actually
have been more along the lines of harassment because there’s a lot of overlap
between these things.”
next big question is whether this trend of overusing the term bullying will
carry on and whether the media will continue to focus on bullying in the
future. As Dr. Nickerson points out, "The public has sort of a short-term
attention span, so we may move on to something else. However, I think violence
and aggression will always be at the core of dialogues, the media’s attention, and
hopefully in scientific inquiry as well. I know personally that there’s a
strong group of researchers who will continue to investigate this phenomenon
whether the media has died down about it or not.”
long as questions can be asked, Dr. Nickerson and many dedicated others will be
searching for the answers. In order to do this, Dr. Nickerson says, "We look at
the literature and our previous studies, and from there we have to set up the
studies by deciding the age range of our participants and what methodology we’ll
use to find the best answer. We go through the Institutional Review Board
process to make sure we’re treating participants ethically, and then we measure
despite all this hard work, there is still much to be done in understanding the
psychology of bullying. There are more children (and adults!) in need of
prevention and intervention from bullying than there are psychologists looking
to help them.
the top of her head, Dr. Nickerson can name many future research needs. For example,
"How is bullying differentiated from other types of problems, or is it one piece
of a large composition of problems? We also have more to understand about bystanders,
prevention, and intervention. More specifically, do we need definite
intervention in bullying, or are larger efforts with the youth really the way
to go? Can we build core skills in resilience that will help people not to
suffer from a variety of problems, bullying included?”
is where you come in. If you are interested in the psychology of bullying, then
allow Dr. Nickerson to leave you with this: "Take advantage of elective
opportunities that have to do with aggression or violent behavior. Look for
faculty members interested in this area of study who can guide you. Definitely
do your research and class projects in this area all along so you can find out
more, not just from the media, but from the scientific literatures as well.”
if child doesn’t want you to tell anyone they are being bullied?
I think it’s really essential to thank them for telling you in the first place
because clearly a lot of kids don’t. The fact that they were able to tell
someone is good in itself, and it’s important to discuss why that is with them
too. A lot of times kids are afraid telling will make it worse because there’s nothing
anyone can do to help them and they’ll look weak.
next step is to try problem-solving with the child. And that could mean that you
don’t tell anyone, depending on the situation. The child may just want someone to
listen to them and give them coping strategies to try out. Obviously a parent
or a professional may absolutely need to report the information to someone else
to make sure it’s being addressed, but I think listening and problem-solving is
really the key.”
if you are not around when bullying occurs, and a school does not provide
am absolutely in favor of working with the school because most schools do want
what is best for the students. Documenting and communicating with the school is
important, and if that doesn’t work, then maybe you’re not speaking with the
correct person. You may have to go up the chain to the principal or the
superintendent. You can find an outside advocate too.
work with your child to find out what’s happening and hopefully give your child
some strategies because obviously they need that as well. If it’s bad enough,
and there isn’t a resolution, then often changing schools is what people do to
get out of the situation.”
if a child doesn’t have any friends or a support group at school?
to find some at school. Maybe work with a counselor or a teacher to identify peers
that may be potential go-to people to support the child. I think locating a
go-to adult is essential too, and you can also get the child involved in
extracurricular activities to help meet people with similar interests. You may
look somewhere outside of school as well.”
if you are in a position where you need
to set consequences for bullying?
on the specific bad behavior and why it’s a problem, so the child knows that
the consequences are necessary. Make the consequences meaningful, so that they
relate to the offense and include some sort of plan for change or better
behavior. Explain that the consequence is not done just to show off power and
make people mad, but is an effort to change a behavior.”
if a child reports being bullied, but
you believe this is a misperception?
the child’s concerns. Even if they weren’t really bullied, it is likely that something
was done that was troublesome to them. Help to find out more about the situation
and teach the child to differentiate bullying from other behaviors. Explain
that a one-time comment, whether it was mean or not, wasn’t really bullying.
Teach the child that people sometimes say mean things, but that it doesn’t help
to cry ‘bullying.’ ”
if you think a bully or a child being bullied may become violent?
depends on your role. If you are a parent or a teacher, you should report it to
someone who can look into it further. Increase your supervision of that child.
We recommend for schools to do an investigation to find out the extent to which
that person serves as a threat, either to themselves or to others. How specific
are their intentions? Do they have the means to go through with their
intentions? What intervention is needed?”
if you want a child to be more than a bystander when bullying occurs?
"That’s one of my favorite areas of
study because we really need to empower youth to understand how much of a
difference they can make. We also have to understand that many adults don’t
intervene in many situations. Bullying or observing a crime is a phenomenon
that happens to all of us, so it is important to understand the steps someone has
to go through in order to intervene.