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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2014
The Psychology of Bullying
With Amanda Nickerson, PhD

By Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Dr. 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.

Bullying 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 positively.”

Since 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 well.”

Like 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.

"Unfortunately, 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.

"We 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.”

The 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.”

As 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 our findings.”

Unfortunately, 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.

Off 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?”

This 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.”

Ask An Expert:
What if child doesn’t want you to tell anyone they are being bullied?

"First, 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.

"Your 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.”

What if you are not around when bullying occurs, and a school does not provide adequate prevention?
"I 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.

"Also, 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.”

What if a child doesn’t have any friends or a support group at school?
"Try 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.”

What if you are in a position where you need to set consequences for bullying?
"Focus 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.”

What if a child reports being bullied, but you believe this is a misperception?
"Validate 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.’ ”

What if you think a bully or a child being bullied may become violent?
"It 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?”

What 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.

  1. Notice something.
  2. Identify that it's a problem that requires help.
  3. Know what to do.
  4. Decide to take the responsibility to act.
  5. And then do it.

"We also need to tell children that there are multiple ways to intervene, and that not everyone should need to tell a bully to stop. That’s one way, but children can also band together with other peers who don’t like what’s happening. They can report it to an adult. They can also reach out to the person who is being bullied, which can be extremely helpful.”

Amanda Nickerson, PhD, is an associate professor and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She has examined the role of schools, parents, and peers in preventing violence and enhancing the social-emotional strengths of children and adolescents. Dr. Nickerson has published more than 60 journal articles and book chapters, written 4 books, and conducted over 250 professional presentations. She is associate editor of the Journal of School Violence and serves on the editorial boards of School Psychology Quarterly and Psychology in the Schools. She is a licensed psychologist, a nationally certified school psychologist, and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. She is also co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ (NASP) PREPaRE Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Curriculum, and a member of the executive board of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP).

Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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