Craig on Bullying – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Craig on Bullying

Professor of Chemistry David Craig had a guest essay on the topic of bullying published in the Messenger Post newspapers last week.

“The problem is, most students think the majority of their peers frequently engage in bullying behaviors and have pro-bullying attitudes. This is not good news. The more students think that bullying is normal, the more likely they are to engage in bullying behaviors. This pervasive misperception is the single most harmful risk factor that allows bullying to persist in our schools and community,” Craig wrote.

Craig is co-director, with Professor of Sociology Wes Perkins, of the Youth Health and Safety project at HWS. In addition to his teaching duties, Craig is the director of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Alcohol Education Project and is principle investigator of a program of BAC research at HWS. He is a leader in interdisciplinary program development particularly in the integration of the sciences into programs focusing on health and wellness at both the college and secondary school levels and has published numerous publications and a recent film on this subject.

His full article follows.


Messenger Post
Guest essay: Bullying: Perception creates reality

David W. Craig • November 12, 2010

Canandaigua, N.Y. –
Thank you for your recent articles on bullying. Your efforts encourage public concern and accountability of our school systems to the public they serve. I have just a few comments to add.

First, President Obama was right when he said, “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, that it’s some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not.” My research on bullying in the United States and United Kingdom shows that the overwhelming majority of youth rarely, if ever, engage in bullying. Only a small minority of students frequently bully.

This is good news. The problem is, most students think the majority of their peers frequently engage in bullying behaviors and have pro-bullying attitudes. This is not good news. The more students think that bullying is normal, the more likely they are to engage in bullying behaviors. This pervasive misperception is the single most harmful risk factor that allows bullying to persist in our schools and community.

We can teach students about character until the cows come home. But if youth still think most of their peers engage in bullying, that training will be for naught. We learned this lesson years ago with substance abuse prevention. Teaching students about the harms of alcohol use, how to say “no,” and reinforcing values have produced no significant reductions in alcohol use among youthful populations.

These strategies are limited because the problem is not our students’ values. The majority have strong values and healthy and safe practices. The problem is that they don’t know that their peers share these same positive values and practices. Only when students learn that most of their peers have healthy and safe values do they gain the freedom to act in accordance with those values.

We need to address the social environment that permits and, in fact, encourages students to bully. When youth perceive that most of their peers have pro-bullying attitudes they are silent when witnessing that behavior. The few that have pro-bulling attitudes are given license to act on those values because they think they are in the majority – and their peers think so too. We need to correct student misperceptions of peer bullying. We need to get the good news out.

Here are some statistics from schools I have been working with in New Jersey:

• Nine out of 10 middle school students DO NOT exclude someone from a group to make them feel bad.

• Ninety percent of us have NOT called others hurtful names, even by phone or email.

Nothing that I have seen in your articles reflects this. Rather, all of the attention on bullying in classes tends to underscore for students that, “wow, there must be a lot of bullying going on.” Without simultaneously communicating healthy student majorities, this kind of education can actually increase bullying by contributing to the misperception.

Finally, it is not difficult to assess the impact of bullying-prevention programs. Measures of reported bullying incidents are not good measures of program impact. They are too dependent on variations in reporting and way too many incidents go unreported. One must conduct serious, anonymous surveys of students about bullying attitudes, behaviors, victimization experience and peer perceptions before and after a program intervention to assess the impact of a program. You need to ask schools to report the results of these surveys before and after program interventions. There is too much at stake to spend our efforts on programs that do not work or are not assessed.

Thank you for keeping this very important issue in the public eye.

David W. Craig, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva and director of the Alcohol Education Project and Youth Health & Safety Project.