UCLA professor addresses issues behind bullying

A teenage girl approached UCLA psychology professor Jaana Juvonen after her lecture on bullying last Tuesday at Santa Monica College. Andy Kear, a 16-year-old SMC student, said that she had been bullied all her life, and reached out to the professor for help.

Kear said that she was so depressed that, although she had never hurt herself, she  sometimes had thoughts of suicide.

“When a victim feels a loss of power to effect a change, and blames themselves for the bullying, this leads to feeling isolated, which, in turn, can lead to suicide,” Juvonen said.

Juvonen said that it is crucial for parents to be aware of early indications of a problem.

“The first signs that I had that something was wrong with Andy was the change in her attitude, and her lack of excitement for school,” Andy’s mother Tara Wright said in a phone interview. “She stopped communicating about what she was learning at school.”

Wright immediately communicated with her daughter, and their honest dialogue revealed that she was a target of bullying.

Juvonen debunked the theory that being bullied makes targets stronger.

“Victims become withdrawn,” Juvonen said. “If bullying continues, this leads to more isolation. Victims, in turn, become more quiet and withdrawn, and do not tell anyone what is going on.”

Intimidation, humiliation, physical aggression, name-calling, and online harassment are some of the examples that Juvonen gave to illustrate the imbalance of power typified by bullying.

Kear, who said that she has experienced all of these forms except cyber-bullying, recalled the first time she was harassed at school.

“I remember some kid pushing me; I tripped and broke my arm,” she said.

At the lecture, Juvonen showed a clip of a schoolyard bully pushing down another student who grimaced in pain. Juvonen froze the screen and pointed to the bully.

“He has a rewarded expression,” she said, indicating the boy’s smirk that seemed to display a sense of satisfaction.

“If the victim shows hurt or blows up, the bully often feels a sense of gratification.”

Wright gave her daughter similar advice.

“I told my daughter not to react and not to engage the bully,” Wright said. “She understood that the behavior of the bullies had nothing to do with her, but was a projection of their own issues.”

In Kear’s timeline of being bullied, there were isolating factors that made her a target.

“In elementary school, my feet were too big,” Kear said. “At a new school, everyone had already picked a clique. In Mammoth Lakes, it was all about snow sports, and I couldn’t snowboard or ski. In my performing arts school, I was getting speaking roles where older, more experienced actors were not.”

Juvonen argued against some common stereotypes, and noted a link between bullying and intelligence.

“Bullies have inflated egos, not low self-esteem,” Juvonen said. “In many cases, bullies are found to have very high emotional and social IQs because they understand exactly how to hurt their victims, and to manipulate their peers and those in authority to win them over to their side.”

Another perception about bullies that Juvonen countered is the idea that they are socially isolated.

“In most instances, bullies are very ‘cool,’ and bullying is how they establish the pecking order among themselves in middle school,” Juvonen said.

The professor said that technology is a contributor to the culture of bullying in schools because it makes victims easily accessible.

“Cyber-bullying allows for the bully to remain anonymous,” Juvonen said.

At the lecture, an SMC psychology student inquired whether parental influence is responsible for shaping bullies.

“Not necessarily,” Juvonen said.

But former SMC student Mistee Miles had a different experience.

“I was a bully because I watched my dad beat my mom up every day,” Miles said. “I didn’t have any power at home, but when I bullied someone else I felt in control.”

Juvonen said that bullies can be reformed, “if their feelings of a lack of power—and the social need that they lack—is met in other ways.”

“I stopped being a bully when I had to change my father’s diapers because he was sick, and I watched him die,” Miles said. “This is when I realized that you can’t bully death.”

Juvonen listed ineffective methods of eradicating bullying in schools.

“Punishing a bully by withdrawing them from school is not a good solution,” Juvonen said. “In cases where the victim identifies a bully, the bullying just becomes more intense.”

Kear and her mother identified with the professor’s observations.

“My mom and I have moved eight times because of the bullying,” Kear said. “I did not want to be a tattletale, so I would tell what happened, but not who did it.”

Juvonen said that students with mentors and skills that build self-esteem and confidence are less likely to be bullied.

“I am very proud of Andy, because she is very strong, and she handled herself with such grace during a very difficult time in her life,” Wright said.