In the Middle Of A Chain Reaction: Normalizing Verbal Insults

A friend posted this video (click on image below to view)  to my Facebook feed earlier this week. It’s well worth the few seconds it takes to watch it, in my view, although not just for the reasons Stonewall intends.

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Don’t get me wrong. Stonewall’s message is a stark one, and one that is supported by empirical research; social developmental psychologists have shown that simply encouraging bystanders to intervene is enough to stop bullying episodes (Atlas & Pepler, 1998). In fact, more recently, they’ve shown that simply asking perpetrators to stop is enough to end verbal remarks that are unwanted (Lamb et al., 2009).

The thoughts that crossed my mind, as I watched the video, were more about the chain reaction that was taking place, as one person passed on verbal abuse to another. What I was thinking about was the time-course of bullying: how an episode of bullying of one child by others evolves over time.

Whitney and Smith in their 1993 study found that some episodes of bullying had continued for over two years. And I know from my research (Jones, Manstead, & Livingstone., in press, Frontiers in Learning Research) that an instance of bullying can take place over weeks or years, and can change from a relatively innocuous dirty look, to a full-on campaign, constituting multiple methods, and spaces in which to attack the target.

Beyond that, a review of the literature reveals relatively little empirical research about how bullying develops with time. Children who bully, and who get bullied (as depicted in the video) are known as bully-victims, or aggressive victims in this research area. And the literature shows that these children are vulnerable from multiple risk factors concerning their home life, and subsequently are more likely than any other children involved in bullying to be psychologically maladjusted (e.g., Haynie et al., 2001). I could find nothing, however, on which comes first: bullying or victimization. the only studies I could see we’re cross -sectional (looking at a snap-shot of children’s behaviour at a given moment in time) rather than longitudinal.

Not deterred, I looked more broadly for evidence on the time-course of bullying. It could be that if bystanders and targets are less likely to react angrily to ambiguous (perhaps more innocuous) forms of bullying, targets may later find themselves on the receiving end of nastier forms of attack, as the innocuous behaviour is exaggerated and becomes normal for the friendship group to enact. To support this view, the targets researched by Gamliel, Hoover, Daughtry and Imbra (2003) in a series of case studies, reported how bullying got more severe with time. It is possible then, that the ambiguity of initial incidents prevents targets from appreciating what is happening; by the time they do so, it is much more difficult to resist behaviour that has become increasingly normative for both perpetrators and target alike.

Earlier in this blog, I have referred to Dorothy Epelage’s view that bullying should be banished as a term, because teachers wait until a behaviour unequivocally counts as bullying before they treat it as such. This kind of process may also apply to bystanders who witness mildly nasty behaviour and who do not intervene to stop it because it does not meet their definition of what constitutes bullying. Even if the event does make one feel angry on behalf of the target, it may still be difficult to enlist the help of others – including teachers – because they may not necessarily share one’s own interpretation of the event. Consistent with this view, Boulton (1997) found that teachers readily saw verbal or physical threats as bullying, but were reluctant to identify ostracism (a more passive and ambiguously negative behaviour) as bullying. Similarly, Bauman and Del Rio (2006) found that trainee teachers would punish relational bullying less severely than more overt (verbal or physical) forms of bullying. The ambiguity of negative interpersonal or intergroup behaviour may play an important role in the development of bullying. If the behaviour is seen as harmless or normative at the outset, and as a consequence escapes negative sanction, it may escalate over time.

So, Stonewall’s video is important not just for showing how failing to say ‘stop’ when someone uses a verbally offensive remark can perpetuate a chain of abuse, but in showing the damage that can be done by normalizing verbal insults, as they aren’t curtailed, and get re-cycled in childhood and adulthood.

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