Flaky children or flimsy evidence? Why bullying might not make you stronger

Perusing the web earlier this week, I came across a tweet to this piece in the Daily Mail, 8th June, 2016.


In it, Claire Fox (not  that Claire Fox traditionally associated with bullying  research) argues that teenagers are getting upset far too quickly and easily, by ideas going against this opinion. And she attributes this to them being mollycoddled at school :

Meanwhile, the old motto ‘Sticks and stones . . .’ is now forgotten, as we teach children that words can indeed hurt them. Bullying has been redefined to include ordinary playground verbal tussles. I remember my niece telling me, aged 11, that she was being bullied at school. I feared she was being beaten up or viciously taunted. In fact, she was being ‘excluded from her friendship group’.

I expected, since Claire Fox is a “top academic” that her claims would be supported with robust evidence linking teenagers’ vulnerability to their past protection from bullying. However, it was not.

Since we know from reasearch that exclusion and verbal insults from a friendship group have real and devastating effects on a child’s later development (see for one example among many Klomek et al., 2015) I decided it would be appropriate to offer a counter-argument. Here follows my thoughts on why bullying does not necessarily make you stronger or more resilient as an adult. With research evidence.

The premise that we’re starting from is that a litle bulying makes you stronger. You learn from it. That you gain skills from it. That you can respond better next time. But Fox argues that having adults deal with the supposedly terrible dangers of bullying in the playground, can do more harm than good….it denies children the experiences they need to develop, to gain social skills that they need to deal with later conflict/ challenging opinions for themselves.

But surely, in relation to any arbitrary noxious stimulus (whether it be bullying, poison, whatever) – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true if and only if you have something equivalent (in relation to the given noxious stimulus) to an effective immune system. Thus, in relation to bullying, a little bullying could make you more resistant to bullying only if you already have access to the structures/resources (whether internally or through readily available support from others – peers, teachers, parents, websites, whoever) necessary to transform that experience into knowledge of how to respond to and cope with future attempts at bullying.  Research bears this out. Friendship (Bollmer et al., 2005; Hodges et al., 1999) can serve to protect children against bullying’s negative effects. On the other hand, ineffective humour use can increase the risk for future victimization (the other Fox et al., 2015).

Without resources like good quality friendships, small amounts of the noxious stimulus could just gradually weaken the target. A physiological analogy would be arsenic: small amounts of arsenic over time don’t make you more resistant to arsenic (we don’t have the physiological capacity to learn to cope with arsenic, as I understand it), small amount of arsenic gradually make you weaker and more ill over many years.

Taking the analogy of inoculation further (for inoculation is a good real and empirically grounded example of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche being true), perhaps one could argue that better than exposure to small amounts of actual bullying would be exposure to a *deactivated* equivalent to bullying (viruses are commonly deactivated or dead prior to being used in inoculation): in other words, role play bullying scenarios could be used, in a safe environment that also provides the resources necessary to learn from (rather than be weakened by) the experiences.

So – bullying could make you stronger – assuming – and it is a BIG assumption – that you have been given the requisite social skills to deal with it, both in a de-activated form in the classroom (through role-play etc.) and ‘online’ as the active experiences unfold. Unfortunately, as we know from research over 50% of bullying goes unreported, so the children experiencing it go without help.

A further problem – as I see it – is that there is wide acknowledgement that social skills to counteract bullying (from the perspective of perpetrator, target and bystander) need to be learnt by children (see the other Fox & Boulton, 2005), but less acknowledgement from government that these skills need to be *taught* as part of the curriculum.  Children’s social worlds are complex: without that teaching, bullying can grind a child down.

A little bit of it won’t then make them stronger.