Forget New York. If you can make it in middle school, you can make it anywhere. Think about it: You're barely pubescent when you leave grade school's bright, happy walls, where your name is probably emblazoned on some artwork, for a place with kids who, although they are probably just as scared as you, are bigger.
Until recently, mistreatment in middle school—even the risk of it—was considered a rite of passage. You were merely lucky or unlucky, liked or disliked. You just hoped to survive.
Thankfully, there's been a rethinking of that philosophy. Growing awareness about bullying, and its associated trauma, has created a cultural shift. Today, many communities know not only how to identify and report these occurrences, but also how to prevent and address them.
Some experts say the heightened awareness stems from the Columbine shooting, which was widely reported as a retaliatory attack by a bullied teen—though later accounts dispute that narrative. Other high-profile cases that linked bullying to suicide garnered media attention. Meanwhile, local and grassroots efforts to fight bullying have developing alongside prominent national campaigns. President Obama has made it a cause of his administration, which last year hosted the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention and created the website, StopBullying.gov, with tips to spot and stop bullying. Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey joined Lady Gaga at Harvard for the pop singer's launch of her Born This Way Foundation, which aims to end bullying. This spring, The Weinstein Company released Bully, which documents the lives of five kids, viciously tormented by their peers, and featured an anti-bullying campaign backed by celebrities like Katy Perry, Paula Abdul, Demi Lovato, and Anderson Cooper.
Statistics on the prevalence of bullying range widely, with anywhere from 5 to more than 50 percent of schoolchildren having reported an experience with bullying, says Deborah Temkin, research and policy coordinator for bullying prevention initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. Part of the problem is the lack of a standard definition for bullying, which government agencies are working to establish, as well as insufficient data, she says. Her agency's most recent survey, conducted during the school year ending in 2009, found that 28 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied within the last year. Among that group, 6 percent said they were "cyberbullied."
The incidences peak in middle school, says Robin Young, program associate for the National Crime Prevention Council. These are, of course, awkward and vulnerable years, when people start to physically develop and become more aware of their differences. Cliques take shape and, with them, a social caste system that only adds to one's self-consciousness and desire to fit in. Plus, unlike in grade school, where teachers tend to resolve children's spats, middle schoolers are more likely to go it alone.
In that context, bullying can reflect a sort of social jockeying. But it's more complex than that. Oftentimes, as with any cycle of abuse, the one doing the bullying may be getting bullied by someone else. "Bullying is much more of a cycle than people think," Young says. "The bully at school can be getting bullied at home ... the victim today can be the bully tomorrow."
That outlook helps to refine the approach to identify and heal from bullying behavior, which wreaks havoc on all those involved, including bystanders. Bullies can develop aggressive behavior as adults, while their victims may long grapple with anxiety and depression. A 2008 study in Australia found that adults bullied as kids were three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts as those who weren't bullied.
And while bullying may peak in adolescence, it never disappears—it just morphs into things we've given different labels, like harassment. The difference is that we've matured (hopefully) by adulthood, having acquired skills to manage difficult situations for ourselves—and the children we know and love.