Bullying has always been a problem. It’s a normal human behavior that is seen in every culture around the world. Bullies bully because it works. It’s considered an adaptive behavior by evolutionary psychologists.
The problem is that there is a growing body of evidence of the real psychological and lasting harm it causes. It isn’t a necessary rite of passage and it doesn’t make us stronger. It causes PTSD and all sorts of other long term psychological problems. Also, bullies who are allowed to bully are 60% more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. We are paying a tremendous social cost for bullying.
The good news is that it’s preventable and can be eliminated and stopped, which means we don’t have to tolerate it anymore, which is why we are seeing more attention being paid to it.
As to why it’s a particularly bad problem in middle school, that has to do with the behavioral extinction cycle and the natural escalation of behavior that results from the variable reinforcement that occurs when kids try to ignore bullies and then pay attention and then ignore and then pay attention. We see exactly what we would expect to see given this dynamic – which is a peak of bad behavior in middle school.
Basically, when you try to extinguish a behavior, the animal doing the behavior goes into an extinction process which includes an extinction burst, which is a temporary escalation of behavior. So, if you have a rat that is pressing a button to get food, and suddenly the button stops working, the rat doesn’t stop pushing the button, they actually push it more until they are pushing it almost continually. If the button continues to not work, the rat will eventually give up. The same thing happens with bullies. If you stop rewarding them, they get more aggressive. The problem is that kids aren’t broken food levers and when bullies get more aggressive, most kids go back to doing whatever it was the bully wanted them to do. Except now, we have a new level of normal – which is a more aggressive form of bullying.
Kids start bullying as soon as they enter school. The behavior escalates as the victims make failed attempts to get it to stop. This cycle of attempts to stop and escalation of bad behavior from failed attempts to get it to stop, peaks in middle school. What we are actually seeing is a behavioral pattern and cycle of escalation that started several years earlier. Eventually kids learn how to get it to stop or they simply stop caring and through high school we see things de-escalate as those avoidance strategies start working.
The tragedy is that these techniques are easily taught. In fact, everything that is taught in anti-bullying programs works. That is the easy part – how to stop rewarding a bully. This triggers the extinction burst. What we are failing to teach our kids is the what next part – how to ride out the extinction burst you triggered and HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO COMPLETE THE EXTINCTION PROCESS! Because if you start and stop because you think it isn’t working, you make things worse for yourself. And that’s exactly what we see happening. Once you start, you have to keep at it until it stops. There is no other way to get it to stop.