9 things I learned about bullying by talking to an expert

If you think you know everything you need to know about bullying, I have someone you should meet.

Dr. Susan M. Swearer, co-director of the Bullying Research Network and a professor at the University of Nebraska, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on bullying and cyberbullying. She studies the latest research, concentrating both on the numbers and the stories behind them. She determines trends, finds solutions and identifies problem areas.

Dr. Swearer has been featured on Anderson’s Cooper’s daytime talk show, presented her findings at the White House and traveled with Lady Gaga to promote anti-bullying initiatives for the Born This Way Foundation.

I called Dr. Swearer last month to ask for advice on how we, as Scout leaders, can identify and prevent bullying. It’s all part of our longstanding commitment, as Scout leaders, to keep young people safe. The conversation reinforces and expands on what’s covered in the Youth Protection training we all must take.

Here are nine key takeaways from our conversation.

1. Bullying involves more than just a bully and a victim.

It’s tempting to think of bullying as involving two distinct sides: bully vs. victim. But that’s not quite right, Dr. Swearer says.

“We understand that it’s a much broader issue that involves a peer group and families,” she says. “We understand the complexity a lot more.”

That means all of us — parents, Scout leaders and bystanders — play a role in recognizing, treating and preventing bullying.

2. A quarter of bullies are/were victims themselves.

They’re called bully-victims: kids who bully others while being victimized themselves. Dr. Swearer says about 25 percent of bullies fall in this category.

They might act like a bully on a sports team or in their Scout patrol, but in a different setting, they’re the victim.

“Years ago, I worked with a bully-victim who said, ‘It’s really unfair that I get in trouble for bullying, but they don’t get in trouble for bullying me,'” Dr. Swearer says. “It’s not an excuse, but it helps us understand the complexity of the dynamic.”

This illustrates the important role leaders/parents play in stopping the cycle.

3. Bullying typically happens when adults aren’t around.

This one seems obvious, but it’s worth talking through. As adults, we aren’t likely to observe bullying firsthand.

So how do we know someone has been bullied? The victim isn’t likely to report or tell. Asking the suspected victim outright — “are you being bullied?” — rarely works, either.

We must observe, watching for changes in behavior that might result from bullying.

“It comes down to relationships,” Dr. Swearer says. “If you’ve got a good relationship with a group of Scouts, you’re going to be more likely to know when something’s not going well.”

4. Turn to your trusted youth leaders (like the SPL) for help.

Dr. Swearer suggests leaning on people with high social status, like a senior patrol leader or Venturing crew president.

These “social influencers” were elected into their role, meaning others look up to them.

“We listen to people we perceive have social influence,” she says. “If you can, use your social influencers to say, ‘Hey, we treat people with respect. We treat people nicely.'”

If reporting to the SPL doesn’t help, or if the SPL is involved in the bullying, we want to encourage the target/victim to report this behavior to a trusted adult. This adult should both intervene and follow up to make sure the bullying behavior has ceased.

5. Create a culture where all leaders feel empowered.

Let’s say you’re at a Scout event and see someone else’s child being a bully, but the parent isn’t around. What do you do? Dr. Swearer says parents must give each other permission to speak up.

This starts with a pre-trip conversation about creating a healthy environment where all adult leaders are on the same page.

“Discuss what do you do if you hear my child saying something mean, but I’m not around,” Dr. Swearer says. “It’s like when you hire a babysitter, you give your babysitter permission to put them in timeout. We’re parents of all the kids, and if we see something, we should say something.”

6. Understand that both boys and girls can be bullies.

“There used to be this idea that boys are involved more in physical bullying, and girls are involved more in relational bullying,” Dr. Swearer says. “Over time, the research has shown that it’s an equal opportunity behavior.”

Boys tend to be involved in bullying more than girls on the whole, and boys still participate in physical bullying more than girls, she says.

But with relational bullying and cyberbullying, the numbers between the genders are about equal.

7. Cyberbullying is real, but you can fight it.

The threat of cyberbullying goes up as a young person’s access to technology increases. With cyberbullying, the potential for harm is just a tap away and accessible day or night.

Cyberbullying statistics can be troubling, but Dr. Swearer has a plan.

It starts with creating an environment where young people are encouraged to share what’s going on without fear that a parent will take away their phone. Next, try to open communication about what apps your kids are using. Educate yourself on the benefits and risks of those apps, and watch for warning signs.

“It’s important for parents to not be completely clueless about the technology their kids are using,” Dr. Swearer says. “Look for warning signs: is the child being very secretive with their laptop or phone?”

8. Talk to your child about wearing their uniform to school.

Some parents have asked me for advice about a Scout who wants to wear his or her Scout uniform to school. I asked Dr. Swearer for her take.

She began by saying Scouts should be confident in their uniform and proud of their involvement in Scouting. But she acknowledges that some schools have an environment where people are picked on for looking or dressing differently.

“I wouldn’t say don’t wear your uniform, but if the student is going to stand out and be a complete target, it’s important to have the conversation,” she says.

There are two things to consider: the school’s environment and the student’s personality. For the former, consider whether students at the school get picked on for their clothes — perhaps for not wearing the popular brands, for example.

“I put it in a broader context of attire,” Dr. Swearer says. “Certainly freedom of expression is important, and we want kids to be confident and independent, but at the same time, there are certain schools where standing out might make you a target.”

Next, consider the student’s personality. Some kids might say, “I don’t care; make fun of me.” Others might let negative comments get to them.

9. There are more resources available.

“There’s just not a simple, one-shot solution to bullying,” Dr. Swearer says. “It really is about relationships and how you cultivate them.”

There’s no simple solution, but there is a simple reminder to share with everyone, from the youngest Scout to the most seasoned leader. It’s the sixth point of the Scout Law: A Scout is Kind.

BSA resources:

Other resources: