Sticks, stones and words can hurt

9:30:15 AM CDT - Thursday, March 11, 2004

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

JPEG Image (150x158)
WSU child psychologist
Jim Snyder conducted a
multiyear study observing
behavior on a school
playground and found
that children, on average,
were targets of either
physical or verbal bullying
about once every three
to six minutes.
Not all that goes on at school playgrounds is fun and games.

In one corner, there's a group taunting a child, saying she has cooties. In another, one boy has just shoved another.

Such verbal and physical harassment happens more frequently than you might think. On some playgrounds it can happen as often as once every five minutes, according to WSU child psychologist Jim Snyder.

In a study published in the journal Child Development, Snyder reported that in observations of 266 boys and girls ages 5 to 7 at a Wichita school playground, there were multiple occasions of bullying by their peers.

"On average, children were targets of physical and verbal harassment about once every three to six minutes," he says.

As the children move on from kindergarten, the rates do decrease, as kids figure out how to deal with the harassment "in some more effective way," but some become "chronic victims," Snyder says.

"That harassment gets more focused on fewer and fewer kids," he says. "It's like acquiring over time a status of being a victim." 

The effects of being constantly victimized are not just seen at school. Parents interviewed in the study reported that their kids showed more antisocial or aggressive behavior or increases in sadness and social withdrawal at home, too.
Bullying has become such a widespread problem that it's now viewed as a public health concern by such agencies as the National Institutes of Health. Three years ago, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a NIH agency, released a nationwide bullying study, led by Tonja Nansel, who earned her doctorate in community and clinical psychology from WSU.

Snyder's study was also funded by an NIH agency. He received a $2.5 million multiyear grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Schools are implementing intervention programs at different levels because bullying has been shown to affect school attendance and academic performance.
In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, one of the most lethal cases of school violence, even state legislatures have tried to enact anti-bullying laws.

Many adults can recall incidents of bullying while growing up, so why suddenly all the attention?

"What's changed is that in some ways the Columbines and other things have shown it's become potentially more lethal," Snyder says. "The other thing is that just because bullying or harassment happened with I was 7 in 1952 (doesn't) mean it was OK then. What we've recognized is that this seemingly innocuous occurrence of bullying and victimization has some negative developmental influences. It puts kids at risk."

According to an NIH release, people who are bullied as kids are more likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem, well into adulthood. And the bullies are more likely to engage in criminal behavior later in life.

While Snyder's study focused on the very young, bullying persists long into a youngster's school years. In a study released last year by the National Crime Prevention Council, six out of 10 American teenagers reported witnessing bullying in school once a day or more frequently. Teens surveyed said they view bullying, not a terrorist attack, as their biggest threat.

To curb bullying, Snyder suggests that interventions be done early in a child's school career, even in kindergarten. Interventions at a young age tend to be more effective, says Snyder. 

Some can be as simple as a program called the Good Behavior Game, he says. Snyder's colleagues for this study from the Oregon Social Learning Center have conducted studies using this simple program.

"It has its most powerful impact on the strongest bullies," Snyder says, about the findings of that study. For the "game," kids are split into groups and are systematically rewarded or acknowledged for cooperative behavior.

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