In an era where the tragic consequences of bullying seem to make headlines with increasing regularity, Dr. Bridgette Harper has been studying its effect on youngsters.
“I research how children's emotional development impacts their peer relationships, particularly in the area of peer victimization,” said Harper, an associate professor of psychology at Auburn University at Montgomery. “I mostly focus on the perspective of the victim – why they think it happened to them, coping responses evaluation, and how emotion impacts these choices.”
Bullying has always been an unfortunate component of school culture and Harper believes it is more widespread today but that a growing awareness can impact prevention.
“It used to be kids could go home and leave the bullies behind them, but now they are followed into their homes, their bedrooms, and even to another school due to social media. It’s the new realm of victimization – cyberbullying. Victims often feel there’s no escape and little help.”
Bullying hotlines and advice centers are available, says Harper, and will often counsel victims to avoid the bully and to stay off social media.
“But I argue that can make the victim feel even more isolated because they now have to alter their life while the bully goes on with life as normal,” said Harper. “I’m not saying that’s always bad advice, but I advocate for disrupting the bully’s life schedules over the victims.”
Harper says it’s important for bullied children to confide in an adult and to remember there are laws protecting children from harassment. Earlier this year, a comprehensive anti-bullying law (HB366) passed the Alabama state legislature.
“It’s hard to know exactly what to do because each situation is different and sometimes we don’t want to make a fuss and hold the school accountable. But do it – make a fuss! Your child is worth it. Talk to your school’s officials because most times they are very supportive.”
Harper says her research has been revealing.
“One significant outcome of my work resulted in learning that parents and children are not always on the same page about why peer victimization happens and what to do when it does.”
In an upcoming article co-authored with Michelle Wright, her former graduate student, Harper’s research suggests students with higher levels of empathy are not necessarily faring better psychosocially within the context of peer victimization because they may not fully understand how to help victims.
Harper says bullying can also be viewed as a subset of a wider cultural problem today – a lack of tolerance and consideration for others who may look or act different or are just expressing an opinion.
“I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction or discontentment today and people are looking for someone to blame,” says Harper. “We’ve got to focus on developing empathy in our children and, unfortunately, adults now as well.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).