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Reasons behind bullying more complicated than they seem
Most teens have been involved in some sort of bullying while in school

Kathy McNamara says most kids grow out of bullying.
Courtesy of DAVID C. BARNETT
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Bullying has been a hot topic recently, what with news stories about bullied teens, and a much-discussed documentary on the topic. Earlier this week, we examined the widespread perception that bullying is an epidemic. But, what about the bullies themselves? What's behind their behavior? For State Impact Ohio, David C. Barnett reports on the making of a bully.

Barnett on the makings of a bully

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High school freshman Samantha looks a bit embarrassed as she tells how she became a “mean girl”.

"This started when I was in fifth grade. ... I would never hit somebody, like seriously, not fighting-wise, but I was very aggressive.  And I would laugh at jokes people said about you." 

And she says she got “hyped up” and became bolder as part of a crowd that egged her on. 

"You know, by laughing and making extra comments.  It just made you seem cool.  And back then, it was important to me."

A hormonal urge to be cool
Kathy McNamara saw that pattern repeat many times over the 15 years she spent as a psychologist in schools across Northeast Ohio.

"Most kids will tell you that they have been involved in some form of bullying at some point in their school careers. It’s kind of a normative behavior. ... That doesn’t make it OK, but not unusual for kids to try it."

Currently the chair of Cleveland State University’s psychology department, McNamara has focused much of her professional research on adolescent behavior.  She says, for some, bullying is than a hormonally driven urge to be cool.

Victims pick victims
A former Clevelander, who asks to be called “Bill," says his craving for social acceptance became an addiction. As a chubby, acne-scarred kid in elementary school, he suffered his share of bullying until he decided to make someone else the victim. 

"I found the kid who was lowest on the food chain, the easiest person to pick on.  The one that’s not going to say anything back.  The one that’s not going to defend himself.  It’s empowering.  It’s like getting high."

A high that, for Bill, was balanced by bouts of severe depression and drinking. The 21-year-old has relocated to Texas where he has been through rehab.

Media hype may be hurting
Kathy McNamara worries that all of the recent media focus on a generic thing called “bullying” muddies the waters when it comes to dealing with the more extreme forms of threatening behavior.

"You hear about a school shooting, for example, and the assumption is made right away that this person must have been victimized by bullies. As if 'bullying' is just one thing -- sort of a mean, evil presence in a school building who is preying on victims. It’s not always like that."

Out of physical sight 
The latest twist on bullying doesn’t happen face-to-face. A local freshman named Matthew says he was livid when he heard another kid had been saying things about him behind his back, so he retaliated via the Internet.

"It wasn’t so smart, but I went on Twitter and Facebook and said mean things about him and spread rumors. But I found out it just caused even more drama."

"I think what cyber-bullying does is that it gives kids the opportunity to engage in bullying behavior to a much broader audience, in a way that you are not easily caught. You don’t see the pain, you don’t see the upset, you don’t see the tears. It becomes sort of a mob kind of mentality where, since you’re not there and don’t see the consequences, it makes it much easier to keep it up and, in fact, make it worse.

Most grow out of it
Kathy McNamara thinks broad-based punitive measures such as detentions and suspensions aren’t an effective way to deal with bullying behavior in schools.

"Zero tolerance policies, I don’t believe work for almost anything. They’re very popular in schools -- kind of the law and order approach -- but I don’t think it’s particularly effective.  I think what works better for bullying is to create an atmosphere in the school in which bullying is not something that we’re OK with." 

She says, most students, like Samantha, tend to lose the urge to be a bully by the time they hit high school.

"It’s just not cool anymore. There’s no reason to be mean to anybody, especially if they didn’t do anything to you. There’s just no reason."

For WKSU's 2011 series on bullying, go to: 

Related WKSU Stories

Is bullying actually on the slide?
Tuesday, June 12, 2012

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