Are we too quick to cry ‘bully’?


Story highlights

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness about bullying

Some say the term "bullying" has been overused, watering down its meaning

Experts: Bullying is repetitive, intentional and involves a power imbalance

Educators say it can be tough to untangle whether an incident is bullying

Editor’s Note: Have you had an experience with bullying? Share your story on CNN iReport.

CNN —  

In the last few months, the word rippled through news reports of tragic teen suicides in Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia and Britain.

It’s the same word sometimes used to describe the way reality TV stars treat one another on camera, or how unfriendly office mates interact or why grade school pals stop getting along.

Every parent, teacher and child knows the word: “bullying.” But this month, as schools and communities launch fresh campaigns around National Bullying Prevention Month, some are urging more precise use of the B-word.

“Bullying,” some researchers say, has been misused and abused in the last few years – too casually uttered about every hurt, slight and fight, too frequently used in place of “teasing” or “fighting,” too often brought up before there’s proof it happened.

The very word, some say, has been bullied.

“By calling everything bullying, we’re actually failing to recognize the seriousness of the problem,” said Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. “It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of doing an awareness campaign … everyone wants to adopt it.”

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  • It began a few years ago, as horrifying stories of bullying hit the media and serious awareness began to spread. Educators, lawmakers, parents and children all tried to make sense of it, even as it evolved with the latest social network. But along the way, people sometimes confused bullying with the unfortunate – but normal – moments of angry, thoughtless or hurtful behavior.

    Actual bullying, many educators and social scientists say, is intentional, repetitive abuse by a powerful person toward a less powerful target.

    But not everyone defines it the same way: Although most states have bullying laws on the books, according to the Education Commission of the States, it’s handled differently around the country. New Hampshire’s law specifies that an act need occur only once – not multiple times – to be bullying. Nebraska’s law calls on local districts to create bullying policies. Several states recently added provisions to cover cyberbullying – bullying or harassment through technology. Laws in Massachusetts and New Jersey detail how educators should prevent, report and investigate bullying.

    Say the word in almost any school these days, and it will get a quick reaction. In many cases, advocates said, that’s helpful. But sometimes, when it’s not really bullying, kids miss out on a chance to learn to cope with minor conflicts on their own.

    “The label ‘bullying’ is really incendiary,” Englander said. “It ratchets everything up emotionally. It makes it hard to really address, rationally, what the best course of action is.”

    The people hurt most by the overuse of “bullying,” Englander said, are young people most desperate for a solution – those in the midst of very real, traumatic instances of bullying, students whose pain might be overlooked in a crush of reported cases.

    “Being deliberately isolated and laughed at cruelly every single day can be devastating socially and academically, because the target must both endure the present and constantly dread the future,” Englander wrote in the book “Bullying and Cyberbulling,” released this month. “It’s this unrelenting cruelty and the callous nature of such an environment that is watered down when we include every social slight or quarrel under the bullying rubric.”

    “If everyone’s a victim,” she wrote, “then no one’s a victim.”

    Still, some educators and parents worry that even scaling back on the word “bullying” could put a chill on training and conversations about bullying – and quash the newfound courage some have found to stand up against it.

    ’It wasn’t all that simple’

    Even after years of training, it can be hard to untangle the threads of a possible bullying case.