Over the past several years, and especially in the past six months, schools nationwide have moved to fight bullying in their hallways and classrooms. Study after study shows that being victimized by a bully can be psychologically devastating. Bullying victims can develop long term anxiety, depression, low self esteem, and social avoidance that escalate during adolescence and become lifelong struggles in adulthood. Therapy and counseling are important interventions, but it’s important that they be implemented early; the longer bullying goes on unreported, the less likely this is to happen. Bullying perpetrators are also likely to struggle emotionally, and are equally at risk for substance abuse and depression as their victims.
The best school-based anti-bullying campaigns address multiple aspects of the bullying dynamic: they emphasize prevention by promoting positive and supportive social interactions; they encourage peer reporting of inappropriate behavior; they provide comprehensive support for bullying victims; and they follow through on both punitive measures and counseling for bullying perpetrators. Already, some programs that seek to nip malicious behavior in the bud have been successful, but according to research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, there is one major deterrent to school-based anti-bullying campaigns’ success: they call it the “empathy gap.”
According to the Kellogg School’s study, even with the facts about bullying, depression, and therapy in front of them, people don’t appreciate the painfulness of bullying if they haven’t experienced social suffering on a personal level. This gap in empathy impacts how teachers and administrators respond to “socially distressing events,” which impacts the support and punishment given to victims and perpetrators, respectively. Despite teachers’ best intentions, if they can’t relate to their students’ experiences they are less effective at meeting students’ needs. Solid programming alone won’t prevent and address bullying if the human factor prevents those programs from being effectively implemented. The good news is that fostering empathy is not as difficult as one might imagine. In the study, even being left out while playing a computerized game can increase a teacher’s sensitivity to social exclusion.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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