Bullying in College — Awareness, Outreach, and Prevention

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For most people, it’s easy to imagine bullying taking place on a playground, in a school cafeteria, or in a locker room. The common assumption is that bullying is limited to the scope of grade school. The reality is that bullying is also common in college and even the workplace. However, adult bullying is an often-overlooked issue, one that doesn’t generate the same level of awareness or outreach as grade-school bullying.

Bullying at any level is harmful. For children and young adults alike, bullying is a violation of the safety and dignity to which we are are all entitled, especially in shared spaces like school and work. As more and more young adults prepare to go to college, and as new forms of bullying  — particularly cyberbullying  — become more rampant and invasive, it is imperative that we work together as classmates and communities to confront, prevent, and diminish the impact of this student health issue.

 Does bullying happen in college?

Bullying comes in many forms, but in the interests of establishing a general definition that identifies fundamental aspects of bullying, StopBullying.Gov offers a strong, legal definition:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.

Though this definition accurately sums up the underlying rules of bullying, it does limit the scope to the context of grade school. It’s important to recognize that bullying is not limited to the schoolyard, but can be found in any context where one person can exploit a power imbalance over another in a patterned way. These imbalanced power dynamics can persist beyond grade school and into college, the workplace, and in numerous other settings in adult life. In fact, a 2013 study entitled Bullying Victimization Among College Students: Negative Consequences for Alcohol Use, by Kathleen Rospenda, Judith Richman, Jennifer Wolff, and Larisa Burke indicates that among a survey population of 2118 college freshman, 43% experienced bullying at school, and 33% at work.

In her Myth Busting: Bullying on College Campuses, Hillary Morin argues that we tend to retain our “bully” and “victim” identities from grade school to college and beyond. Bullying can occur anywhere, and its occurrence can have short- and long-term effects on its victims, bystanders, and even the bullies themselves. To this extent, bullying is best understood as a student health issue — and a larger public health issue — that endangers the well-being of individuals, and can have a larger negative impact on the culture of a student body, place of employment, or community.

Bullying can be identified in three broad categories:

  • Physical — This is typically the “go-to” image of bullying in most people’s minds. It can involve physical violence, such as punching, kicking, or restraint, as well as property destruction and theft, forced consumption of alcohol or drugs, and sexual assault.
  • Verbal — Beyond name-calling and teasing, verbal bullying can involve such actions as taunting, intimidation, and threats.
  • Social/Relational — This form of bullying involves harming victims through relationships and reputation. This can include purposeful exclusion, spreading rumors, revealing secrets and fears, and public mocking.

Among those categories are countless variations of bullying activities, and many victims experience some combination of these categories.

In recent years, due to the widespread use and influence of social media, as well as advancements in technology such as smartphones, cyberbullying has become a major issue. Though it can lead to physical violence, cyberbullying typically combines aspects of verbal and social bullying to harm its victims, often by spreading sensitive information or images about victims online, cyber stalking, patterned harassment, threats of harm, exploitation, humiliation, and “doxing,” the last of which occurs when a bully publicly posts a victim’s personal contact information online to encourage harassment. Revenge porn, a particularly extreme form of cyberbullying, more often committed by men against women, involves distributing sexually explicit materials pertaining to the victim online. This may include private images, videos, and text messages.

Though it can be easy to overlook the significance of cyberbullying, its consequences are just as real as those of bullying in the real world. In a high-profile 2010 cyberbullying incident, Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi secretly recorded and publicly posted a video of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, kissing another man in his dorm. Shortly after Clementi reported the incident to a resident assistant and school officials, he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. These tragic events reinforced just how real the implications of cyberbullying can be.

The Clementi case is also revealing of how bullying can change and intensify in a college setting. For the majority of students, college is a time of newfound freedom and newfound responsibility. Many students are living on their own and supporting themselves for the first time.

But the college campus can also be confining, particularly for students attending college away from home. When bullying does occur, campus or near-campus residency can make it difficult to retreat. This difficulty may be compounded by feelings of loneliness, especially in the absence of your familiar support systems back home.

Another factor that can magnify these feelings of confinement and isolation is the proximity of one’s bully. In a roommate relationship with a bully-victim dynamic, the victim may feel as if there is simply no escape.

LGBTQ students may also face a heightened threat of bullying. While college is a time to explore and find one’s self, it can also mean the loss of family or home support systems and immersion in a new and unfamiliar culture. The level of inclusion and acceptance will vary significantly from one community to another.

Bullying can occur among clubs and organizations, too. While these groups should, in theory, help provide support and bring students together, in practice they can lend to power imbalances and abuse, exclusion and shame, coercion and manipulation, and humiliation. Among fraternities and sororities in particular, bullying inside a group, bullying between members and non-members, and bullying between groups are all ongoing issues. Hazing, a practice related to bullying (and illegal in most states) is commonly associated with Greek organizations (though not limited to them).

 What is the impact of bullying?

However bullying is manifested, it has serious short-term and long-term effects on victims, as well as bullies and bystanders. Bullying puts all parties at risk for mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This can lead to pain and fear in the moment, but also more severe, life-affecting complications over time, especially if not recognized and treated appropriately.

People being bullied may experience a decline in their physical health, as a result of physical violence or due to the effects of chronic anxiety. All parties are also at risk for a decline in academic and professional achievement, and may be more vulnerable to failing, dropping out of school, or getting fired from jobs. Bullies are more likely to engage in risky, abusive, and even criminal behavior.

Moreover, among both adolescents and college students, bullying is associated with an increased risk of use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. In many cases, chemical abuse is part of the coping strategy for living with the emotional and psychological effects of bullying. It is no secret that many college students engage in binge drinking, and that some students flunk out of college or develop alcoholism because of these practices. Sometimes this is due to exploration, but sometimes it is fallout from bullying. The above-mentioned study by Rospenda et al. found that among bullied college students, “Bullying at school and work each were consistently associated with higher levels of alcohol consumption, intoxication, binge drinking, and problems with relationships and fulfilling work or school responsibilities.” The study concludes that bullying among college students is a public health issue that has been overlooked for too long. We concur.

 How do we deal with bullying?

Just as there are many forms of bullying, there are also many ways to address it through prevention and support:

Reach out — If you are being bullied, reach out. Whether you turn to your parents, your friends, a professor, or an authority figure or mentor, there are people who care about you and who want to help. You don’t need to suffer, and you don’t need to go it alone. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Remember, there are plenty of campus resources in place to help you, including counseling services, security services, LGBTQ groups, religious and cultural organizations, and other student organizations.

Know the signs and be supportive — As a friend, a parent, a professor, or an authority figure, it is important to pay attention to those who may look to you for support, and to be able to recognize warning signs that they may be experiencing bullying. Try not to be pushy, but open up and listen to those you are concerned about; let them know that you care about them, that what is happening is not their fault, and that you are there to help. Look for these warning signs. Though the list is geared toward bullying among schoolchildren, the effects in adults are not dissimilar.

Get away from toxic situations — If you have the ability to remove yourself from a toxic situation, do so. It might seem uncool or embarrassing, but it’s best to avoid harm whenever possible. If something is making you uncomfortable, you have every right to get away from it. Bullies often rely on peer pressure; resist it as best you can.

Keep notes and records — If you are being bullied, or encounter bullying, record as much as you can so as to have evidence for any claims you may make. If you can safely make a video or audio recording, do so. If there are witnesses, talk with them to discuss what they saw or heard. If you experience cyberbullying, take screenshots, and save emails and texts. Keep notes in a journal, and as best you can, record the details, date, setting, perpetrator(s), and any other other pertinent information regarding what has happened.

Know your rights — You have rights as a student on campus, just like everyone else. It is important to know these rights and understand how you are protected. Campus policies, as well as state and federal law, define these rights. In particular, familiarize yourself with Title IX and the Clery Act, which offer protections against sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault. These regulations also impose legal obligations upon your college to act on claims relating to these behaviors. Consult your campus Title IX coordinator for more details.

Report behavior — While anti-bullying laws only apply to K-12 settings, that does not mean that there aren’t laws and polices protecting you. Colleges have codes of conduct and policies that govern behavior between individuals, as well as groups and organizations. Turn to your office of student housing, your academic school, the head of your student organization, or a variety of other campus resources to report bullying behavior. Many bullying behaviors that you encounter can take the form of criminal offenses. Offenses such as physical assault, threats, stalking, invasion of privacy, and damage of property are unlawful and should be reported to the police.

Lead an anti-bullying campaign — If you want to see a change, sometimes you need to make it happen yourself. Many advocacy organizations (see our links below) offer resources for educating others in recognizing and preventing bullying, as do multiple organizations on your campus. Talk to campus organizations, such as the student resources center, the LGBTQ center, or the interfaith center on how you can form an effective anti-bullying campaign.

Don’t be a bystander — A major factor in the persistence of bullying is complicity from bystanders. If you see someone being bullied, intervene in a way that is safe and non-escalating. If you can talk things down, do so. If you need to contact an authority figure such as campus security to handle the situation, do so. Under no circumstance should you join in, lest you risk becoming a bully yourself.

Don’t be a bully — This advice is not as straightforward as it sounds. Sometimes it’s not that simple or obvious. People who are bullies are often so because of ingrained, learned behavior, because they were taught (directly or inadvertently) through experience and upbringing. For some, it may be a coping mechanism for anxieties and trauma. In fact, being a bully is often painful for bullies themselves. If you recognize your own behavior as bullying, or if you are have read this article and are concerned about how your actions may affect others, we want to remind you that you do have the power to control your actions and the ability to change. If you recognize you have prejudices against others, try talking to them openly, calmly, and honestly, and most important: listen to them. If you struggle, seek help through counseling, support groups, or other resources available on or off campus.

 Anti-Bullying Resources

Bullying is a problem for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Fortunately, there are numerous resources and advocacy groups available that can help:

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and is at risk of harming themselves or others, reaching out and talking to someone can make a major difference. Call the National Suicide and Crisis Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

  • American Federation of Teachers—The AFT offers resources for students, parents, and educators to help spread awareness and prevent bullying in schools.
  • Character.org—Run by the advocacy group Character Education Partnership, Character.org provides tools and resources for fostering educational environments that encourage moral, ethical, and caring development of children. In particular, the site lays out six approaches to initiate change and stop bullying.
  • National Association of School Psychologists—A professional organization composed of school psychologists around the US and in other countries, NASP offers numerous resources committed to recognizing and preventing bullying.
  • National Bullying Prevention Center—Operated by PACER, the National Bullying Prevention Center is dedicated to ending childhood bullying and advocating for the rights of children to lead safe, healthy lives. It offers numerous educational resources and spearheads various anti-bullying campaigns.
  • StopBullying.gov—Managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services, StopBullying.gov works to spread awareness and resources for parents, teachers, and students about recognizing and preventing bullying.
  • Tyler Clementi Foundation—Founded by the family of Tyler Clementi after his bullying-related suicide, the foundation spreads awareness and provides resources to combat bullying, especially among vulnerable populations, such as LGBTQ youth.

 Ensuring Campus Safety

While bullying cannot be entirely stopped overnight, it is important to take steps toward overcoming the problem by spreading awareness, seeking a better understanding of the issue, and fostering safer and more inclusive learning and working spaces.

That said, bullying is just one of many student health issues with real-world, and even lifelong, implications for college students. Check out our article Student Health in Focus to learn about other key health issues impacting life on-campus and in online college.

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