Previously, I brought attention to the perplexing fact that the passing of Professor Dan Olweus, possibly the most influential of psychologists, did not receive recognition in the news media. As his leading (and almost only) critic, I find myself in the odd position of being the one trying to bring awareness to the society that enthusiastically embraced his teachings.
Here I examine the true legacy of almost half-a-century of Olweus’ professional influence. Are we any better off for it? Or perhaps even worse?
Olweus’ pioneering work on bullying has inspired thousands of research studies. Yet that research continues finding that anti-bullying programs fail to help the overwhelming majority of bullied children.
He gained prominence in the 1980s with a research study showing a respectable reduction in bullying of 50%, after two years of correct implementation of his program, in a large number of Scandinavian schools. However, such positive results for his program have rarely been replicated.
In the most massive study ever conducted on his program, the reduction in the number of victims of bullying was about 12%, meaning that only about 1 out of every 8 victims had their problem solved. Furthermore, the research reports neglect to inform us what percentage of children had their bullying problem intensified. Thus, the bullying epidemic continues, with bullying-related suicides occurring with tragic frequency.
Ineffectiveness of anti-bullying laws
Olweus insisted that children have “a fundamental democratic right… to feel safe in school and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation involved in bullying.” The fields of academic psychology and education championed this right, leading to legislation holding schools responsible for guaranteeing it.
The problem is, no-one has figured out how to fulfill such a guarantee. Yet the anti-bullying community has foisted responsibility for it on our schools and made sure the public knows about it. There is an annual Bullying Prevention Awareness Month (in full swing as I am writing) in which anti-bullying organisations, with the eager assistance of the media, spread awareness of the need to implement anti-bullying efforts and policies.
However, some of these recommended efforts and policies are of questionable benefit. Not surprisingly, state legislatures periodically find themselves needing to update their anti-bullying laws because they haven’t fixed the problem.
Increased tension within the school community
As a result of anti-bullying expectations, tensions within school communities have elevated. Parents, who may have no idea how to stop their own couple of children from tormenting each other at home, demand from the school that it make all children stop doing it. Fearing lawsuits, the school follows anti-bullying mandates to investigate, conduct hearings, and administer consequences to, and/or rehabilitate, offenders.
Not wanting to be found guilty, each child insists they are innocent and the other is guilty, so hostilities among them intensify. The informers may become objects of scorn among their peers. Schools are required to involve the parents, who also enter the fray, sometimes leading to feuds between families. If the school fails to make all parties happy, the dissatisfied ones blame the school and may even file a lawsuit against it. The school tries to defend itself and might lay blame on the parents in return, and hostilities shoot through the roof.
Matters get even worse when parents decide to sue the school over its failure to stop their child from being bullied. Bullying lawsuits have become increasingly common. While they may benefit lawyers, who now have a new source of income, they wreak havoc within the schools being sued.
An excellent source of information on the problems caused to the school community by the war against bullying is the 2013 book by psychologist Susan Eva Porter, Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone.
There is an economic cost — mostly hidden — to the taxpayer from the campaign against bullying. Now the school staff is required to spend substantial amounts of time teaching about bullying, paying extra attention to the way children treat each other, and conducting investigations and hearings. Each complaint can demand several hours of staff time, and time costs money.
Some schools even add “bullying coordinators” to their payroll specifically to deal with bullying. Because schools are held responsible specifically for the aggression that falls into the category of bullying, much of their effort may go into trying to determine that the reported aggression did not meet the criteria for bullying. This doesn’t solve anything, but it may get the school off the hook.
Considering that there are about 130,000 schools in the US; that an average school probably spends thousands of dollars per school per year on bullying and that overall these efforts are failing and even making matters worse, the money wasted amounts to many billions of dollars annually.
Witch hunt mentality
The anti-bullying movement spawned by Olweus has led to the most popular witch hunt in history. Having been taught how terribly devastating bullying is, how incredibly prevalent it is, and that bullies have no place in society, people suspect and accuse each other of being bullies. Even preschoolers are fair game for suspicion, as evidenced by articles like, Signs your toddler may be becoming a bully — and what to do about it.
Our most respected newspapers call the President “Bully-in-Chief,” something that would have been highly unlikely absent Olweus bestowing scientific legitimacy on the term. Celebrities have had their livelihoods jeopardised by accusations of bullying (Ellen DeGeneres is a recent example). Rather than making the effort to formulate substantive arguments for their sides, competing politicians and even nations may try to score a knock-out by labeling the other a bully.
Risks for mental health
Last but not least, we need to consider what antibullyism has done to our mental health. It is a given that mental health requires taking personal responsibility for our feelings and problems.
Why take personal responsibility for our role in our ongoing relationship difficulties when we’re being taught that people who regularly treat us badly are bullies, and that bullies are totally responsible for the situation? Why work to make matters better when it is so much easier to inform the authorities?
How do we develop emotional resilience when we are taught that the sticks and stones slogan is a lie — that being insulted is even more destructive than having our bones broken?
What happens to our self-confidence and self-esteem when we buy into the idea that we are powerless to handle our bullies on our own and need the help of everyone around us? How do we cope when there is no hoped-for bystander around to save us?
And how do we avoid fatal despair when we discover that the promises we have been given about the authorities’ ability to solve our bullying problems is a lie, and that the bullying gets worse the more often we inform?
Delaying discovery of better approach
Ultimately, we would all like to see an effective solution to the bullying problem. It is self-evident that the best way to put a stop to bullying is for victims to learn how to do it on their own. Then they don’t need to rely on others. Their self-concept improves because they feel competent. They earn the respect of their peers and are spared the informer reputation. And they are better prepared to handle hostility when they inevitably encounter it in the future.
While Olweus created a comprehensive approach that requires the involvement of the entire community, the victim, who may be in the best position to solve the problem, is the only person he absolved from duty — other than to tell, of course. This is now a fundamental tenet of antibullyism. Anyone who suggests that victims should learn to deal with their bullies risks getting accused of the modern taboo of “blaming the victim.” So how will the leading bullying researchers, for whom we rely on for the answers on bullying, ever discover the potential of victim-centred approaches?
No one lives forever. Ideas, though, can, including bad ones. The most dangerous bad ideas are the ones that seem to be good. Few ideas sound better to us than the right to a life without fear of bullies. That’s why antibullyism remains so phenomenally popular despite its failure. After decades of its dominance, perhaps it is time to lay the Olweus approach to bullying to rest as well.
We can credit Olweus for starting a movement to make the world a more peaceful place. We can appreciate his body of research findings elucidating aspects of aggression and those involved in it. But as can be demonstrated, our profession has long possessed solutions to bullying. We just haven’t realised it, because we didn’t use the term “bullying” to describe the phenomena we were dealing with. We can work to fulfill Olweus’ dream, though it may require a change of perspective.