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1.A Real Cure for Bullying

By William C. Duncan and Bryce Christensen

Teenagers bullying other teenagers – a problem that is troubling and widespread – has received a good deal of attention in the media and in public policy forums in the last few years. In a typical article on the topic in The Salt Lake Tribune, readers learned that the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is demanding that “schools have an anti-bullying program and a relationship with local law enforcement.” Local officials – including State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff – have echoed such sentiments, particularly urging support for school programs to combat teen cyber-bullying.1

Utahns aware of the psychological and social trauma that bullying causes will certainly want to join in the fight against it. But before the state goes too far in placing yet another social burden on a school system already struggling to carry out its academic responsibilities, perhaps we should attend to important new research suggesting a quite different approach. Published in the scholarly journal European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, this new study – based on data from almost 2,500 Norwegian adolescents – found, perhaps surprisingly, that adolescents victimized by bullying actually share with the bullies a number of psychological problems: “Both bullied adolescents and adolescents who were aggressive toward others showed lower global self-worth, higher levels of depressive symptoms, and more broad-spectrum psychological problems than noninvolved adolescents. These findings are consistent with earlier reports.” The Norwegian scholars responsible for the new study plausibly speculate that “low self-worth, frequently reported by depressed students, might both be a cause and a result of being bullied or being aggressive.”

But the authors of the new study found that those who were the victims of bullying shared more than psychological problems with those doing the bullying: the two groups also share an unfavorable family background: “More of the students being bullied and students being aggressive toward others,” write the researchers, “reported parental divorce than did noninvolved students” (p < 0.01 for both comparisons). Knowledgeable Utahns may readily imagine how the psychological distress of experiencing a parental divorce might leave adolescents emotionally vulnerable, and therefore “easy targets” for the bullies among their peers. But the Norwegian researchers suggest that parental divorce incubates bullying by “leav[ing] the adolescents … [with] … less monitoring, often fewer adults to confide in, and sometimes increased aggression because of feelings of loss.”2

Given that parental divorce fosters teen bullying both by making more adolescents vulnerable to bullying and by turning more adolescents toward the aggression of bullying, it would seem that efforts to reduce parental divorce would be at the very top of the policy agenda of those trying to combat teen bullying. The urgency of reducing the incidence of parental divorce will be particularly evident to policymakers who assess the new research on adolescent bullying within the context provided by many studies implicating parental divorce in numerous other problems – including drug use, child abuse, psychological and physical illness, academic failure, poverty, crime and suicide – disproportionately affecting children in broken homes.3 Since researchers have uncovered sobering evidence that the state helped significantly multiply the number of parental divorces when it liberalized the state’s divorce law by enacting no-fault statutes back in 1987,4 those trying to protect teens from bullying would seem to be natural advocates of measures to roll back no-fault divorce and so fortify marriage.

Curiously, the groups most visible in the fight against teen bullying seem indifferent to such measures. Indeed, in their strangely selective compassion for teens exposed to bullying because of homosexual activity (as opposed to teens vulnerable to bullying because of, say, learning disabilities),5 these groups seem much more intent upon giving teens all the liberties opened by the sexual revolution of the ’60s than in protecting teens by reaffirming marriage and family in the 21st century. No doubt the leaders of these groups believe that they are maximizing the freedom and autonomy of teens by seeking ways to protect them from bullying without reinforcing marriage and family.

But the true peril in such an approach to bullying emerges in the profound scholarship of social historian Robert Nisbet. In his insightful book The Quest for Community, Nisbet warned of the malign consequences of political campaigns that would systematically weaken the family – as well as other “intermediate associations,” such as church, neighborhood, civic clubs – reducing society to “an aggregate of atomized particles needing the absolute State for protection and security.” Far from truly liberating the individual, the destruction of the family thus helps create a world in which the individual citizen is “a timid, insecure, and lonely being apart from his membership in the omnipotent, all-benign State.”6

Utahns have very good reason to fight the evil of teen bullying. However, if they approach this problem in ways that ultimately weaken rather than fortify marriage and family, they may unintentionally help create a political world in which everyone must fear the state as the bully with the biggest stick!

Co-author William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

Co-author Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues inSociety, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals. 

ENDNOTES

1. Robert Gehrke, “Utah’s A.G. Wants to Target On-Line Bullies,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 17, 2006. Proquest Newspapers. Web.

2. Anne Mari Undheim and Anne Mari Sund, “Prevalence of Bullying and Aggressive Behavior and Their Relationship to Mental Health Problems among 12- to 15-year-old Norwegian Adolescents,” European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 19.11 (2010): 803-811.

3. Andres G. Gil, William A. Vega and R. Jay Turner, “Early and Mid-Adolescence Risk Factors for Later Substance Abuse by African Americans and European Americans,” Public Health Reports 117. S1 (2002): S15-S28; Phyllis L. Ellickson, Steven C. Martino, and Rebecca L. Collins, “Marijuana Use From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Multiple Developmental Trajectories and Their Associated Outcomes,” Health Psychology 23 (2004): 299-307; Frank W. Putman, “Ten-Year Research Update Review: Child Sexual Abuse,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 42 (2003): 269-278; Jocelyn Brown et al., “A Longitudinal Analysis of Risk Factors for Child Maltreatment: Findings of a 17-Year Prospective Study of Officially Recorded and Self-Reported Child Abuse and Neglect,” Child Abuse and Neglect 22 (1998): 1065-1078; K.A.S. Wickrama et al., “Linking Early Social Risks to Impaired Physical Health during the Transition to Adulthood,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 44 (2003): 61-74; Lisa Laumann- Billings and Robert E. Emery, “Distress Among Young Adults From Divorced Families,”Journal of Family Psychology 14 (2000): 671-687; Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure Transitions and Adolescent Well-Being,” Demography 43 (2006): 447-461; Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15 (1994): 173-190; Carl L. Bankston III and Min Zhou, “Social Capital as Process: The Meanings and Problems of a Theoretical Metaphor,” Sociological Inquiry 72 (2002): 285-317; Cheryl Buehler and Kay Pasley, “Family Boundary Ambiguity, Marital Status, and Child Adjustment,” Journal of Early Adolescence 20 (2000): 281-308; Ross Macmillan and John Hagan, “Violence in the Transition to Adulthood: Adolescent Victimization, Education, and Socioeconomic Attainment in Later Life,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14 (2004): 127-158; Timothy J. Biblarz and Greg Gottainer, “Family Structure and Children’s Success: A Comparison of Widowed and Divorced Single-Mother Families,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (2000): 533-548; Martha N. Ozawa and Yongwoo Lee, “The Net Worth of Female-Headed Households: A Comparison to Other Types of Households,” Family Relations 55 (2006): 132-145; Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke Graefe, and J. Brian Brown, “Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers,” Social Problems 50 (2003): 60-86; American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on the Family, “Family Pediatrics,” Pediatrics 111 Supplement (2003): 1541-1553; Inge VanderValk et al., “Family Structure and Problem Behavior of Adolescents and Young Adults: A Growth-Curve Study,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 34 (2005): 533-546; Jacinta Bronte-Tinkew et al., “The Influence of Father Involvement on Youth Risk Behaviors Among Adolescents: A Comparison of Native-Born and Immigrant Families,” Social Science Research 35 (2006): 181-209; Robert F. Valois et al., “Risk Factors and Behaviors Associated With Adolescent Violence and Aggression,” American Journal of Health Behavior 26 (2002): 454-464; Fred C. Pampei and John B. Williamson, “Age Patterns of Suicide and Homicide Mortality Rates in High-Income Nations,” Social Forces 80 (2001): 251-282; Judith L. Rubenstein et al., “Suicidal Behavior in Adolescents: Stress and Protection in Different Family Contexts,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68 (1998): 274-284.

4. Paul A. Nakonezny, Robert D. Shull and Joseph Lee Rodgers, “The Effect of No-Fault Divorce Legislation on Divorce Rates: A Response to a Reconsideration,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 1026; Douglas W. Allen and Maggie Gallagher, “Does Divorce Law Affect the Divorce Rate?” Institute for Marriage and Public Policy Research Brief No. 1, July 2007.

5. Cf. Neil Katz, “Schools Battle Suicide Surge, Anti-Gay Bullying,” CBS News: Healthwatch,October 11, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20019163-10391704.html.

6. Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (1953; repr., San Francisco: 1990), 139.

 

2.The Media and Your Family

You are invited to our upcoming Utah Women’s Symposium: “The Media and Your Family,” where we will discuss practical tools for safe media management in the home.

Date: Thursday, March 24, 2011

Time: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Location: The Garden Room
at Thanksgiving Point

Cost: $25 ($20 if you register by March 14), which includes lunch and a toolkit

If you have questions, contact Lisa Montgomery at 801-355-1272 orlmontgomery@sutherlandinstitute.org.

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