How social bullying works & what victims can do about it

TORONTO – Police in London, Ont. charged eight Grade 10 girls with criminal harassment on Friday, nine days after 15-year-old B.C. native Amanda Todd committed suicide after enduring years of in-person and cyber bullying.

Global News asked psychology experts Dr. Faye Mishna and Dr. Neil Gottheil how the group dynamic factors into bullying situations for teens.

Mishna is dean and professor at the Factor Inwentash faculty of social work at the University of Toronto, and is also cross-appointed to the department of psychiatry. She says that most bullying in all age groups happens in groups, and in any group there is a dynamic, with different people assuming different roles. Mishna says there are perpetrators, targets and bystander roles, with one or two people usually starting the bullying, and then others joining in.

“It might have been one or two who egged the others on,” she says in relation to the London, Ont. bullying case. “It doesn’t just happen that all of a sudden eight kids bully. A group of eight and one kid, that’s a really powerful imbalance. That kid’s really in trouble.”

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Why other teens join in

“Some may feel like they get their power from humiliating others… some might be kids who have never felt like part of a group,” added Mishna. “Others might just feel less vulnerable because now they’re protected [by the group].”

Gottheil, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s inpatient mental health program is also a private practitioner who has worked extensively treating kids who have been bullied. He says that group bullying is called social or “relational” bullying: when you have a ringleader that organizes a number of kids to socially ostracize, reject, harass or spread malicious gossip.

He says that one factor that keeps kids in a social group of bullying is the fear that if you don’t go along with the ringleader, you may be the next target. Social bullying typically starts with a ringleader who says, “I don’t like this person,” and then sometimes starts “grooming the group,” he says.

“If I can communicate to my friends and convince them that this is a bad person, maybe they’ll join me in teasing and harassing them,” is how Gottheil describes the ringleader’s thought process when grooming.

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Power play

He adds that there is an element of entertainment for bullies: for example when a kid yells “Fight!” on the playground and everyone comes running to watch. One part of social bullying might be that kids find it fun to have other participants so they can “sit around afterwards and enjoy what they’ve accomplished.”

“The sad part of it is that, of course, it’s coming at the expense of another child,” said Gottheil.

There’s also what he calls a “diffusion of responsibility” in a group that could be a factor as to why group bullying may be easier to carry out. And then there’s the power kick.

Gottheil says the ringleader gets to feel powerful in two ways: harassing another person and being able to manipulate an entire group of kids to bully someone. The other bullies in the group may also feel somewhat powerful in harassing someone else, or they may also genuinely dislike the target.

“So they may come to their own agreement about how to mete out justice,” Gottheil hypothesizes.

With the power imbalance skewed so strongly in favour of the bullying group, how can a victim make it stop?

Next steps for the victim

One possibility is what Gottheil calls “divide and conquer.” If a bullied kid feels that they have a chance to make a friendship with one of the bullies outside of the group, that could lead to the bully going back into the group and acting as a voice of reason, and potentially eventually changing the group’s mind.

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If that’s not possible, Gottheil says a strategy suggested for most forms of bullying is to “broaden your social network.” He says if you’re alone on the social stage, you’re an easy target, but if you can form your own group (potentially with others who are similarly socially ostracized) then you can support each other.

Another treatment option is to work on the “presentation style” of the target. Since bullies want to feel dominant, they look for pain cues in their victims to know that they’ve been successful.

“We work on things like nonverbal skills, body posture, eye contact, tone of voice,” said Gottheil. “Because when you’re teased, if you give a powerful reaction, then that’s like candy to the kids bullying you.”

Gottheil says to solidify these skills, the bullied kid can get together with a parent, trusted peer or cousin to do role-playing of some teasing (in a reasonable, non-traumatic way).

“Usually there are actually tons of giggles coming from both sides because it feels goofy for someone who you know loves you dearly, you know they’re not doing it for real,” he said. “It allows them to practice things that otherwise would be very difficult to approach.”

Both Gottheil and Mishna emphasize that it’s important to open lines of communication between adults and kids.

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“Kids say they don’t want to squeal, so we need to make it clear that squealing or tattling is trying to get someone in trouble, but reporting bullying is trying to help somebody who is hurt,” says Mishna. “They need the conversation ahead of time… an adult that they can go to.”

“It really becomes important to have the opportunity to talk with someone about all the emotions that it’s raised: they’ll feel sad, angry, embarrassed, ashamed, frightened, all of those sorts of things,” said Gottheil.

“Because no one likes to feel victimized.”

Dr. Faye Mishna is dean and professor at the Factor Inwentash faculty of social work at the University of Toronto, and is also cross-appointed to the department of psychiatry. She holds the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Chair in Child and Family. Mishna’s research has focused on bullying; cyber abuse/cyber bullying and cyber counseling.

Dr. Neil Gottheil is a clinical psychologist at CHEO’s inpatient mental health program, who works with kids that have been struggling with severe mental health issues. Gottheil is also a private practitioner who has worked extensively treating kids who have been bullied.