Recognising and dealing with bullying on college campuses

It’s not realistic to expect all contempt to instantly vanish when you respond, but it will certainly persist if you don’t respond, writes Elizabeth K. Englander

Elizabeth K. Englander's avatar
Bridgewater State University
12 Jun 2024
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Is bullying an issue on college campuses? It’s a legitimate question. Students in higher education are adults, after all, and adults are assumed to have more resources to protect themselves, compared with children. But as a society, we’ve become increasingly aware that power differentials exist even among adults – perhaps especially among adults; and these power differentials can be exploited to abuse others, at times. Here’s how to identify and address bullying on campus.

How can we define bullying?

First, know what to look for. Identifying bullying is simple theoretically, but it’s difficult in real life. You may already have run across one or another of the classic definitions of bullying, most of which refer to three characteristics that are generally agreed upon as present in bullying cases: a power imbalance (the bully has more power), repeated occurrences and intentionality. Bullying isn’t accidental or a one-time action, and the bully feels able to act with impunity. 

These seem straightforward, but there’s a limit to the usefulness of this abstract approach. The bullying behaviours most seen today are not likely to easily indicate intention, repetition or a power imbalance. Perhaps you witness a student being mocked by other students. You see the cruel behaviour, alright. But what is the intention? Some might find the behaviour harmless if the target is unaware or seems not to care. Repetition is easy if you see bullying repeatedly, but if you see it once, how do you know whether it’s the first time or the hundred-and-first time? On a university campus, with perhaps thousands of students, how could you possibly know if there’s a power imbalance between the students?

My point is that looking for these characteristics can be an exercise in frustration. In 2024, bullying is most often expressed as a form of psychological or social cruelty. The difficulty is that many adults may miss what’s happening right in front of them, dismissing it, despite the best of intentions, as something much less serious. When the overt behaviour lacks drama, it’s understandable to assume it has little impact. Adults may fail to realise that contemporary bullies tend to perfect understated methods for demonstrating dominance and contempt for their target. Today, bullies can still reliably put targets in their place by using such subtle behaviours as whispering about them right in front of them, snickering as they walk by, or rolling their eyes when they voice an opinion in class. These rude, socially malicious behaviours (called gateway behaviours) are not always indicators of bullying; mocking someone can be done when you’re just mad at them, or only once, obviously. Gateway behaviours only indicate bullying when they’re intentionally and repetitively targeted at a less powerful peer. 

Does this mean most social cruelty on campuses is insignificant?

Psychological forms of contempt aren’t necessarily minor or harmless. The pattern of a cruel behaviour may count for more than whether it’s psychological in nature. In a study I conducted of college freshmen in 2012, being targeted frequently was, in fact, the factor most strongly associated with being particularly vulnerable to bullying. Anecdotally, not a few teens have told me that they’d rather just be hit. “At least that way you get it over with,” one teenage boy pointed out to me, “but this just goes on and on. It never stops and no one notices it and you have to feel like crap every single day.” 

All freshman subjects in the 2012 study were asked what type of bullying they felt was the most serious. It’s interesting that subjects who had never been victims rated physical and psychological bullying as having a similar impact (or physical bullying as more serious) but subjects who had been targets rated psychological bullying as far more severe. Similarly, to the adult eye, gateway behaviours may appear mild and even insignificant, but they’re clearly quite significant when continuously aimed at a much less socially powerful peer. 

How do I tell if something is bullying, and what should I do?

Imagine a situation where students in your class laugh or mock someone who expresses an opinion. Even though you may not be able to definitively label this situation bullying, teasing or just being mean, the good news is that you can still respond effectively. The solution is to focus on what you can see (the behaviour) instead of what you can’t see (the internal motives and feelings). When the outward behaviours that you notice are breaking a university rule (for example, a student uses a racial or ethnic slur against another student in your class), formal protocols can and should guide your reaction. So far, so good. 

Gateway behaviours can be trickier precisely because they don’t always break formal rules. In those cases, the student is obeying the letter of the law but is still behaving in a socially inappropriate way, and it’s the inappropriateness of that behaviour that calls for a brief but effective response. Consider: it’s fine (even nice) for kids to laugh along with peers, but it’s socially inappropriate to laugh pointedly at someone. My argument here is that because of the strong connection between social behaviours and social climates, socially cruel behaviours absolutely require a response, regardless of intent. Yet it’s still true that exclusion and eye rolls, by themselves, are small transgressions. So even if they’re sometimes used to bully, why focus on them? 

The best analogy I can think of is littering. Imagine that you’re sitting on a beautiful beach, enjoying the sun, the waves, and the white sand. Now imagine that that beach is covered with litter. Even though the positive elements are still present (waves, sun, sand) you wouldn’t be able to enjoy them anymore; instead, you would be entirely focused on avoiding touching the disgusting garbage around you. Gateway behaviours are the litter of the class climate. Regardless of intent or purpose, they shouldn’t be happening, because they make the psychological landscape dirty and unpleasant. 

One final point about the deceptively “minor” nature of gateway behaviours. While an action may look like “no big deal” to an outsider, from the perspective of a targeted student who knows that it is a bullying situation, any adult’s lack of response can feel like a callous emotional betrayal.   

I’ve saved the best news for last: responding to gateway behaviours is relatively simple. Call attention to them: “When I ask students for their opinions in class, I expect all students to be respectful when others are talking. So do not laugh or mock your classmates in my class.” Make it clear that contempt for others is not all right in higher education, and that it impacts the class climate and their education. It’s not realistic to expect all contempt to instantly vanish when you respond, but it will certainly persist if you don’t respond. In my research, students who rate their schools as friendly, welcoming places report that teachers are more than seven times as likely to respond accordingly. A remark reminding them of the social rules only takes a moment, but it can have a big impact on the climate in your college classroom. 

Elizabeth K. Englander is executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and a founding member of the Social & Emotional Research Consortium at Bridgewater State University.     

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