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What Does ‘Bullying’ Mean, Anyway?

Our Nov. 7 hour on the Miami Dolphins’ bullying case and the culture of bullying in sports and professional life raised a lot of questions among our commenters and listeners  — what is bullying, really? And what does that term even really mean? We asked our guest, Amanda Nickerson of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, for deeper insight into the term. She offered us this thoughtful read below.

Bullying – now a buzzword in our society – has been brought to the forefront again in a different context with the spotlight on the Miami Dolphins. Bullying is a repeated pattern of intentionally aggressive behavior intended to cause physical and/or psychological harm toward a target where there is an imbalance of power (due to age, physical size, race, social status). Most of what we know about bullying comes from research with children and adolescents, although the problem is not confined to K-12 schools. Bullying can occur as young as preschool and can continue into adulthood. Workplace bullying is systematic aggression targeted toward one or more individuals by an individual or group that can have a negative impact on the target and the organizational climate.

What does bullying look like? It can take several forms: verbal (threats, derogatory comment, racial slurs), social (exclusion, spreading rumors, public embarrassment), physical (hitting, tripping, pushing), and cyberbullying (bullying through electronic means like text messaging, e-mail, social media). Being targeted by bullying can result in depression, anxiety, isolation and rejection, physical complaints, and avoidance of school, work, or social situations where the bullying occurs. There are many factors that contribute to the likelihood that someone will bully others, including individual characteristics such as aggressive or hostile attitude, need for power or control, lack of empathy, and contextual influences (family, school, peer group, work, societal) that model and/or tolerate this type of abuse.

This form of abuse, in addition to related issues of harassment, hazing, racial bias, and the climates that condone these behaviors, are being discussed across the nation. Issues being debated include whether it is even possible for a strong, grown adult to be a “victim” of bullying and how the average person is unable to understand the culture of professional football, where aggression, competition, and being tough are part of the job. The role of leadership and bystanders also come into play, as they are powerful contributors in shaping these behaviors.

The attention to this issue provides an opportunity for each of us to commit to treating others with dignity and respect. We must embrace our collective responsibility for recognizing that brotherly jibing, horseplay, and ribbing are certainly part of sports and our culture. However, using aggression repeatedly to harm someone in a position of vulnerability (even if it is not a person who fits a stereotypical view of a victim) is not acceptable. Professional athletes are extremely powerful and influential in many respects, perhaps most notably as role models for our youth. This could be a pivotal time to change language, attitudes, and behaviors to create the kind of culture and society where each individual can live and work without being subject to any behavior that creates a hostile environment.

What do you make of the bullying allegations in Miami? Are you concerned about the way this case has played out? How does it resonante in your own life and experiences? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below, or let us know on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.

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