Bullying: The Importance of Defining Our Terms


Bullying is a serious problem. Every day, too many kids are victimized. Physically. Verbally. In writing. The explosion of social media outlets has resulted in a relatively new phenomenon: cyber-bullying. This form of bullying is especially insidious because now victims can’t even see those who attack. And there’s no place to take refuge when you’ve been bullied online.

Serious issues like bullying deserve serious attention. I recently read an article that looked at research conducted at the University of Auckland. The results were startling. A study of 1300 adolescent females found that 85% of those surveyed reported having been subjected to bullying. A research study that includes 1300 subjects is impressive. This was scientific research. Conducted at a university. Startling results. Scary results. Then again, the headline might have been somewhat misleading.

Too many of us only read the headlines: “85% report being bullied.” And the media often reports only the superficial “facts,” especially when they are so provocative. In-depth coverage is available, but the majority of us get much of our information from the sound bites fed to us on the television news programs. It takes a bit more effort to get beyond the headlines and sound bites, but the search for truth frequently requires a little extra effort.

After I got past the attention-grabbing headline that 85% of these young women had experienced some type of bullying, I discovered that the definition used by the researchers included “being ignored or excluded.” Imagine that you are a young adolescent female and asked if you have ever been “ignored or excluded.” Using this definition, it’s shocking that only 85% of the respondents fell into the “have experienced bullying” category! Maybe the other 15% are in denial or have language-processing deficits. Can you imagine any early adolescent who hasn’t felt “ignored or excluded” at some point? I don’t mean to discount the suffering that may be felt when one is “ignored or excluded,” but it’s not bullying. To lump being “ignored or excluded” together with bullying trivializes bullying, obscures the issue, and does nothing to help.

Research is designed to inform us. When important terms like “bullying” are so ill defined as to be almost universally inclusive, research only clouds the issue. Bullying is a horrific problem. We need strategies to prevent it from occurring as often as possible. And we need to develop effective interventions when it does occur. I have written about this in “Getting at the Roots of Bullying”, suggesting that 85% of young women are bullied distorts the truth. An issue as serious as bullying merits more serious discussion. The lesson we can all learn is to read beyond the headlines and listen beyond the sound bites.