The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

March 20, 2013

Bullying not just a K-12 issue

MANKATO — A lot of emphasis is put on bullying during the K-12 years. But research shows that the behavior is prevalent in most stages of life.

For example, about 20 percent of higher education students have past experience with bullying, and a significant portion of them are revictimized in college, according to research conducted by Maili Pörhölä, a professor at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

These students suffered more eating disorders, anxiety, depression and overall lower general health than those who had not experienced bullying in their lives, she said. The bullies themselves even reported more alcohol and drug abuse, game addiction and internet addiction.

“What can be done? What can we do to prevent bullying problems or intervene in these problems?” Pörhölä asked an audience at Minnesota State University Wednesday night.

Pörhölä — delivering the annual Nadine B. Andreas Lecture, “From the PLAYGROUND to the WORKPLACE: Bullying’s Impact on Individual and Community Health” — had a few ideas.

Increasing understanding of bullying and its consequences on health and well-being can help, as can giving students opportunities to talk about it. And people need to intervene when they witness bullying occurring, she said.

Pörhölä has been conducting research on bullying with a team in Finland for the past decade. The focus has been on abusive social relationships from childhood to adulthood, she said.

Due to collaboration with researchers in the United States, Argentina, England and Estonia, the team has been able to compile a variety of cultural perspectives and statistics on bullying behaviors.

Pörhölä outlined common bullying behaviors typical for different age groups during her presentation, beginning at a very early age.

“Bullying is a phenomenon that occurs already among preschool-age children,” she said, adding that the most common forms of bullying at that age are physical, verbal and relational (excluding from play).

By middle school, 30 percent of students ages 11 to 13 reported being bullied within the past two months. And the kinds of bullying in that age group differed by gender.

Boys ages 10 to 14 reported more up-front, direct forms of bullying, such as name-calling. Girls were sneakier, reporting more behind-the-back lying or attempting to turn someone’s friends against her.

Pörhölä said bullying decreases with age. However, it does continue into college and even in the work place in more subtle forms, she said.

During a question and answer session, an adult in the audience said she been bullied in the work place. Without hard evidence, she wanted to know what could be done about it.

“It’s so subtle that it’s very hard to prove to someone that has not had that experience,” she said.

Unfortunately, Pörhölä said, she doesn’t have advice to give. She could only speak from responses that other victims of bullying have provided.

“They first try to be active. They try to confront their bully. They try to find solutions. They try to go to their supervisors,” Pörhölä said, adding that when that typically doesn’t work, they try to find ways to avoid their bullies.

Pörhölä’s lecture was followed by a community conversation with expert panelists, including Walter Roberts, a professor in MSU’s Department of Counseling and Student Personnel; Anne Dahlman, associate professor and chair in MSU’s Department of Educational Studies; Catherine Davis, physician at Mankato Clinic; and Maureen Tanis, a social work professional from Mayo Health System.

Relating to the issue of bullying at the college level, a student asked the panel if university faculty are trained to handle incidents of bullying.

“No, we are not trained,” said Dahlman, who said that’s something she thinks should change. When you become a professor, it’s not a requirement to take “Bullying 101,” she said.

Roberts said documentation is one of the best methods to prove bullying and report it. And understanding its cause is one of the most important means of combating it on a larger scale.

Much of bullying behavior, he said, is learned from role-models and the media.

“Kids don’t live in a vacuum. They see that, and they want to engage in what they think is ‘adult’ behavior,” he said. “If I’m powerless, I’m waiting for my chance to exert power.”

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