There is good evidence that young people often do not report bullying to adults. They are adept at hiding bullying-related behaviors and the unequal "shadow" power dynamics that can exist among children. Because of this secrecy, adults underestimate the seriousness and extent of bullying at their schools.
Schools cannot help if children do not entrust them with information. So why don't children report bullying?
Research Shows That Adults Rarely Intervene
This creates a catch-22: Students don't tell because they don't see adults helping, but adults can't help if students don't tell them what is going on in their peer groups.
The perception that adults don't act may lead students to conclude that adults don't care, or that there are different standards for adults' behavior than for young people's. In the workplace, shoving co-workers in the hallway would not be tolerated. Yet many adults believe that young people need to "work out" bullying problems like these on their own. This belief may promote a "code of silence" about abusive behavior. A logical consequence would be the failure of students to report other dangers, such as knowledge about a weapon at school.
Students Fear Retaliation and a Reputation as a "Rat"
This might be especially true about reporting popular students who bully. There is evidence that well-liked and successful children can be the most skilled at bullying and at escaping detection.
They Don’t Want to Lose Power
Students may not report that they or their friends bully because they don't want to lose the power they gain through controlling others.
They Don’t Recognize Subtle Bullying
Students may not report more subtle, indirect, and relational types of bullying (such as deliberately excluding peers or spreading rumors) because they don't realize that these are also unfair, unequal ways to treat others.
They Feel Ashamed, Afraid, or Powerless
Students may not report being victims of bullying because it makes them feel shamed, afraid, and powerless. Over time, they may come to feel they deserve it. This may be particularly true of children in fourth grade and up.
Because adults rarely intervene, young people may come to believe they can bully without any consequences. Many believe that "acting bad" pays off. In fact, it may win them status with others, as children do act more friendly and respectful toward those who bully.
What Can Adults Do?
If we want children to talk to us and ask for help, we need to invite them to report. And effective adult follow-through is critical. This means "walking the talk" of bullying prevention, and addressing the power imbalances that put children who bully, those who are bullied, and bystanders at risk of perpetuating abuse. Bringing children who bully and those they bully into the same room to talk is not advisable. Intervening, making plans for behavior change, and continuing to check in on an individual basis with the students involved is best.
Adults can also give young people tools to help them evaluate when and how to report. Teaching about the distinction between reporting (telling to keep someone safe) and tattling (telling to get someone in trouble), for example, can help them make responsible decisions. This, in turn, can empower everyone in schools to help prevent inequity and suffering.
Miriam Hirschstein, Ph.D.
Committee for Children
Reprinted with the permission of the Committee for Children. © 2007 Committee for Children.