Bullying isn’t a new problem, but the Internet and other advancements in technology have enabled its effects to become more widespread and potentially more destructive.
That’s why for the first time, the University of North Dakota this fall will offer a course called the “Psychology of Bullying.” Within the context of school violence, the course will examine the nature, extent and theoretical basis of cyber bullying behavior compared to traditional bullying.
“Over the past 10-20 years, there have been numerous major news stories about bullying behavior,” said Jeff Weatherly, professor in the UND Department of Psychology. “Texting and social networking have increased the prevalence of bullying. We know that teens have committed suicide or attempted suicide because of cyber bullying.”
The course will be taught by UND doctoral student Brett Holfeld who is conducting research on middle school students’ perceptions of and response to cyber bullying.
“I’ll be focusing mainly on cyber bullying because people are less aware of it,” Holfeld said. “We’ll also be discussing traditional bullying because there are some similarities between the two. The major difference is the technology used in cyber bullying, such as cell phones, computers and the Internet.”
A recent incident in which seventh graders bullied a 68-year-old school bus monitor demonstrated how the effects of the act became far more devastating for the victim when a video was posted YouTube.com. Thousands of people viewed the video and posted negative comments, increasing the victim’s distress.
“Posting pictures and videos online makes it difficult for the victims of bullying to escape the harassment,” Holfeld explained. “One of the similarities to traditional bullying is that the victim feels as if there’s no escape from the harassment. With cyber-bullying, the potential anonymity, its repetitive nature and the unlimited audience can cause victims to feel helpless and powerless.
“This has led some scholars to suggest that the psychological distress experienced by many victims of cyber bullying may be more severe than traditional bullying,” he noted.
According to Holfeld, recent research also suggests that cyber-bullying often isn’t as anonymous as might be expected. The victims are often well acquainted with the bully or bullies through social groups and circles, he said.
Weatherly and Holfeld believe that education is the best approach to deal with the problem. Educating students, parents and school personnel is necessary to effectively combat cyber bullying, they say. That begins with college-level courses that provide a better understanding of the issue while exploring its possible causes.
“Some universities have taught classes on aggression and violence, but I’m not aware of any that focus exclusively on bullying and cyber bullying,” Holfeld said. “My long-term goal is to assist schools with the development of intervention efforts aimed at reducing levels of cyber bullying at school.”
As Weatherly noted, “This is an opportunity for UND to show the community and the region that we are responding to timely topics and exploring solutions to societal issues.”
Jeff Weatherly, professor
UND Department of Psychology
Brett Holfeld, doctoral student
UND Department of Psychology