National foundations turn to local expert for advice on anti-bullying campaigns

UNL educational psychology professor Susan Swearer (left) recently spent several days at Facebook headquarters in California to consult over new anti-bullying intiatives. (Courtesy Photo)
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August 5, 2015 - 6:44am

UNL professor Susan Swearer is co-director of the Bullying Research Network and the director of the Empowerment Initiative. She’s also a nationally recognized expert on bullying in schools who's worked on major anti-bullying campaigns stemming from Facebook, Lady Gaga, and the White House. NET News talked with Swearer about her work.

NET NEWS: Why is this such a high profile issue right now among such big names and organizations?

PROFESSOR SUSAN SWEARER: It’s a good question. I keep thinking, “When is this going to stop being a high profile issue?” I think part of the answer to that- you know I’ve been studying bullying for 18 years now- is that’s it’s an emotional topic and it’s a situation that affects three-out-of-four students at some point during their school years. It’s an experience most of us have had some exposure to, whether we’ve experienced bullying ourselves or our children have, or we know someone who has. Because bullying is so detrimental and has such significant mental health ramifications, I think that’s why it just keeps going on and on. We keep studying it and trying to figure out ways to stop it. It’s an intractable social relationship problem. While our national stats are encouraging in that it appears bullying is on a decline, it still is a problem that affects many kids and really creates a negative school climate. That’s why this Facebook, Yale, and Born this Way Foundation project is really designed to expand this scope of social emotional learning. And how can we infuse that in all of our schools?

UNL professor Susan Swearer is co-director of the Bullying Research Network and the director of the Empowerment Initiative. (Courtesy Photo)

NET NEWS: With all of this work you've done, be it through your research or collaborative work, what would you consider some of the biggest challenges to be right now in handling bullying?

PROFESSOR SWEARER: I think one of the biggest challenges is related to the research that shows many students use bullying as a means to achieve social status. So bullying actually has a power in the sense of kids who bully then kind of climb up the social ladder, and for many kids, having that kind of power or social status is really important. So if something like bullying helps them achieve that status, it’s pretty hard to argue that bullying is something that shouldn’t be done. We as adults can say, “Bullying is bad. It’s related to mental health issues. It creates a negative school climate.” We know from decades of research that there are a lot of really negative outcomes associated with bullying. However; in the kid world, if bullying is a means of achieving social status, and research has shown us that it is, then it’s really hard to get kids to see that this isn’t something to engage in. It isn’t a good behavior. Because for them it’s an instrumental behavior. That to me is probably why bullying hasn’t ceased to exist and why it’s a pretty intractable situation in our schools.

NET NEWS: You've been quoted as saying the answers still outnumber the answers we have right now about bullying. Why do you feel that is?

PROFESSOR SWEARER: Well certainly we know a lot of mechanisms and reasons why bullying occurs. We actually know it’s a lifespan problem so it’s something that happens in workplaces as well. If you look at bullying from preschool to geriatric populations- it’s an equal opportunity behavior across genders, countries, and age ranges… There’s just so many things we can parse out. For example: What is the relationship between bullying and depression? In some of our work we’re looking at the relationship between bullying and social anxiety and are finding that a subset of kids who bully actually have high levels of social anxiety, which seems counter intuitive. There’s still quite a bit of work to be done, which is exciting. There are a lot of questions to look at and answer with the hopes of reducing bullying or creating conditions in our schools or workplaces where bullying doesn’t occur.



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