Communication Currents

Stand by Me: Helping Bullied Victims

June 1, 2010
Health Communication

Bullying is a serious social problem in many countries. According to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2009 Report, 25 to 30% of students aged 12 to 18 in the U.S. have been bullied—physically, verbally, or relationally—at school. Similarly, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japanreported that more than 20,000 cases of bullying were reported in 2007. Bullying is also reported in one out of every four companies in the U.S. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, not only employees but customers and supervisors can be targets of bullying at the workplace as well. Victims abound, and they need help.

Helping victims of bullying, however, is a tricky business, with communication and culture playing key roles to determine its effectiveness. Having an empathetic and caring interaction will cure victims' mental health and lead to constructive post-bullying adjustment. But not all messages are effective, and what counts as effective support varies across cultures. Messages intended to restore victims' self-esteem, for example, are not favored by victims in the U.S. On the other hand, victims in Japan find suggestions to contact a third-party particularly objectionable. Receiving suggestions to talk to authorities or experts is likely to demotivate Japanese victims to talk about bullying and even deteriorate their long-term psychological well-being.

Data collected from young adults in the U.S. and Japan revealed that when victims indicate they are being bullied, their friends, family, or teachers exhibit a range of supportive behaviors. Some express care and concern for the victims in a compassionate tone. Others try to refurbish the victims' self-esteem by reminding the victim of her or his good points and virtues. Or, some people (typically fathers and teachers) offer to connect the victims to some experts (such as school counselors) who might be able to solve the problem for them, or trustworthy confidants with whom the victims can share their problem. Interestingly, the last type of support—network support that intends to connect victims to a third-party—is almost twice as likely to be used in the U.S. as it is in Japan; in contrast, the reported likelihood of use of the other two types of support did not differ as much across cultures.

Cultural differences emerge even more clearly when it comes to how victims perceive those supportive messages. In the U.S., esteem support intended to directly restore or remind victims of their self-worth (such as, “You are still a good person even when you have a problem,” or “Don't feel guilty”) are not perceived favorably and victims who receive this type of supportive message are typically dissatisfied. Perhaps those messages are not favored because they suggest that the victim has a problem. Even if it is only to make a point that bullying is not her or his fault, being identified with bullying is the last thing victims want. Bullying is a heavily stigmatized experience and typically victims make every effort to disassociate themselves from it.

By contrast, for victims in Japan, network support turns out to be the worst type of message. Being offered to introduce a third-party expert or confidant resulted in a considerable drop in their satisfaction level. There are several reasons that might account for this finding. First, seeking the advice of a third party is not customary in Japan. Seeing a therapist, for example, is still seen as equivalent to having psychological problems. A second reason is the fear of information leakage. Japan is a tightly knit society. As a result, one's social network does not change often. Revealing the secret of bullying in such a closely tied society is a highly risky maneuver. Finally, suggesting to victims that they should see a third-party can be interpreted as an evasive answer: “I can't or don't want to deal with this issue. Go talk to someone else who is better capable of solving your problem.”

Emotional support that conveys care, concern, and sympathy for victims is found effective by victims in both cultures. In this case, victims feel most satisfied when others encourage them to open up and express their emotions, show understanding of their suffering through attentive listening, or tell them they always can find a shoulder to cry on with the recipient. Conceivably, emotional support seems appropriate to bullied victims because it remedies their doubts of self-worth. Bullying causes more than stress; it also induces strong feeling of loneliness and self-doubt. Receiving emotional support helps victims defy those anxieties and realize that they are loved by others.

Supportive communication affects victims' post-bullying adjustment, and this healing effect works similarly across cultures. Victims who are satisfied with the support they receive are more willing and comfortable to talk about bullying after the initial interaction. Bullying is a socially sanctioned experience and victims often avoid disclosing because they fear that revealing their victimhood might call for accusation and finger pointing. Consequently, bullying becomes a hidden—and therefore untreatable—problem. Receiving sensitive support seems to break this chain of negative effects by reducing victims' anxiety and helping them realize the benefit of disclosure. Furthermore, those victims who have received quality support see their life as more satisfactory and meaningful. They are more psychologically healthy, emotionally stable, and, in a word, well-adjusted.

Finally, from a practical point of view, these findings suggest the need to provide those who surround bullied victims with information on sound supportive communication skills. Friends, family, and teachers can and do make a difference in victims' post-bullying adjustment process. They need to learn about effective, supportive communication for bullied victims because not all messages—even those meant to be supportive—are equally effective, and receiving suboptimal support may impede victims' readjustment. On the other hand, the positive effect of emotional support, which is found to function across cultures, is encouraging. It signifies the importance of supportive communication and illuminates a promising path for victims to escape from the iron claw of bullying.

About the author (s)

Masaki Matsunaga

Rikkyo University

Assistant Professor