A middle school girl stares at me through the screen on my laptop. She lets out a huge sigh of relief, like she’s been holding it for weeks — months, even. For the first time in a long time, a smile spreads across her face. I ask her why she’s looking much happier than usual and she tells me that it just hit her: With distance learning, the other girls in her middle school couldn’t bother her anymore. The stares, the whispers, the jokes, the ostracizing, it all went away “literally overnight.”
My client is not alone in feeling relief from social bullying — referred to as “relational aggression” in the psychology trade, a covert form of psychological bullying that does not include physical bullying — during closures due to COVID-19. In fact, several other teenagers I treat describe feeling lighter, less stressed and more content.
With distance learning, the other girls in her middle school couldn’t bother her anymore. The stares, the whispers, the jokes, the ostracizing, it all went away.
That emotional benefit spills over to their education; they’re better able to focus and are getting their work done more efficiently. In the Zoom room or Google hangout, they only have to focus on the teacher. If the eye rolls start, they simply turn off their video feature and listen in. For once, the victims feel a sense of control over their social hierarchies. They finally get to call the shots.
This unanticipated silver lining from the coronavirus shift to remote learning presents a valuable opportunity we should seize upon to make our schools more emotionally supportive and stamp out social bullying. We can’t afford to simply return to business as usual when schools reopen next year — instead, we need to put the supports in place to make sure the anxiety such behavior causes doesn’t return.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, at least 20 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 report emotional or physical bullying at school, and a UCLA study of 2,300 middle school students in Los Angeles found that high levels of bullying were associated with poor academic performance.
Research shows that bullying can have adverse long-term health outcomes for both victims and perpetrators, including depression, anxiety and physical, behavioral and emotional problems. Bullying is also associated with low self-esteem. It’s no wonder middle and high school students struggle to pay attention in class and stay on top of homework when they’re being taunted, gossiped about, and ostracized. In short, it’s emotionally exhausting.
Sadly, removing children from school, where they are constantly at the mercy of their peers and cliques, has shown itself during the pandemic to be an effective if unsatisfying way of removing the problem. Take the students out of school and away from the bullying, and they suddenly feel safe enough to learn.
“I’ve been hearing from my clients about relief of not being in school,” says John Duffy, psychologist and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.” That’s especially the case for kids who are deliberately excluded by classmates and thus prone to feeling left out and wondering about what they’re missing. “Those who feared missing out are not missing out,” he notes, “because, effectively, nobody is doing anything.”
This phenomenon isn’t entirely new, even if our current pandemic gives it a fresh twist. Anxiety specific to victims of bullying has been shown to decrease when students don’t have to face their aggressors five days a week, just as happens over summer break. In essence, it’s a vacation from their stressors.
Duffy points out that the break from school is actually a relief for both the victims and their bullies. “The bullies have also been suffering while in school,” he says.
That’s because kids who bully others project their internalized emotions onto their peers, a behavior associated with detrimental things like academic problems, a history of being bullied, impulsive personalities and problems at home. While hurting others might provide momentary relief from pent-up tension, it doesn’t solve the problems driving the bullying, and the need to continue the behavior can be exhausting.
Of course, going remote isn’t a panacea, for bullies or those bullied. There are other forms of social aggression that lend themselves to online platforms, and social media can feed the problem more than any slam book. Particularly problematic can be private stories on Instagram and Snapchat, group chats where kids are deleted without warning or reason, or short videos intended to humiliate peers and spread misinformation about them that can be posted and shared on the platform Tik Tok.
Even so, getting physical distance from the school environment — and that sense of empowerment that comes along with it — has helped students even in the virtual bullying arenas that continue apace during COVID. Some teens, for example, are making the choice to quiet their exposure to hurtful content by unfollowing, muting or blocking the posts of those who bully them or are unkind. It’s a way of creating emotional space without starting a fight.
It seems that finally having the time and space to consider how social media affects their emotional health is a good thing for some kids. One ninth grader told me that she feels calmer because she significantly cut down her social media contacts to people she knows well and has positive relationships with, so she no longer thinks about feeling left out or what other girls might be saying about her. Instead, she video chats with a couple of good friends and focuses on getting her grades up.
This is all positive, but it leaves practitioners like Duffy wondering what will happen when our self-imposed hibernation ends. “I do worry about how these kids will acclimate once it’s time to return to school,” he says.
So as this unique academic year draws to a close, we must find ways to hold onto the progress that’s been achieved for those struggling from social aggression. Schools have an opportunity, and a duty, to create meaningful change in their cultures once their doors reopen by investing in mental health services, empathy development, diversity and inclusion programs, and emotional wellness activities.
Such initiatives have all been shown to play critical roles in helping students— both bullies and their subjects — thrive as individual learners and as upstanding community members. All of these strategies empower kids to look out for one another and build a strong school community.
As this unique academic year draws to a close, we must find ways to hold onto the progress that’s been achieved for those struggling from social aggression.
Empathy development, or teaching students to understand what others feel and experience, helps kids consider how their words and actions impact one another. Learning to embrace differences creates a positive school culture where kids feel connected and understood. And teaching emotional wellness shows teens what it means to suffer from anxiety and depression — and what they can do to help themselves and others with these conditions.
Our countrywide school shutdown could be just the thing society needs to shift gears. And if we don’t take these steps, the emotional distress of those who are socially bullied could return twofold, given the additional stress caused by lost instructional time, the widespread fear of a resurgence of COVID-19 and the pent-up emotional overload of our abnormal period of social isolation.