When does teasing turn into bullying

Teasing and bullying, boys and girls


Biff and George

A definition of 'Bullying'.

In part, I think this is because people - like many psychological constructs - believe they know bullying when they see it. Just as we naturally judge the people around us to be intelligent or insecure, or judge ourselves to be in love or angry, the meaning of what it means to be bullied seems obvious - and most importantly, feels obvious. It hurts.*

However, when studying bullying as a scientific psychologist, bullying needs to be clearly defined so that we can distinguish between different types of bullying - for example, physical or emotional - to keep track of how it changes over time and to learn more about it who is likely to become a victim, who is likely to harass, how to protect victims, and how to stop perpetrators. Sometimes the precision that scientists are trying to bring to emotional or social phenomena seems out of place. But it's important. Without a clear definition, the many claims that bullying is becoming more widespread, that girls are getting meaner and more likely to be bullying, or that the internet is making things worse simply cannot be assessed.

Bullying v. Tease

A fundamental distinction that is often made in the literature on peer-on-peer aggression is between aggression bullyingand Teasing. Bullying is an overt act of aggression, the purpose of which is to harm the victim. Motives for bullying vary from the joy of asserting power over someone who is weaker or helpless to trying to improve one's status. The literature on bullying makes three things clear.

  • First, a minority of youth openly harass others - Most kids don't do that. Too many children, yes (estimates vary by method and context). Most kids, no.
  • Second, many bullies are low-status and harass and become victims of others.
  • Third, and probably the most troublingMost children will stand by and watch a bully molest and hurt one of their coworkers without stepping in and stopping them.Additionally, they often make it worse by performing as an audience - or even laughing. From all the estimates I've read, nearly 75% of all children who “bully” have identified children who watch or laugh when someone else hurts their peers as being the same as perpetrators.

TeasingHow the word is typically used by people studying peer interactions is different from bullying, at least from the perpetrator's point of view.

Let me say that again. From the perpetrator's perspective and from an outside observer, teasing is different from bullying. From the victim's point of view, this distinction may not be important. Teasing can also lead to bullying. The distinction between bullying and teasing is important, however, as the way teasing and bullying work socially is very different.

If we are to understand peer-on-peer aggression, it is important to keep this distinction clear. Two hold facts:

  • Teasing is an AMBIGUOUS social exchange that can be friendly, neutral or negative.
  • How a teasing exchange goes really depends on how the person being taught reacts.

For example, when a girl goes to the cafeteria with a boy and a classmate “OOO! Carmen has a boyfriend! ", it probably teases.

Carmen could smile, laugh, and say it was true. Then there could be a happy discussion.

She might blush and deny it, in which case the other girls might laugh and it might tease even more or it might be dropped.

Or she could get angry and treat the remark as if she were hostile. In that case, the next comment would almost certainly be more overtly hostile and negative.

Or Carmen just laughs, shakes her head, and asks the teaser if she's jealous and never brings up the question.

Bullying doesn't work that way. Since the intent of bullying, including verbal harassment or aggression, is to harm the victim, their response does not determine the meaning of the bullying's action. It's openly hostile and almost nothing the victim does will change that.

The meaning of Teasing depends on how the person being teased reacts. If the irritable laughs, it's a joke. If they take it seriously, it is serious. If they see it as an insult, it is and the next interaction will be accordingly. Even teens, who are frequently approached by their peers - such as students with developmental disabilities - are less likely to be teased or bullied over time if they respond to the joking as if it were a joke.

Think of your classic Clint Eastwood movie in which he walks into a bar and one of the locals makes an aggressive statement disguised as a "funny" remark. Clint responds IF the remark is a joke (i.e., like being teased, not threatened). When the audience laughs, the attacker can either back away and act as if he joked (i.e., teased) or he can turn the exchange into a face-to-face confrontation by making another openly aggressive remark. If Clint's suggestion not to take the meaning of the original remark seriously is not accepted (i.e., accepting Clint's interpretation of the remark as teasing and not aggressive) what Clint says becomes an attempt to bully. The interpretation of bullying is clearly hostile and treated as a challenge.

George McFly in Back to the Future

That malt shop scene, where George tries to joke insults and Biff refuses to let him in, is important in the plot of the film.A hallmark of youthful male-to-male friendship is the ability to exchange insults (i.e., tease) without offending a person or getting angry. George McFly tries to show that he and Biff are friends by not taking offense and posing threats as jokes. Biff won't let him show that they are NOT friends and that he is the person in control. Biff is a tyrant - this is not an ambiguous exchange.

Boys and girls

Classic observational studies by Ritch Savin-Williams and Donna Eder suggest that teasing tends to work differently in adolescent boys and girls. Among boysTeasing tends to establish a fairly strict and stable hierarchy - who is one of the best, who is listened to, who makes decisions. Teasing includes minor insults, physical bumps and bumps, as well as minor insults. When a new group of boys meets - like when everyone is assigned to a new sports class or camp hut - the teasing is intense. Height, puberty status, verbal skills and attractiveness all determine who is at the top of the status hierarchy. Interestingly, being liked does not mean high status. Many boys who like other children are never heard and are often the butt of jokes. And these low-status boys are MUCH reminded of their place in the pecking order in the first few days. The teasing is intense. On the flip side, things establish themselves quickly - in just a few days - and once they do, the teasing drops to low, stable levels.

It doesn't work that way with girls. girl"Status hierarchies are much more unstable than boys". Girls tend to make triarchic friendships that change, and so does who are at the top. In addition to jokes, trivialities, and small comments, girls' status hierarchies are established by asking favors - high status girls hang up girls of lower status - and compliments - low status girls complement girls of higher status. Girls 'aggression is usually less physical and more subtle - sneaky - than boys' aggression.

Boys attack when the person being teased shows weakness.

Teasing also works differently. Teasing boys to build a hierarchy. And guys can be brutal. A boy is annoyed because his pants are too short. He replies with a laugh and it's over. Boys' ability to exchange insults and annoy one another without anyone getting angry is a critical sign that boys are real friends. But if the person teases they will get angry and look upset, and the other boy will immediately step up the attack. The angrier he gets, the harder and harder he gets. The "teaser" wins if the boy being teased loses his temper or his coolness. And if it happens chronically, it can absolutely lead to harassment and bullying.

Girls dispel tension within the clique. "Just tease."

Girls tease in order to establish and enforce social norms. "Your pants are too short." "Oh, you decided to dress up as a slut for Halloween?" "Was there a wind tunnel in the hallway or did you go for this look that just rolled out of bed?" The message is clear - you are not acting the way you are supposed to. As with boys, a laugh or remorseful affirmation will likely drop the subject (if it's really teasing and not exactly aggressive). But unlike boys, the excitement of typical woman-versus-woman teasing doesn't usually make the teasing worse. If the girl who is being teased looks obviously annoyed with a cut remark, the typical response is the most hated remark.

"Just tease!"

What does "just tease" mean? It was all a joke. I didn't mean to hurt you. It may be true, however. . . In other words, this is not serious and I don't really hate you.

Since girls' hierarchies are typically much more unstable than hierarchies or boys, high status girls often dampen teasing other girls WITHIN THE SAME CLIQUE. Why? Because when someone gets upset, the dynamics of power within the clique can change, and the high-ranking girl may be in the middle - even at the very bottom - of the new order.

This means that girls tend to experience constant, lower levels of teasing. Unlike teasing in boys, which starts high and then drops off, in girls teasing starts in the middle range and just stays there.

Choose your poison.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All rights reserved


* I'm not sure if children really know bullying when they see it. I remember a friend of my eldest son who told me how a kid on the bus forced him to put on makeup and mercilessly harassed him all the way home. He felt humiliated and angry. The school was in the middle of an anti-bullying campaign and I pointed this out. He looked at me. "OH! It never occurred to me that he bullied me."

My first thoughts on this article came from readers and relatives who shared their experiences with harassment at school, saying they had never realized at that point that the people harassing them were bullies. They only thought of them as "mean children". A tyrant was someone who beat you up and charged you for lunch.

Definitions are important.