Is There a Difference Between Being Mean and Bullying?

I recently wrote a blog post about a young high school student, Maisie Miller, who passively stood up to her bully and has created her own anti-bullying project, Pigtails 4 Peace. While reading the original article from the Washington Post about Maisie’s experience I was scrolling through a few of the comments as well and one of them caught my eye. In the comment the person stated that they didn’t believe that what Maisie had gone through was really bullying, that just making fun of her hair wasn’t enough grounds to call the other girl a bully. This comment got me thinking about what we actually define as bullying or what would constitute as just mean behavior, and is there a difference? If there is a difference are we unknowingly over using the word “bullying” as an umbrella term to define every mean behavior?

In an entry written on Psychology Today, Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker and author, defines bullying as “intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.” She also says that children who are bullies intentionally say or do something to hurt others, with no remorse, and continue repeatedly even when the victim tells them to stop. Bullying can manifest itself in many forms, through physical aggression, verbal aggression, relational aggression, which includes exclusion, shunning and rumor spreading; and lastly cyberbullying.

Whitson also went on to describe what would be considered mean behavior. She defines being mean as “purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice)” While both can have long lasting, damaging effects on their victims, the difference here between bullying and being mean is the frequency in which the behaviors occur. Whitson says that when someone is mean they often criticize “clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness…mean behavior in kids is motivated by angry feelings and/or the mis-guided goal of propping themselves up in comparison to the person they are putting down” While this sounds like what Maisie was going through with her bully, who often criticized her hair, clothes and friends, the difference is that this did not happen only once or twice, but continually, therefore making her a victim of bullying.

I think it is important for us to understand the difference between mean behavior and bullying and to use the appropriate terms; it helps to understand how to deal with the situation and get the right help. As Whitson addresses in her article, she fears that the word “bullying” has created a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena, in which “bullying” has become synonymous with any mean behavior, no matter the frequency. She fears that if we continue to not distinguish between the two that we will essentially become desensitized and be unable to recognize when serious bullying is really occurring.

What do you think? With all the attention bullying has received in recent years, are we in danger of becoming desensitized and unable to distinguish the difference between bullying and mean behavior?

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