Imagine being twelve years old. Imagine coming home after school and finding your big sister’s lifeless body hanging from a rafter in your home’s stairwell. Phoebe Prince’s little sister did not have to imagine this scenario, because she lived it. She arrived home after school in South Hadley, Mass., last January 14 and discovered that her sister had committed suicide by hanging herself, a result of enduring extreme and relentless bullying at the hands of her peers.

Since then, the suicide of Phoebe Prince has received extensive press coverage, and prompted a sudden call to arms about the consequences of bullying. What or who killed Phoebe Prince? Was it the ferocious and incessant bullying, was it the indifference of teachers and administrators who witnessed her torment and turned a blind eye, or was it the result of her depression? We may never know the exact answer to these questions, but one thing is certain; they all contributed to the death of a young girl way before her time.

Psychological research on bullying has been relatively sparse considering how widespread and potentially devastating the phenomenon is. But a recent paper by two researchers at the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, Carter Hay and Ryan Meldrum, in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence offers some valuable insight into the possible factors in Phoebe Prince’s death.  

These new data demonstrate that cyberbullying is just as destructive as traditional forms of in-person bullying.

They also suggest that it was not the bullying alone that led to Phoebe Prince’s death, but an interaction between the extent of the bullying and her psychological resources for coping with the stress of being bullied.

And on the positive side, the findings indicate that a high level of self-control in a teen, and a certain parenting style—known as “authoritative”—may diminish the dangerous effects of bullying.

 Hay and Meldrum analyzed survey answers from 426 adolescents with an average age of 15.   They asked how often participants thought about suicide or self-harm, how often they felt bullied, as well as questions about their own and their parents' behaviors. The purpose of this extensive surveying was to investigate the idea that it may not be simply bullying that harms its victims, but rather the way in which being bullied interacts with the individual’s coping skills and the sort of social support they have at home. Finally, and most importantly, examining all of these variables allowed the researchers to investigate which factors, or combination of factors, were most likely to put a teen at risk.

A bit of background:
When we think of bullies, we usually imagine one large oafish dullard with a chip on his shoulder hurling banal insults and occasional shoves on the school playground. We are all taught to walk away, to remind ourselves that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

But what if the bully is an honor-roll student, a pretty girl who is worshipped by her peers and favored by her teachers? What if she has a couple of friends who join her in deciding who will become an outcast and serve as a school-wide whipping post? Most of us were not raised to deal with these kinds of bullies. These bullies are insidious and smart. They wreak havoc through subtle, indirect forms of hostility that seek to harm others through exclusion, dirty looks, gossip.

This kind of bullying is called “relational aggression” in psychology research. It is easy to stop a bully who physically attacks a peer in plain sight, but how do teachers and parents monitor and stop “dirty looks” or whispered gossip? It is not surprising that this type of bullying is most common in groups of teens. Clique membership is the perfect breeding ground for this kind of behavior.

In the past, adolescents who were bullied could seek some solace in knowing that the school day would eventually end, and they could find a safe haven in spending time with friends and family. But in present times, the social networking sites on the Internet have made it possible to bully someone twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. This has been termed “cyberbullying”, and it may have been the tipping point for Phoebe Prince, and others like her, who have harmed or killed themselves after being taunted or tormented on-line. Add to this the additional anonymity the Internet provides, and teens’ knowledge of how many people may see what is written about them (there are currently over 500 million users of Facebook) and you have a recipe for a whole new level of bullying.
  Now for the better news. Hay and Meldrum tried to determine why some individuals are more affected by bullying than others. They found that “authoritative parents”—parents who provide warmth and support to their children, while maintaining their authority and keeping the lines of communication open—can make a difference.

Authoritative parenting has been associated with a number of positive psychosocial outcomes. Authoritative parents are good listeners. They are able to provide comfort and guidance when their children encounter stress, and help them forge appropriate responses. Adolescents of authoritative parents feel respected by their parents, and in turn respect the limits set on them. Their parents are involved in their lives to the extent that they know who their friends are and where they hang out, but are not overly enmeshed in the adolescent’s life. Among the participants in this study, this parenting style significantly reduced the negative impact of bullying.

Another variable that was found to lessen the impact of bullying was the amount of individual self-control. Adolescents who were found to be high on measures of self-control are able to recruit cognitive coping mechanisms to modulate emotional responses to stress. Additionally, these adolescents are often found to be low on impulsivity and more likely to spend time thinking about their responses to stress before enacting them. This strategy has consistently been associated with more pro-social, constructive and adaptive responses to stress. Not surprisingly, it follows from this that the researchers discovered that self-control improved individual responses to bullying victimization. 

My own lab has recently found that adolescents who report a lower incidence of being bullied also demonstrate higher activity in the frontal cortex during a task of emotion recognition, where unknown peers were the target faces. The prefrontal cortex is well known as the “executive” of the brain, responsible for reasoning, decision-making and behavioral regulation. We believe that this increased activity in the prefrontal cortex enables some teens to exert greater self-control, and helps them regulate their emotion and behavior in the presence of peers

 The study by Hay and Meldrum adds an important dimension to the plight of today’s targets of bullying. The Internet enables adolescents (and others) to communicate every minute of every day, and for girls like Phoebe Prince this creates a world from which there is no rational way to escape the torment of her peers. While additional coping skills may have protected Phoebe somewhat, it is unreasonable to expect a fourteen-year-old girl to withstand literally constant bullying from a group of socially powerful peers. It is easy to blame Phoebe’s peers for her death, but this is also an incomplete explanation. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide safety and guidance to all children and adolescents regardless of whether they are bullies or victims. This means we are also responsible for “stepping up our game” to stay in better touch with how and where the young people in our lives are spending their time on-line. It may turn out to be a matter of life or death.