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Are we too quick to cry 'bully'?

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Rachel McAdams, left, plays Regina George, the meanest of the "Mean Girls" in the 2004 film, and she's particularly cruel and controlling toward her friends. Rachel McAdams, left, plays Regina George, the meanest of the "Mean Girls" in the 2004 film, and she's particularly cruel and controlling toward her friends.
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Bullies in popular culture
Bullies in popular culture
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Bullies in popular culture
Bullies in popular culture
Bullies in popular culture
Bullies in popular culture
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Bullies in popular culture
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Bullies in popular culture
Bullies in popular culture
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness about bullying
  • Some say the term "bullying" has been overused, watering down its meaning
  • Experts: Bullying is repetitive, intentional and involves a power imbalance
  • Educators say it can be tough to untangle whether an incident is bullying

Editor's note: Have you had an experience with bullying? Share your story on CNN iReport.

(CNN) -- In the last few months, the word rippled through news reports of tragic teen suicides in Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia and Britain.

It's the same word sometimes used to describe the way reality TV stars treat one another on camera, or how unfriendly office mates interact or why grade school pals stop getting along.

Every parent, teacher and child knows the word: "bullying." But this month, as schools and communities launch fresh campaigns around National Bullying Prevention Month, some are urging more precise use of the B-word.

"Bullying," some researchers say, has been misused and abused in the last few years -- too casually uttered about every hurt, slight and fight, too frequently used in place of "teasing" or "fighting," too often brought up before there's proof it happened.

The very word, some say, has been bullied.

"By calling everything bullying, we're actually failing to recognize the seriousness of the problem," said Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. "It's one of the unfortunate side effects of doing an awareness campaign ... everyone wants to adopt it."

Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Schools of Thought. Follow us on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living on Facebook for the latest stories and to share your perspective.

It began a few years ago, as horrifying stories of bullying hit the media and serious awareness began to spread. Educators, lawmakers, parents and children all tried to make sense of it, even as it evolved with the latest social network. But along the way, people sometimes confused bullying with the unfortunate -- but normal -- moments of angry, thoughtless or hurtful behavior.

Actual bullying, many educators and social scientists say, is intentional, repetitive abuse by a powerful person toward a less powerful target.

But not everyone defines it the same way: Although most states have bullying laws on the books, according to the Education Commission of the States, it's handled differently around the country. New Hampshire's law specifies that an act need occur only once -- not multiple times -- to be bullying. Nebraska's law calls on local districts to create bullying policies. Several states recently added provisions to cover cyberbullying -- bullying or harassment through technology. Laws in Massachusetts and New Jersey detail how educators should prevent, report and investigate bullying.

Say the word in almost any school these days, and it will get a quick reaction. In many cases, advocates said, that's helpful. But sometimes, when it's not really bullying, kids miss out on a chance to learn to cope with minor conflicts on their own.

"The label 'bullying' is really incendiary," Englander said. "It ratchets everything up emotionally. It makes it hard to really address, rationally, what the best course of action is."

The people hurt most by the overuse of "bullying," Englander said, are young people most desperate for a solution -- those in the midst of very real, traumatic instances of bullying, students whose pain might be overlooked in a crush of reported cases.

"Being deliberately isolated and laughed at cruelly every single day can be devastating socially and academically, because the target must both endure the present and constantly dread the future," Englander wrote in the book "Bullying and Cyberbulling," released this month. "It's this unrelenting cruelty and the callous nature of such an environment that is watered down when we include every social slight or quarrel under the bullying rubric."

"If everyone's a victim," she wrote, "then no one's a victim."

Still, some educators and parents worry that even scaling back on the word "bullying" could put a chill on training and conversations about bullying -- and quash the newfound courage some have found to stand up against it.

'It wasn't all that simple'

Even after years of training, it can be hard to untangle the threads of a possible bullying case.

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Becki Cohn-Vargas, an educator for more than two decades, recalled how conflicts between students were never as black-and-white as they seemed at first. A child who bullied might express remorse, then relapse. A girl would complain of bullying by a child she'd once targeted. LGBT students in a school known for its kind atmosphere would quietly admit to daily torment. Religious students were targeted, and secular students, too. All over the playground and lunchroom, students might freeze out another child, demeaning him without saying a word.

To identify a child as a bully or victim was difficult -- and dangerous.

"As a principal, parents would come to my school and you'd kind of dig in, and it wasn't all that simple," Cohn-Vargas said. "It's not like there are bad bullies and good kids. Every kid is able to do some kind of bullying behavior."

People should be diligent about how they use the word bullying, Cohn-Vargas said, but that doesn't mean they should stop talking about it. As the director of Not in Our School, she now advocates creating "identity safe" schools. The idea is to prevent bullying and create a positive learning spaces by teaching kids about each others' cultures and encouraging them to step up if they believe someone will be hurt by another person's actions.

Englander, of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, suggests teachers and parents talk with students immediately if they see a behavior that violates social norms; whether it's the only time it has happened, or it's part of a bullying situation, young people need to hear right away that it's not OK to whisper about others or tease people, for example.

But even schools that feel safe will sometimes experience fist fights, tearful teasing -- and bullying. After many years of research and practice, Cohn-Vargas now knows she shouldn't respond to them all the same way, and that bullying prevention training has to be ongoing.

"It's not a one-shot assembly or learn the rules thing," she said. "You have to have a really good understanding of the definition, and everyone has to know how to respond."

It's one thing to train teachers and school staff members, but it can be tough to train people outside the school, especially parents.

"Nothing was bullying 25 years ago. It was kids being kids. Not saying it was right, but parents thought it was part of growing up," said Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. "Now we see a lot of parents trying to generalize what bullying is -- any time kids do something to each other, let's call it bullying and deal with it that way."

At the Arizona high school where he works, they get more reports of bullying than they once did, but they also spend time researching whether they're really onetime scrapes, minor offenses, criminal activities that should be handled by police or acts of bullying that need to be reported to administration.

"The last thing we want to do is start turning every single kid in the school into a suspect," he said. "You've got to train teachers, staff, get information to parents. The definition (of bullying) is only as good as the people that know it."

'Not a word we're afraid to use'

Susan Guess now knows the definition by heart, for reasons she never could have imagined.

Just a few years ago, neither Guess nor her daughter, Morgan, thought they needed to know much about bullying. She was a fixture in her daughter's classroom. They were close, always talking. If there was ever a problem, she was sure Morgan would tell her.

But when Morgan entered third grade, Guess began to notice a few changes -- little things, like how Morgan walked past her friends to spend time with one girl, or how that girl always seemed to lead Morgan around. Morgan mentioned nothing, and at first, Guess didn't ask. When she finally did, Morgan was ready to talk.

The girl was pinching her and pulling her hair, Morgan said. She might elbow her in the back one day, and hold her hand the next. She wouldn't let her play with her other friends. If she complained, Morgan feared it would get worse.

The girl wanted to be her friend, Morgan explained, but she didn't know how.

Meanwhile, Morgan had grown anxious and depressed. She began to have stomach spasms, and to struggle more academically. The realization made Guess felt a little ill, too.

"Our schools spent time talking about the issue, but she did not know -- and I had not equipped her -- with the skills she needed to stand up for herself," Guess said, recalling those hard months two years ago.

Guess worked with the school to separate the girls, and the physical bullying mostly stopped. Guess would still sometimes find the child trying to block Morgan -- "a power play" -- or inserting herself among Morgan's friends.

Eventually, the girl changed schools.

Guess realized, though, that just as her daughter struggled to tell an adult what was happening, parents might not realize that their children were being bullied, or might worry they'd be seen as a troublemaker.

The mother and daughter launched the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation to help educate their western Kentucky community about what bullying looks like, and how to create kinder, more empathetic schools. It can be difficult: Schools can't label a bully with the "Scarlet B," she said, but it was hard to feel any sensitivity toward the girl who'd hurt her daughter.

She's grateful for the education she's received on bullying, but doesn't believe the word is overused. You have to say it, she said, to help children understand which relationships are healthy, which ones aren't, and how to help a person in need.

"A child is suffering, and we spend so much time saying, 'This is bullying, this isn't bullying,' " Guess said. "If we've gained anything, I hope we're better people, more sensitive to our interactions with other people."

At age 10, Morgan is now doing wonderfully, Guess said. She's stronger academically, less shy than before and has been honored for her work to help people understand bullying. Bully, Guess said, "is not a word we're afraid to use anymore."

Last month, as Guess walked through the hallway of her daughter's school, she noticed a handwritten poster hanging on the wall.

"What is a bully?" it said in a child's writing, a small heart atop the "I."

"A bully is a bigger or stronger person that hurts or frightens a smaller or weaker person on purpose," it answered in rainbow letters, "over and over again."

Guess snapped a photo, and posted it on her anti-bullying foundation's Facebook page: "Every single act of education," she wrote,"makes a difference."

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