Critique of the United States Federal Government’s Anti-Bullying Campaign – Currie Touloumtzis
Critique of the United States Federal Government’s Anti-Bullying Campaign – Currie Touloumtzis
Center for Disease Control defines bullying as a physically or verbally aggressive act, causing the victim emotional harm and sometimes physical harm . The federal government defines bullying as
Unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems .
Bullying is most prevalent among adolescent youth, and thus the campaigns and interventions try to target this group. Private schools are not exempt from bullying; both public and private schools are steadily putting interventions in place that attempt to combat this serious public health issue.
The U.S. Federal Government’s current campaign is “Stop Bullying,” designed to help alleviate bullying. There are three players in a bullying incident: the bully, the victim, and the bystander . The campaign, outlined on its website http://www.stopbullying.gov/, is trying to address this immense problem among youth. Their site is broken into five different tabs, with headers: Parents, Educators, Community, Teens, and Kids. Each tab provides information for its corresponding group. Essentially, it is a source-based campaign that enables those visiting the site to gather suggestions to address their bullying problems and concerns. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama note this growing campaign in a public service announcement ; however, government funding of this intervention does not equate to effectiveness. The federal government’s campaign fails to reach its target audience - the design does not incorporate all three players of bullying, and it does not utilize similarity to relate to its audience.
Failure to Address the Target Audience
The government’s StopBullying.gov campaign does not employ Communications Theory. This theory incorporates the concept of using likability, familiarity, similarity and visual associations to convey a message to its target audience, usually through a media-based outlet . StopBullying.gov does not have a defined target audience. The campaign should be focused on getting its message to impact the most influential audience when it comes to bullying: youth. Rather, Stop Bullying provides prevention strategies to teens and teachers and parents and the community and kids . The target audience must be a singular group, and the campaign should be direct in reaching it . In this case, the campaign should be focused on speaking to teenagers.
Stop Bullying has essentially sided itself exclusively toward the parents, community and administration in the school systems. It has inadvertently done so through its “Kids” and “Teens” sections on the site. This campaign loosely tries to reach out to kids through a series of videos, called “Webisodes,” found on the Stop Bullying website . These 2 to 3 minute episodes are intended to dissuade elementary-aged children from bullying one another. However, these video clips are cartoons, with very dorky characters that are supposed to represent students as different types of animals, and the teachers and adult figures are also animals and equally silly. These messages may transpire to kindergarten and first graders, but their parents will be the ones needing to go on to the computer and show them these episodes. For those in the age where bullying becomes a real threat (ages 8-18) , they will most likely not find these Webisodes meaningful.
A key component to Communications Theory is the ability to relate to its target audience. This campaign does not relate to the majority of the “Kids” since the Webisodes fall out of the scope of the age group needing the effective anti-bullying campaign. If teenagers were browsing this site and saw these clips, it is unlikely they would find any likability with the characters . Additionally, how could 8-18 year olds watching these Webisodes possibly find any similarity with not only cartoons, but animals that are portraying the students? The outcome would be that they would not take the message seriously, and possibly dismiss the entire site because of the Webisodes .
Within the section for “Teens” even less information is provided, and the site does not even attempt to provide any videos to dissuade bullying. The site does offer the subcategory, Cyberbullying, where StopBullying.gov gives some examples of places cyberbullying can be found. Cyberbullying entails all media-based bullying - including but not limited to Facebook, Instant Messenger, Text messaging – that the bully or bullies will use to target their victim(s) [25, 9]. Stop Bullying has a short video called, “Stand Up to Cyberbullying” which is another example of this campaign’s inability to get on the level of the teenagers. It is a cartoon as well, this time with indistinguishable cut-out faces discussing the message of being nice when texting . This newer version of bullying is of strong concern because it can easily be hidden from adults, and even more pressing is the idea that cyberbullying can be happening beyond the schoolyard; that cyberbullying follows you home . Parental supervision on the internet can only extend so far, and if this bullying is taking place on “acceptable” sites such as Facebook and Twitter, adults may not recognize what is going on. Cell phone use may have minimal monitoring as well, unless parents are willing to invade their child’s privacy by going through their child’s phone and reading past messages. Unlike the perception Stop Bullying and its predecessor Ad Council assumes, teens are probably not going to discuss cyberbullying with an adult. The advice for the parents may well be moot. In fact, teens are two times more likely to talk to a friend about a cyberbullying incident than to talk to their parents or a trusted adult . Unfortunately, the government’s campaign does not extend into the deeper rooted issue of cyberbullying, but instead coasts over it with a few tips on where to find it [25, 9]. Consequently, even if the site attempted to focus on teens to provide them information on bullying such as cyberbullying, the stodgy atmosphere of the site still dismisses communications theory and the message would get lost .
Failure to Reach All Three Players in Bullying
An additional flaw in the design of this campaign is the attempt to minimize teen violence through the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB). The overall strategy Stop Bullying uses at the youth-level is to encourage student bystanders witnessing bullying to speak up (as well as tell parents/teachers about these incidents). Although this is a legitimate goal, the campaign should not use the TPB to execute this objective. Ideally, if TPB was implemented by the teen, when they witness bullying they will assess the situation, use the decision-making process to either intervene themselves, or find a teacher, and then in a rational manner make that assessment be their behavior . However, as with most all human beings, including and maybe even more so with teens, it cannot be expected that even if that process of assessment occurs, the individual will follow through with that planned intention. The portion of this campaign designed for teenagers assumes that straightforward steps will proceed as follows: Bystander teen will see bullying occur, s/he will assess situation and decide if they are comfortable confronting bully and victim or go to teacher/faculty, s/he makes that behavior happen, bullying stops.
Using TPB as a foundation for the campaign does not support the bullies to stop, and it does not help the victims of bullying either. The campaign is almost exclusively targeted toward the bystanders. By using this theory, the campaign assumes that bystanders will see this site, feel encouraged to step up and make the strategic decision to intervene next time they see bullying, and then actually follow through with changing their behavior. However, it is neither realistic to presume that a bystander will take the time to go on to this website, nor sensible that the campaign rely on the players of bullying to actively seek their information. This required site visitation is another barrier to the intervention.
Similarly, the meager section for the victims, entitled “I might be being bullied”  is not an assertive or comforting message. By using TPB the campaign again assumes that the victim is seeking out the site, sees the title that draws the victim in, helps the victim formulate a plan to either tell someone or tell the bully to stop, and then do so. But what if the victim gets cold feet at the very last minute? Or the weekend goes by and they no longer have the gumption? This model does not extend to meet the campaign’s intention , and this campaign’s intention does not extend to the needs of the bullying players.
Although TPB does incorporate the role of social norms on influencing one’s overall behavioral intention , the degree to which peers determine decisions amongst peers is not recognized in this campaign. Behavioral prediction will not be the most effective method of predicting actual behavior, especially if the campaign is disregarding how much of an impact teens can have on other teens (at a group level). This theory immersed in the Stop Bullying campaign does not cover the irrational behavior of individuals . Other anti-bullying campaigns are similar in that they do not truly identify the immense impact peer pressure has on teens and the teen bystander .
Aside from using an individual-based model that does not account for the complexity of its at-risk population, another critique of this campaign is that it disregards the source. This site does not provide any information for a bully. What if the bullies decided they wanted to stop, but do not want to jeopardize losing their friends or in turn become a victim? Or, how do bullies that never want to consider being nice because they do not find it important fit into this campaign model?  TPB does not have the capacity to address the multitude of scenarios involved with the issue of bullying.
“Teach your kid not to be a bystander” is an integral part of the Stop Bullying campaign, promulgated by Ad Council to be a strategic route. However, this is assuming that your kids are not getting bullied themselves. Yes, it is important to have these difficult discussions with your kids, but parents cannot presume their child is exempt from bullying. Rather than just teaching them the benefits of not being a bystander, parents need to talk to their child(ren) about whether they themselves are being bullied, or whether they are the bully.
The Stop Bullying campaign presupposes the prevalence of bullying is known. On average, about 1 in 4 teens in the U.S. will experience bullying, and upwards of 80% of high school students report witnessing bully-behavior at least once a week . However, these figures do not incorporate or provide speculation on the number of kids being bullied without ever reporting it. This, then, requires the involvement of teachers and faculty within the school systems to assume the essential role of reporting on what is really going on in the hallways. But, anti-bullying campaigns should not in any way rely on adult involvement, especially if most of the bullying is not being seen by or reported to them .
Parent’s involvement has an uneven impact on the decrease in youth violence . Unfortunately, not all parents are attentive to their children and their children’s struggles in school. Kids may find it difficult or impossible to discuss an issue, such as being bullied, with their family for fear of being questioned, accused, or feeling embarrassed . Parental involvement can work, but it is not a consistent method in decreasing acts of bullying . This becomes yet another reason for the target audience to be teenagers, and that the scope of this audience includes all three players of bullying.
Promotion of Psychological Reactance
The federal government’s current anti-bullying campaign is unable to deflect psychological reactance. Psychological Reactance is when our method or mode of persuasion to steer a group in one direction completely backfires, and consequently has the opposite desired effect . An example of this in public health was with the “Just Say No” campaign. In its attempt to discourage kids from doing drugs, the $1 billion dollar campaign ended up failing overall, with the explicit message not reaching its teenage audience .
Since the message threatens teenagers’ freedom and autonomy, such campaigns are counterproductive and elicit undesired reactions, also known as the “boomerang effect” . In order to maintain or re-gain that freedom, the individual(s) will react by taking the opposite approach . In Stop Bullying’s case, more bullying can occur. In fact, this is the type of campaign where psychological reactance that happens from viewing these ads could lead to the creation of parodies about the ads, as seen from other government campaigns such as “Above the Influence” .
By sending out a message conveying “Bullying is bad” with their spokespeople being cartoon animals, the meaning is not taken seriously. Aside from the Webisodes and Cyberbullying videos, the campaign presents bland, informational text. The text reads in a declarative manner, making it very susceptible to psychological reactance . On the “Teens” page, the advice is given from their peers (other teenagers “like them”). However this page, with its incredibly smiley group of teens, all looking positively smitten, is not the form of similarity that is necessary to prevent psychological reactance from occurring . Even if the group photograph of these teenagers was a relatable depiction, it is still found on a dull, explicit website that teens truly looking for a resource to deal with their bullying issue would not find comfort or relation. The ‘Teens’ section on StopBullying.gov has quotes like, “If you are bullied, say something!” and, “If you are bullying, it’s not cool.”  Even if these unimaginative statements evoked positive feelings in the bullied/bullies, the site still has little merit from its overall design. Thus, the “boomerang effect” is highly possible [26, 8].
Final Thoughts on Critique
Pointing fingers at students and declaring that they be nice to one another gets completely overlooked by teens. Threatening kids to be nice to one another or else punishment will ensue is an equally empty threat [7, 8]. The creators of this campaign did not consider tackling anti-bullying at the group level. Stop Bullying is not a visually appealing site. It does not reach its audience but instead provides a CDC-like, informational site that most would glance over quickly. In an age where 8-18 year olds spend an average of 7.38 hours using some form of media , this site is not with the times. Although this is an alarming number of hours, it also supports the idea that a campaign must be designed to appeal to this media-hungry audience.
Articulation of Proposed Intervention
A new anti-bullying campaign, with teenagers as its singular target audience, should be designed to incorporate three key elements which would ideally persuade teenagers to stop bullying and stop letting it happen. These elements include: using real, relatable people; using a message that appeals to the masses; and using a campaign that addresses not only bystanders and victims, but the bully (or the “source”) as well.
Use of Communications Theory
For an anti-bullying intervention to be effective, it is imperative that the intervention’s target audience is reachable through the campaign. An example of a campaign that is trying to speak directly to its target audience is https://meanstinks.com/. This web-based campaign is set up in a similar format to the popular website called www.Pinterest.com. The website was created by Rachel Simmons, author of the book “Odd Girl Out” and is a particularly effective strategy because the Mean Stinks: Gang Up For Good! campaign is geared toward teenage girls . Pinterest is a very popular website among this demographic and maintaining a familiar format makes the message initially appealing and keeps the audience engaged. Many anti-bullying campaigns are not designed to address the deeper layers of bullying. The area that many are set up to address (including Stop Bullying) is the superficial level of bullying – the bullying that is seen. Unfortunately, much of the bullying that does occur involves hidden cruelty. Planned exclusion, rumors and gossip are often overlooked or unnoticed by adults and parents, and even potential “bystander” students, and therefore, they cannot intervene. Bullying disguised as friendship and using friendship as a bully’s weapon can leave kids uncertain how to cope . This type of bullying must be considered in an effective campaign, because it is the entire spectrum of bullying that keeps the cycle going.
Since one of the main principles in Communications Theory is that the person delivering the message has to be likable, an anti-bullying campaign must include this if it wants the audience to be persuaded by the message. Creating this new anti-bullying campaign would ideally have involvement with younger big-name celebrities. Justin Beiber may be one of several spokespeople to use for the new campaign. An intervention could be more meaningful if there were likable and familiar role models to not only dissuade bullying, but also relate by telling their own experiences with bullies. These influential individuals could have messages discussing the three categories of bullying. One could be a well-known, likable sports player discussing how he was a bully. Another ad could be a popular singer (like Justin Beiber) who was a victim of bullying. And finally there could be a third ad where a role model discusses their experience as a bystander. There could be multiple ads, several addressing each bullying category. It is important that these ads include an example of every aspect of bullying, not just the superficial portion. Cyberbulling and “hidden” friendship bullying would all be covered. Additionally, the famous spokespeople could discuss bullying on specific groups such as the LGBTQ Community, and bullying in teenagers with special needs. Having relatable spokespeople that can speak to the level of their audience could increase the chance of the message getting across.
Although it is challenging to form a campaign that can be relatable through the communications theory in every aspect, especially with the diversity in our society, just having one similar attribute that can connect the student with the message is powerful. Additionally, this similarity can help stave off psychological reactance .
Use of Group-Level Theories
Aside from effectively utilizing Communications Theory, this new anti-bullying intervention would benefit by relating to teenagers at the group level. Rather than tackling bullying with individual-based theories, it would be more effective to use theories that factor in our entire target audience. We want, preferably, an intervention that affects the teenage population as a whole. This, in theory, should be even easier than the individual-based approaches, since teens are a particularly impressionable group to begin with. Use of Herding Theory would set us in motion. Herding Theory describes how a group of people can act together without a plan or a direction . People conform without really knowing why. A well-known example of such conformity is when a group of people traveling, inadvertently all decide to go to the uneventful town of Abilene, Texas. Each thought the other wanted to go when, in reality, no one did. This has been called the ‘Abilene Paradox’ . A more topical example is seen in the movie “Mean Girls”, directed by Mark Waters with screenplay by Tina Fey. The movie has a scene where the “popular girl” who is also the main bully in the movie, comes back from gym class to find her shirt has two holes cut out. Rather than letting it bother her, she wears the shirt anyway. Immediately after, all of the other girls at school follow what this popular girl is wearing, and cut holes in their own shirts . They look ridiculous, but all follow along to conform with one another, using the popular girl as their herding leader. Although this example is entirely fictional, humans often follow along without having any rational basis . Because of this tendency to “follow the herd” and react at a group level, it is imperative that a new anti-bullying campaign implement this theory.
Herding Theory could be put into practice by way of an anti-bully symbol. The UK’s primary anti-bullying campaign called “Beatbullying” is a charity-driven campaign that has blue wrist bands for individuals to wear to symbolize they’re against bullying. Beatbullying says, “Wearing a Beatbullying wristband is a great way to make your pupils feel part of your anti-bullying strategy and help them feel safe in school.”  The anti-bullying campaign, “I Choose”, uses the same method where bracelets and phrases are used to promote the choice of not bullying . Having a visual image that is appealing to teens and viewed as “cool,” if applied to the masses, could have an immense impact. The tee-shirt ‘Three Wolf Moon’ became an overnight sensation, and that was just a t-shirt without a cause behind it . The aforementioned campaign “Mean Stinks” symbolizes its anti-bully message with a blue-painted pinky nail. Doing this is a method that provides uniformity and connection between girls, to feel they’re not alone in the fight against bullying. The website encourages girls (who can “Join the Cause” and post through popular websites such as Facebook and Twitter) to take photos of their blue-painted pinkies interlocked with a friend . This simple encouragement can be effective. Hopefully we will start seeing more girls with blue pinkies.
Unlike Stop Bullying, an anti-bullying campaign needs to address the issue on a group-level. MTV and Facebook have recently joined forces to create a campaign that is catchy, visually appealing, and attempting to appeal to the masses. MTV and Facebook recruited Justin Beiber to be a face to their new anti-cyberbullying campaign. Since the media is certainly a threat with the bullying issue, making not bullying appealing and having the chance to get “Justin Beiber on your voicemail!” makes being nice all the more appealing . This is the right idea. The intervention needs to make NOT bullying the norm, and create a movement. Ideally, not being a bully would be seen as the cool and rebellious thing to do, and the victims would no longer feel isolated from their peers.
Use of Advertising Theory to Address the Source of Bullying
To tackle bullying full-on, an anti-bullying intervention must incorporate all three players of bullying. Bullies need to know how to stop bullying just as much as victims need to know how to cope with bullying. An intervening bystander is not the only method to deal with this issue. There is very little being done to try and determine why the bully is bullying, and how we can change this. To again use a campaign that tries to affect the teenage population at a group level, the new intervention should utilize Advertising Theory, and the idea of “The Tipping Point.” The Tipping Point is when a new trend becomes popular and then suddenly, becomes tremendously popular, whereby ideas and products, messages or behaviors spread like viruses do . An example of the tipping point, where something can fall into the “gone viral” phenomenon is the music video “Gangnam Style.” This video has received over 889 million views . Why could we not have an ad out there with at least half that success, depicting friendship as being the “in thing”? In order to create a popular ad, it would be imperative to conduct research about what teenagers think about bullying – and target all three players in bullying.
Advertising Theory works on the group level. For example the “Truth” campaign used in Florida to deter teen smoking, used Advertising Theory to implement their campaign. They used their audience, teenagers, as their inspiration and guidance . “Truth” did its research before it set anything in motion. This would be an appropriate tactic to mimic when creating an anti-bullying ad. These ads, which could be viewed online and on television (aired to the masses), would break the barrier of needing to actively seek out the messages. The ubiquitous ads would have effective visuals, celebrities and idealized role models carrying the message, and would be speaking directly to the audience: the teenagers. These messages would not include the finger-pointing, “Bullying is bad” and “Speak up if you’re a bystander.” Rather, they would reinforce the message of community, and friendship, and that excitement of being that age. Rebellion is an intriguing idea among youth. “Truth” campaign used this knowledge in their ads . The message for the new anti-bullying campaign could be rebellion against the segregation bullying causes, and in turn promote unity through friendship. Instead of “speak up”: Step Up!!
We should not be reading about teenagers who took their life after relentless bullying. News stories such as, “Two high school girls distribute cupcakes laced with urine to their peers”  is a frightening headline. These stories, sometimes outlandish but oftentimes, real, demonstrate the urgency of implementing an anti-bullying intervention that will speak to the teens. They are the ones that need to really hear the message in order for any change to occur. Not bullying needs to be cool and accepted. Bullying segregates people – teens need to rebel against that isolation. We are in a world where internet videos can “Go viral” and get millions of hits; where television can be found at every corner. Smart phones are ubiquitous in America. A message can get across to the masses. We need that message to stick. Step Up!!
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