Peer abuse has always existed at school, but the kinds of kids who are harassing others have changed. The stereotype of yesteryear—a physically intimidating, low-achieving, socially maladjusted loner—no longer applies. Instead, bullies these days are, often as not, popular kids and academic achievers. "They are alpha girls and quarterbacks and not necessarily kids struggling to gain a social foothold," says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, which runs anti-bullying programs in K-12 schools. Girls are slightly more likely than boys to act out against others—not physically, but by using tactics like alienation, ostracism and deliberate rumors calculated to inflict maximum psychological damage.
So what causes a student who is doing well to go out of his or her way to hurt another? For one, there's the momentary rush kids get from being perceived as dominant in a group situation. But research suggests that the growing frequency and intensity of bullying may be the result of a troubling decline in social skills among adolescents. In a 2009 study, researchers asked teachers whether they thought children's ability to get along with one another and resolve disputes had improved over the last decade, stayed about the same, declined slightly, or declined significantly. Their response was overwhelmingly negative: 75 percent of educators perceived a significant drop and 25 percent said they saw a slight decline.
Psychologists say that these changes may be connected to the way we're raising our kids. In the last 20 years opportunities for preschoolers and elementary school kids to engage in free play with other children have pretty much evaporated. Instead, parents relentlessly cram their kids' schedules with an array of adult-led academic and sports enrichment activities. While those certainly have their upside, unsupervised interaction teaches young kids impulse control and enhances emotional stability, which in turn helps them manage friendships and other relationships. "In our enthusiasm to make our children smarter and stronger, we've forgotten that they need time and opportunities to learn how to be competent social beings, which is every bit as important as knowing algebra and grammar," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Philadelphia's Temple University who has researched and written extensively on the social, cognitive and emotional growth that accompanies play. While there is no direct evidence to suggest that enrolling your kid in pee-wee soccer or conversational Mandarin will increase the likelihood that he'll turn out to be a bully, research indicates that free play—and plenty of it—does indeed enhance skills needed to avoid the aggressor/victim dynamic.
Technology is short-changing our kids as well. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between the ages of 8 and 18 now spend about 7.5 hours a day tethered to smart phones, laptops or other devices, up from about 6 hours in 2005. And that doesn't include the 1 1/2 hours they spend texting or talking. It adds up to 63 hours of media every week—and it comes at a price, says Gary Small, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (Harper). "The time young people spend engaged with technology is time not spent playing on the playground, or learning verbal cues and face-to-face skills, like maintaining eye contact," he says. "Those are all things that could help reduce the surge in school bullying."