There is a lot of talk about politics these days and you are likely to hear discussions just about everywhere you go, especially online. Not only are people spouting their views, but the politicians themselves have a lot to say about the people they are running against. And most of it is not very nice. In fact, a lot of it is downright mean.
But have you ever considered how all this rhetoric is affecting our children? They are hearing and absorbing a lot more than most adults realize they are; and when the political speeches contain bullying and inflammatory language, it can have a huge impact on kids.
Stop and think about it for a minute. Many young people will say they aspire to be president of the United States someday. And even if they don’t want to be president when they grow up, many kids are in awe of the country’s leader. But during an election, what are they learning from the people that are running for the highest office in the country?
Rather than learning to treat others with respect and dignity, children are observing the nation’s top political leaders engaging in the very bullying tactics that kids at school use to climb the social ladder.
Shouldn’t our country’s leaders set better examples than this?
Multiple polls show that most Americans would say yes. In fact, many have deep concerns over the loss of civility among people. They see a lack of respect in schools, workplaces, and especially in government. In fact, according to a poll by Weber Shandwick, 65% of Americans believe that lack of civility is a major problem in the United States. Meanwhile, 72% of Americans believe our government is the least civil place in America.1
In fact, nearly half of those surveyed are tuning out government and politics because of the incivility and bullying behavior that is present. And 83% of those surveyed believe people should not vote for candidates and politicians who are uncivil.1
Types of Bullying Kids See During an Election
Most of the bullying tactics that politicians use are the very same ones that middle school and high school students use, especially when it comes to relational aggression. While most politicians refrain from using physical bullying or sexual bullying, they do engage in verbal bullying, prejudicial bullying, and cyberbullying.2
They also use a number of tactics that can be found inside any high school in the United States. Instead of bullying dissipating during the high school years, it is a continuing trend resulting not only in workplace bullying but in political bullying as well.3
Here are the top five bullying tactics young people may witness during an election year.
Blame-shifting. Bullies use blame-shifting when they want to deflect attention away from themselves.4 Likewise, political candidates often engage in blame-shifting. One popular example is to blame the person they are running against for everything from the economy, unemployment, and healthcare issues to racism, immigration, gun control, and freedom of speech.
The goal of the political candidate is to cast doubt on the abilities of another person by blaming them for something that needs to be addressed in the country. What’s more, when one person blames another, they avoid taking responsibility for anything they may have done to contribute to the situation.
Name-calling. Calling another person names is one of the oldest and most recognizable forms of bullying around. It is not uncommon to hear kids on the playground call each other losers and babies. They may even resort to calling other kids stupid and dummy.
While most adults would agree that name-calling is unacceptable, they seem to tolerate it from political candidates. In fact, many political candidates frequently call each other names. Even supporters get into the act, especially online. But if society wants to see an end to bullying, they need to demand that their leaders are setting good examples.
Reputation-bashing. Sabotaging someone’s reputation is one of the oldest political tactics in the books. Whether they use behind-the-scenes tactics or develop a smear campaign online, the goal is the same. The bully wants to draw their opponent’s reputation into question. They may even go so far as to engage in public shaming.
Ironically, the same thing happens every day in high schools around the country. Whether it is a bully or a mean girl, the goal is to damage someone else’s reputation so badly that they no longer pose a threat. Putting an end to this type of bullying in schools requires that adults live by the same standards they set for kids and teens.
Rumor spreading. Often one of the more subtle forms of bullying, spreading rumors or planting gossip about someone is frequently used during elections. The only difference is that the political candidate’s team plants stories among the media and online in order to cast their opponent in an unfavorable light. Sometimes these tactics are simply lies, other times they are partial truths. But the goal is the same and that is to cast doubt on another person’s integrity and character.
Making veiled threats. While some politicians are very bold and direct in their bullying of other candidates, others are much more covert in their actions. They get their message across by making subtle threats that can later be explained away if someone calls them on it. These threats might include everything from a subtle warning to an outrageous declaration of what might happen in the future. Threatening someone is an attempt to control the situation and is a very dangerous form of bullying.
The key to understanding bullying during elections is to recognize that political candidates are not above using the same bullying tactics that kids and teens use every day.
The problem is, they should be setting a better example than they are.
How Kids Are Impacted by Political Bullying
Research consistently shows that children and adolescents not only learn how to behave from watching television and viewing other types of media, but they also learn what is acceptable socially.5 Consequently, when kids see our nation’s leaders bullying others, whether it is on television or online, they grow up thinking that this is an acceptable way to treat others, especially if they want to get to the top someday. There also are some unintended consequences of election bullying.
Here are the top three ways kids are impacted.
Political bullying causes fear and anxiety. According to an informal study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the 2016 election year produced an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children. In fact, more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed report that students have expressed concerns over what might happen to them and their families after the 2016 election.6
Moreover, a study conducted at Penn State shows that a child who witnesses bullying may have a hard time feeling safe even though they are not directly impacted by the actions of the bully.7 The study’s authors point out that witnessing bullying leads to a social mistrust that diminishes a child’s faith in people and in society. While the Penn State study applied to witness bullying at school, many researchers believe that witnessing bullying in any arena would have the same impact.8
Political bullying leads kids to mimic what they see. Countless studies show that children often mimic what they see on television.9 As a result, if political bullying helps future leaders gain votes or popularity, then a natural conclusion for some young people would be to use the same tactics to become popular at school. Meanwhile, the SPLC study reports that sometimes watching politicians will embolden students to use slurs, engage in name-calling and make inflammatory statements toward each other.6 And when confronted, they point to politicians doing the same thing as a justification for their actions.
Political bullying increases bullying at school. The SPLC reports that more than half of those surveyed have seen an increase in uncivil political discussions during the 2016 election season.6
In fact, teachers who participated in the SPLC study report an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation.
What’s more, kids tend to use political statements or sentiments and repeat them at school, using them as weapons to harass and wound other students.
How to Counteract the Effects of Political Bullying
The key to reducing the impact of political bullying on kids is to be sure to put the actions of politicians in context for kids. Research suggests that when parents are involved with children and their television or online viewing habits, the impact of what they are watching is much less acute.10 Talk to your kids about the bullying they see from political candidates. Point out what is wrong with the behavior and discuss how they should behave instead.
Meanwhile, if you frequently discuss politics in your home or if you are a teacher discussing it in the classroom, use election time as a teaching tool about bullying. Also, monitor your own words. While it is fine to express your personal views on any particular election, be sure you are respectful in doing so. And if you engage in political discussions online, avoid bullying others who do not agree with your views. Remember, kids are watching you for cues on how they should respond to and interpret political bullying.
Written by Sherri Gordon