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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sleepy Bullies?

In an era when Michelle Obama (and just about every other moral crusader) is talking about the importance of food and exercise on how kids perform in school, have we forgotten about sleep?

I was reading an article today about how some scientists are claiming that bullying behavior might be strongly linked with sleep deprivation.  The study claims that sleep deprivation can affect regions of the brain that are important for emotional regulation and decision-making.

A lot of this makes sense on an intuitive level.  Speaking from personal experience, I know that my sleep patterns greatly influence how I feel the following morning.  I don't have it down to an exact science, but if I get less than 5 hours of sleep, I notice that I have less energy, less patience, and occasionally, will feel more irritable than if I were to get a solid 6+ hours of sleep.

Also, I've also figured out that the timing of my sleep matters as well.  If I get to sleep by midnight or 1am, I typically will wake up the following morning feeling refreshed and ready to start a new day.  However, if I go to sleep at 4am, it seems like the quantity of my sleep has little effect on how I feel: Whether it's 3 or 6 hours, I feel tired as hell...

So, on multiple levels, the idea that sleep influences a person's emotional state and their decision-making seems like a plausible explanation.  However, as a sociologist, I can't help but think that some important social stuff is missing in this sort of explanation.  Bullying is much more than emotional instability and poor decision-making, right?  And my best guess is that there are lots of sleepy children who never become bullies.  So, what else could be at stake here?

From what I can gather, bullying--like other forms of violence--carries a special charm to those who do it.  Bullying is one way for kids to become infamous.  Infamy--the mean cousin of fame--is a powerfully alluring quality in its own right.  If you can't be famous, infamy is the best thing, right?  To some, infamy might even be more attractive than being famous. 

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a brilliant sociologist, has written widely about the allure of physical violence to young men.  Through very in-depth participant-observation, Jackson-Jacobs shows us how and why a group of white, middle class guys from Arizona get into lots of fights.  At risk of simplifying his work, Jackson-Jacobs reminds us that violence can be enthralling and fun to those who are willing to give it a try. 

At the same time,  bullying can also be practically-rewarding.  Kids who bully can take your lunch money, favorite snack, or your homework.  I'm not endorsing these behaviors (in fact, I think bullying is a big problem), but for many kids the ability to get these "spoils" might be reason enough to become a bully (An aside: Think about Nelson, the schoolyard bully from The Simpsons).   

Anyways, what are your thoughts?  Anybody have funny stories involving bullying or being bullied?  If so, I'd love to hear them!

Also, one more thing: Bullies should beware of who they try to bully.  Here is a great video clip of a guy who seems to be bullying another guy (who then busts out some kung fu)...


  1. I don't have much to offer in the way of bullying, but on the sleep front you should check out work by Sarah Burgard and Jennifer Ailshire on sleep. Their research is on adults, but it is really compelling in terms of the importance of sleep for social inequality.

  2. @ Mike3550, thanks for the response! I'll definitely try to check out their stuff on sleep. I know that Rose Cheney at Penn is also studying how sleeps impacts people's stress responses in low-income neighborhoods across Philly. I think it's one of those areas of everyday life that we often forget about. In many ways, sleep is the bedrock of daily life--like food, water, etc. I just wonder about this link to bullying and violence? It seems a little "spurious" to me as you might say ;)

  3. Are bullies motivated by the prospect of infamy the same way criminals, gangsters, and other "tough guys" are? Bullying is usually a rather solitary phenomenon, isn't it, except under special circumstances? (E.g. in jail bullies may get respect.) Among adolescents, isn't the prototypical bully a loner, detested by others? Another type might be crowds/crews of bullies.

    But, no doubt, their is that satisfaction in it that Jack Katz discussed in "Way of the Badass." Here, I think, is a nice distinction between Bullies and Brawlers (like those I studied). Brawlers sometimes don't even care if they "win." Bullies are all about domination, humiliation. Not even physical harm; if they can punk you with words, they may leave it at that.

    Interesting you bring up "practical" rewards. Not to criticize after you've been so gentle with my theory, but I don't think you mean "practical." Good point, but I would use the old standby "instrumentally" rewarding or "leads to tangible rewards."

    Good stuff. That's what distinguishes different types of violent actors or, minimally, types of acts.

    -- Curtis Jackson-Jacobs

  4. During adolescence, sleeping patterns may be strongly influenced by parental involvement and style. Sleep deprivation may be more of a symptom rather than a cause. Not all bullying cases are the same, but generally speaking, much of your identity, social skills, and self-esteem are often affected by the relationship you have with your parents / homelife. An individual student also may have many factors influencing his or her decision to bully others on a day to day basis (both socially or physically): infamy, monetary gains, parenting, setting, or genetic predisposition. However, the individual’s frequency or pattern of bullying may be affected by the individual’s longterm relationships with parents and peers.

    Parents and other peers who bully may serve as a model. Cycles of abuse may occur from parent to child, sibling to sibling, bullies to victims, or victims to other victims. Physical bullying is an act of domination. You get a sense of control of your own life and those around you. Power also makes people feel good about themselves. Even though you may be disliked, you’re still respected and feared. Though it is a temporary feeling, it’s affirmation of self-worth. It allows you feel like a king for just a moment thought you may feel powerless in other times. Though socially undesirable, bullying is a learned behavior for getting things that you want from others, because some students may not know how to be accepted by others in healthy ways and perceive themselves as outsiders / inadequate.

    Individuals with the right predisposition (personality, genetics) will react in that manner within certain social settings. Is bullying inevitable, or can the right settings socialize individuals despite outside factors /family history and discourage socially undesirable behaviors in schools, prisons, and etc.?