By Learning for Life
Dec 04, 2013

Can a renewed focus on citizenship help to solve the bullying problem?

Bullying is not a product of a modern age, but has been increasingly scrutinized in the past decade. After the Columbine High School massacre U.S. Secret Service officials found that bullying “in terms that approached torment,” played a part in two-thirds of the 37 premeditated school shootings they analyzed.

BullyingThe effects and causes of bullying are complex.  Individual, familial, societal and community factors play roles, and the impacts can be physical, emotional and psychological for victims, perpetrators, and witnesses.

With such a complex topic, how can the field of youth development make an impact? I believe that an emphasis on citizenship in out-of-school youth programs can contribute to a solution.

Sherrod, Flanagan, and Youniss[1] point out that in the context of youth development, “Citizenship … has to involve multiple components if we are to understand its development in diverse populations in this country.” A definition of global citizenship, offered by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, is “a continuum going from being aware of the interdependent nature of our world, to understanding how local and global issues affect the well-being of people around the world, to committing or taking actions to create a more equitable world.”

Key factors in developing citizenship might include:

  • The ability to move beyond self-interest to expressing concern for others
  • A sense of connectedness to a group (including the nation and world)
  • The ability to respectfully listen to and consider differing experiences and opinions
  • The ability to compromise
  • Understanding of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy and how action or inaction contributes to one’s nation state, as well as to the world
  • Commitment to creating a more equitable world

The teaching of empathy is a common element in violence prevention, and youth programs focused on developing citizenship provide a natural platform for helping young people understand how they connect with others. Foundational research on resiliency has found that the opportunity for meaningful involvement and responsibility can be an important protective factor for youth by helping them connect to society. Perhaps this feeling of connectedness, coupled with the ability to empathize, is the key to combating bullying as a cultural phenomenon. And what better way to do strengthen this ability than by showing young people how they are and can be, now, responsible, positively contributing citizens.

By Jessica Pierson Russo, M.Ed.

Since 1991 the Learning for Life character education program has offered school based lessons and activities to youth in the Utah National Parks Council, Boy Scouts of America territory. The Learning for Life program currently serves 9,073 youth in schools, clubs and organizations throughout central and southern Utah. For more information contact Ann Shumway at  or 801-437-6218.

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