While controversy has since arisen over Keaton's mom's questionable social media posts, the boy's original question is still worth looking into: Bullying is so awful–so why do people do it?
According to data from 2016, roughly 20 percent of school-age children are victims of bullying. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 70 percent of students have seen it in their school. And that behavior doesn't always stop when people leave school. At some point, almost everyone's asked the same question painful as Keaton. Why is my boss such a jerk? Why are my friends so hard on me? Why does another person seem to want me to hurt?
According to several experts, the answer isn't simple.
Part of it starts with misconceptions. Pop culture's archetype of a bully–a rough-edged loner, quick to anger and violence, lashing out against those weaker than him–is a stereotype that belies a larger problem that's much harder to pin down. Jane Riese, the Associate Director of Safe and Humane Schools and the director of training for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at Clemson University, told Men's Health that people who exhibit bullying behavior don't fit one mold, and may have a broad range of reasons for their actions.
"There isn't a single profile. Not all these kids have obvious behavioral issues, not all of them are big time rule breakers," Riese said. "A lot of them are well liked. They can be very socially skilled. Many are even viewed by others as being popular."
Bullying isn't always about lashing out, Riese said.
"Bullying is a misuse of power," Riese said. "People misuse power all the time, and they do it because they can. They do it because it works for them. They get some kind of reward for it. They get what they want."
In many cases, Riese said that can be social status, attention, prestige, possessions or more. There are many reasons why someone might feel they need these things–a history of suffering or hardship, group dynamics, poor self esteem or too much self esteem–but the common thread is usually power. Julie Hertzog, the director of Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center, agreed.
"The number one dynamic about why kids do it is because they want to get some power back in their lives, or they want to just feel in control of the situation, or just have that feeling of power over other individuals." Hertzog told Men's Health. And without proper guidance, the behavior can escalate.
"If the behavior goes unchecked or if there are no consequences for it once a child steps over a line," Hertzog said, "It’s easier to keep continuing to step beyond that line, especially if they’re getting some sort of additional confirmation or affirmation from their peers."
While bullying is harmful, the behavior doesn't necessarily mean that someone is a "bully." In fact, professionals don't like using that term, as it stigmatizes and labels kids that may just be struggling to interact in positive ways.
Irene van der Zande, the founder and executive director of Kidpower, a multi-focus children's issues nonprofit that operates a number of bullying-prevention resources, told Men's Health that children often need strong examples from authority figures to nip the behavior in the bud.
"Pushing and experimenting with negative power and pushing against boundaries is normal behavior as you're learning about how to navigate what we call 'social swimming,'" van der Zande said. "Just as we wouldn't leave kids to figure out how to swim in a swimming pool, we need to not leave them to figure out how to manage relationships."
In some way, Riese, Herzog, and van der Zand all acknowledged this: Bullying is a societal and environmental problem, not necessarily an individual one. While that doesn't absolve someone from the consequences of their behavior, the key to helping kids like Keaton Jones isn't in getting vindictive justice on his tormentors. Instead, experts say it's about changing the culture and environment we live in, to make it clear that bullying isn't cool, isn't fun, and doesn't pay.
In many cases, that starts with one person stepping up. Over half–57 percent–of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. For young students working against the pressure of their peers, van der Zand said it's important to have authority figures that can intervene and set an example. That means that if you're an adult, bullying in any situation is partially on you. And the research is clear: one voice makes a difference, so speak up.