Bullying is aggressive behavior in which there is an imbalance of power or strength. Usually, bullying is repeated over time. Bullying behaviors may be direct (e.g., hitting, kicking, taunting, malicious teasing, name calling) or indirect (e.g., rumor spreading, social exclusion, manipulation of friendships, cyberbullying). Although adults may tend to view bullying as an aggressive exchange between two individuals (a child who bullies and his or her victim), it is more accurately understood as a group phenomenon, in which children may play a variety of roles as aggressors, victims, observers, and defenders.
Attention to Bullying
Although bullying is an age-old phenomenon, it has only recently been recognized as a serious and pervasive problem among children and youth in the United States. Led by the pioneering work of Dan Olweus in Norway, research attention to peer bullying in Scandinavia has been active for more than 3 decades, and there has been wide-scale public attention to the problem in Scandinavian countries since the early 1980s. In the United States, such wide-scale interest in bullying was not aroused until the spring of 1999, when media accounts of the shootings at Columbine High School identified the perpetrators as victims of bullying by classmates. Research on the nature and extent of bullying among children and youth has increased significantly in recent years. A smaller, but growing, literature on adult workplace bullying has also emerged.
Rates of bullying among children and youth vary depending on the definition that researchers use and the populations studied. In an important nationally representative study of more than 15,000 students in Grades 6 to 10, Tonya Nansel and her colleagues found that 17% of children and youth reported having been bullied “sometimes” or more often during the school term and 19% had bullied others “sometimes” or more frequently. These researchers also found that 6% of the students were “bully victims”—they had bullied others and also had been bullied.
Demographic Differences in Bullying
The nature and prevalence of bullying among children and youth have been found to vary by age and gender. Most research suggests that children are most likely to be bullied during their elementary school years, followed by middle school, and high school. Children and youth typically are bullied either by same-age peers or by older children and youth. This may explain why somewhat different age trends are found when focusing on rates of bullying others versus rates of victimization. Most researchers have found that children and youth are most likely to bully others during early to mid adolescence.
Although both girls and boys are frequently engaged in bullying problems, researchers have debated the relative frequency with which they engage in and experience bullying. Studies relying on self-report measures typically have found that boys are more likely than girls to bully. Research findings are less consistent when examining gender differences in peer victimization. Some studies have found that boys report higher rates of victimization than girls. Other studies, however, have found either no gender differences or only marginal differences. What is clear is that girls are bullied by both boys and girls, while boys are most often bullied by other boys. Perhaps more important than the relative frequency of bullying among boys and girls is the types of bullying in which they are involved. The most common form of bullying experienced by both boys and girls is verbal bullying. However, there are also are notable gender differences. Boys are more likely than girls to experience physical bullying by their peers. Girls are more likely than boys to be bullied through rumor spreading or being the subjects of sexual comments or gestures.
Causes of Bullying
Bullying is a complex phenomenon with no single cause. Rather, bullying among children and youth is best understood as the result of an interaction between an individual and his or her social ecology—his or her family, peer group, school, and broader community. For example, although children who bully tend to share some common individual characteristics (e.g., have dominant personalities, have difficulty conforming to rules, and view violence in a positive light), research also has confirmed that there are some common family characteristics of children who bully, including a lack of warmth and involvement on the part of parents, a lack of supervision, inconsistent discipline, and exposure to violence in the home. A child’s peer group also may influence his or her involvement in bullying. Children who bully also are likely to associate with other aggressive or bullying children. Not only are bullying rates influenced by characteristics associated with individual children, family units, and peer groups, but they also may be affected by characteristics of schools (e.g., have staff with indifferent or accepting attitudes about bullying) and by factors within a community or the broader society (e.g., exposure to media violence).
Effects of Bullying
Bullying can affect the mental and physical health of children, as well as their academic work. Bullied children are more likely than their nonbullied peers to be anxious, suffer from low self-esteem, be depressed, and to think of taking their own lives. They also are more likely than other children to experience a variety of health problems, such as headaches, stomach pain, tension, fatigue, sleep problems, and decreases in appetite. On average, bullied children also have higher school absenteeism rates, are more likely to say they dislike school, and have lower grades compared to their nonbullied peers. Not only can bullying seriously affect children who bully, but it also may cause children who observe or “witness” bullying to feel anxious or helpless. Bullying can negatively affect the climate or culture of a school.
Finally, there also is reason to be concerned about children who frequently bully their peers, as they are more likely than their peers to be involved in vandalism, fighting, theft, and weapon carrying, and are more likely than nonbullying peers to consume alcohol.
Bullying Prevention and Intervention in Schools
Significant recent effort has focused on prevention of bullying in schools. Research to date suggests that the most successful efforts are comprehensive school-based prevention programs that are focused on changing the climate of the school and norms for behavior.
- Espelage, D., & Swearer, S. (Eds.). (2003). Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Limber, S. P. (2006). Peer victimization: The nature and prevalence of bullying among children and youth. In N. E. Dowd, D. G. Singer, & R. F. Wilson (Eds.), Handbook of children, culture, and violence (pp. 313-332). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simmons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behavior among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100.
- Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. New York: Blackwell.