Bullying, also referred to as peer harassment or victimization, is defined within the context of peer relationships in childhood and adolescence and involves the frequent, persistent, and intentional use of physical harm or intimidation by one child or a group of children to victimize another child. Most definitions of bullying also emphasize a power differential between the two parties involved, such that targets of the aggression (i.e., victims) lack the physical, psychological, or social resources to defend themselves successfully. Bullies may engage in two types of aggression—overt and relational aggression. Overt aggression constitutes more direct physical and verbal acts, including starting fights, pushing, name calling, and taunting. Relational aggression targets children’s social networks in seeking to ostracize victims from the peer group by starting rumors about them or excluding them from group activities. Although there have been incidents in which these types of social interactions have escalated to more serious outcomes (e.g., homicide, suicide), bullying is not traditionally thought to include these more extreme forms of violence.
Prevalence Of Bullying
Because schools provide a natural structure within which children’s peer relationships develop, studies examining the prevalence of bullying have typically been conducted in American and European schools and have identified bullying as a common experience affecting many children and adolescents. In a recent national study of 15,686 sixth through tenth graders in the United States, 29.9% of the total sample revealed that they were involved in bully-victim behaviors at least several times within the current school term. Of these students, 13% were involved as bullies, 10.6% were targets of bullies, and 6.3% reported involvement as both bullies and victims. Additionally, boys were more likely than girls to bully or be victimized, as were students in the sixth through eighth grades. A similar nationwide survey conducted among 130,000 primary and junior high school students in Norway found that 15% of the children indicated involvement in bully-victim problems “now and then” or more frequently. Of this sample, 7% bullied other children, 9% were victims, and 1.6% were both bullies and victims. These national studies of bullying prevalence signify the increasingly accepted trend that bullying seems to increase during the elementary school years and peak during junior high or middle school, with relatively fewer reports of such behaviors during the high school years.
The common perception and frequent finding that boys seem to be more involved in bullying, as either a bully or a victim, have led to increased attention in recent years to the notion of gender differences in bullying behaviors. In turn, several studies have suggested some differences in the types of aggression exerted by boys and girls. Overall, boys are more likely to be identified as bullies, engage in overt aggression, and fall prey to overt victimization, while some studies suggest that girls might be more likely to engage in and suffer from relational forms of aggression. Further, aggressive boys tend to victimize both boys and girls, while girls are more likely to target other girls.
Characteristics And Adjustment Of Bullies
Bullies and their victims have typically been distinguished from one another to contrast the social, psychological, and academic adjustment correlates associated with these roles in the elementary school peer group. There is some disagreement among developmental researchers as to the function or purpose of the aggression displayed by bullies, as evidenced by the concepts of proactive and reactive aggression. Proactive aggressors are thought to utilize aggression as an instrumental social strategy that is organized and goal-directed (e.g., bullying other children to gain dominant peer status or possession of some material good). Thus, bullies generally view the use of aggression as an acceptable and effective tactic. Reactive aggressors, on the other hand, tend to attribute hostility in any provocation from their peers and, consequently, choose to use aggression in response to perceived threat.
Regardless of the motivation for using aggressive behavior, bullies likely choose aggression as a means of interpersonal negotiation because of exposure to such behavior at home or school, such as coercive or punitive parental discipline. Impulsivity, emotional reactivity, attention deficits, disruptiveness, and other externalizing behaviors commonly characterize bullying children, and these types of traits likely foster the increasing peer rejection that bullies have been found to experience as elementary school progresses. Additionally, these children tend to struggle in their academic pursuits, whether from a coexistent lack of preparation for school or as a result of the distraction from academics that bullying provides in the classroom. Early negative experiences in the school environment seem to put bullies at increased risk for school absenteeism and dropout in middle school and high school. In addition to children’s exposure to aggressive interpersonal strategies in their environments, adults’ and peers’ tolerance of or lack of attention to bullying problems can further reinforce such childhood peer interactions. Bullying during the school years subsequently places children at high risk for antisocial, aggressive behaviors later in adolescence and adulthood (e.g., delinquency and criminal offenses).
Characteristics And Adjustment Of Victims
Similar to bullies, the targets of aggression (i.e., victims) have also been subdivided based upon their responses to bullying. Developmental theorists have distinguished between passive victims and provocative victims. Passive victims are defined as anxious and insecure children who tend to avoid conflict and refrain from defending themselves when bullied. They are often physically weaker than their peers, withdrawn, lacking in assertiveness, and respond with passive submission to the requests of others. Provocative victims, on the other hand, frequently try to defend themselves and may provoke bullies to victimize them by losing their tempers and irritating and teasing other children, including the bully. They are frequently characterized as impulsive, overly reactive, and lacking an ability to regulate their emotions. Because provocative victims are often unsuccessful in their use of aggression and attempts to defend themselves, they often become distressed and frustrated in their peer interactions.
When peer harassment becomes a chronic experience, both passive and provocative victims face increasing rejection from their peers. Because the targets of bullying often lack the support of other peers and spend much of their time alone, the emotional impact of their peer group status and experiences is likely internalized. Furthermore, many studies have documented the concurrent link between victimization and internalizing difficulties, specifically anxiety, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem. Overall, depression and loneliness have a stronger relationship with victim status than anxiety and low self-esteem. A large number of studies have examined the relationship between victimization and psychological maladjustment at the same point in time, but dramatically less is known about how this link persists over time. Little is also known about whether these psychological difficulties precede or follow peer harassment experiences, though some preliminary evidence suggests that anxious/withdrawn children appear to be easy targets for bullying. Moreover, being bullied serves to further exacerbate this anxiety and additionally leads to low self-esteem and depression. In addition to psychological difficulties, victims of bullying, like the bullies themselves, demonstrate problems in school. Their experiences of victimization at school seem to lead to avoidance behavior evidenced by school absenteeism, likely induced by fear and not feeling safe in the school environment. Victims also tend to perform poorly on academic tasks.
Assessment And School Interventions
To identify children who are either bullies or victims of bullies, psychologists utilize a variety of assessment methods, including self-report questionnaires, peer nominations, and teacher nominations. Though more practical when studying smaller groups of children (e.g., children’s play groups), direct observations and child interviews are also helpful as a means of understanding the dynamics of bullying. Numerous studies have addressed the strengths and weaknesses of relying on information provided by each of these methods of assessment, conclusively suggesting that a comprehensive evaluation using a variety of informants is the most valuable. Because poor psychological outcome among victims of bullying seems to be so closely linked to these children’s internalization of their experiences, self-report questionnaires tapping internalizing difficulties (e.g., depression) can be helpful to identify the extent to which victims are suffering.
Prevention and intervention programs addressing bully-victim problems have most often been implemented in schools. Some of the techniques incorporated in Scandinavian schools, for example, include discussing bullying problems with all students and parents in a school, increasing monitoring during recess and lunch, developing class rules that address bullying, and having individual conferences with those children and their parents who are identified as bullies or victims. Additionally, programs in the United States have taken a school-wide approach to educating all students about bully-victim dynamics and raising awareness about the positive and negative impact of student bystanders (i.e., those students who either support bullies or stand up for victims). Further, physical education programs have been used for encouraging the development of self-esteem and assertiveness as a defense against bullies, and mentorship programs provide a context for discussing effective conflict resolution. Evaluations of these programs have suggested decreases in victimization and improved overall school climate, though the magnitude and duration of these results vary among outcome studies. The effectiveness of antibullying/antivictimization interventions remains to be fully determined.
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