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Most adults can remember bullies and victims of bullying from when they were in school. The impact of these events does not stop when students graduate; these events can have long-lasting effects on bullies, victims, and even students who only watched bullying occur. The term bullying refers to a specific type of peer aggression that is intentional, repeated, and involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. Suggestions for intervention approaches at the individual, classroom, and school wide level are provided in this research paper.
- What Is Bullying?
- How Common Is Bullying on School Campuses?
- Who Are the Bullies?
- Who Are the Victims?
- What Are the Effects?
- What Can Be Done?
- The Special Role of Bystanders
Bullying in school settings was once thought of as a normal, transient part of growing up. It was considered to have little lasting impact, and the best advice to the victim was to fight back or turn the other cheek. Beginning in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, pioneering research began to shed light on this behavior and to dispel common myths. Expanded studies during the 1990s started to examine bullying as a serious form of aggression and considered the possible impacts of this experience on the bully, his or her victim, and even bystanders. The results of these investigations have shown that not only is bullying a common occurrence but also it has lasting effects on all involved.
The pioneer work on bullying was conducted in the mid-1980s by Dan Olweus, a Norwegian psychologist commissioned to conduct a large-scale study on the topic. Norway’s interest in bullying was driven by a string of suicides committed by adolescent boys who had been victims of severe bullying. These efforts were followed by a number of other investigations conducted by researchers in England (Smith), Canada (Peppler), and Australia (Slee, Rigby, and Griffiths). Detailed studies in the United States did not begin to focus seriously on bullying until later, primarily in response to several deadly school shootings that were perpetrated by students who were thought, at least in part, to be seeking revenge for past abuse by school bullies.
2. What Is Bullying?
Bullying is defined as aggression between peers that has three essential elements: It is intentional, it is repeated over time, and there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. This definition (developed by Olweus) distinguishes bullying from other types of peer aggression, such as one-time fights or friendly teasing between friends. It is these three defining characteristics that make bullying potentially so damaging. Victims are intimidated or hurt repeatedly by someone who is more powerful; consequently, they may learn to accept the victim role and come to distrust others. Ongoing victimization can have a serious impact on the development and well-being of children who are bullied. In addition, bullies who abuse their power (e.g., physical strength and popularity) to single out and intimidate peers potentially become involved in a pattern of using this social control strategy throughout their lives. As such, bullying is considered an exploitative relationship between peers rather than a one-time event.
Despite relative consensus among researchers as to what constitutes bullying, this clarity does not always extend into practice. Many of the most commonly used measures of bullying do not specify that, by definition, bullying is a series of intentional, repeated acts of aggression that occur in peer relationships in which there is an imbalance of power. The omission of a precise definition in research is problematic because, without these specifications, studies may overreport the prevalence of bullying when students are asked about general aggression. In addition, when educators and others think of bullying as a specific event, rather than a series of encounters, interventions may be more punitive and less focused on changing the process of interactions between peers.
In the past, bullying was considered to be physical acts of aggression that primarily occurred between boys. It is now recognized that bullying can take many forms, including ongoing physical abuse (e.g., hitting and pushing), verbal abuse (e.g., taunting and name-calling), social manipulation (e.g., rumor spreading and purposeful exclusion from activities), and attacks on property (e.g., breaking or stealing belongings). One common distinction is between direct bullying (i.e., physical aggression or chronic teasing that occur overtly between the bully and the victim) and indirect bullying (i.e., gossip or rumors targeting the victim that occur between the bully and a third party). Recognition that bullying can include these additional behaviors has broadened the definition and it is now more inclusive of types of aggression that occurs more frequently between girls (e.g., gossip and exclusion). Regardless of its specific form, all bullying involves the repeated abuse of a student by another more powerful student who wants to harm the victim. The bully, in fact, comes to enjoy exercising power over his or her selected target. It is a myth that bullies abuse others to compensate for low self-esteem. In fact, they often have positive self-esteem, may be popular with their peers, and inappropriately come to enjoy having power over others.
3. How Common Is Bullying On School Campuses?
The incidence of bullying varies from country to country and school to school within countries. However, it is certain that bullying occurs at all comprehensive schools across all grade levels. Students consistently report that most bullying incidents take place away from an adult presence at the school, including on school playgrounds, during or between class, and walking to and from school. In addition, bullying is often unreported by the parties involved, primarily because the bullies wish to avoid punishment and the victims wish to avoid further aggravating the bully or prompting retaliation—bullies intimidate their victims. Current research practices for collecting information utilize a combination of teacher and/or parent reports as well as student self-reports and student identification or nomination. Because researchers use various methods, a definitive estimate of the prevalence of bullying in schools is difficult to obtain. It is also probable that the available statistics underestimate the extent and scope of this problem.
A 1998 survey of 15,686 students in the United States conducted by the World Health Organization found that 16% of boys and 11% of girls felt bullied, with 23% of boys and 11% of girls admitting to bullying other students. Research has also found an association between the frequency of short-term and long-term victimization. For example, in a 2003 study of Norwegian victims of bullying, Solberg and Olweus found that bullying that persisted over a period of 1 month or more was more frequently reported than short-term bullying events. In other words, bullying is often a chronic experience for its victims.
There are some developmental differences in bullying. A 1993 study by Whitney and Smith found that the occurrence of bullying decreases as students get older, with the highest rates occurring in the upper elementary and middle schools and the lowest rates in secondary schools. This is suspected to be due, in part, to increased social and physical maturity. By the time a child reaches secondary school, there is a decreased presence of older, more powerful peers who can single out and pick on smaller, weaker peers.
In addition to age differences, there are also gender differences in bullying trends. As mentioned previously, boys are more likely to report both bullying and victimization; however, girls are more likely than boys to experience indirect bullying as opposed to direct bullying. Although the consequences of social rejection and isolation associated with indirect bullying may not be immediately obvious, it may produce negative long-term effects on the victim’s social development. Finally, female victims are more likely to tell a female peer about their experience, whereas males are more likely to turn to a trusted adult.
4. Who Are The Bullies?
Despite the increased awareness of female bullying, several researchers have found that most bullies tend to be boys or groups of boys. The results of studies designed to identify the etiology of bullying behavior have been mixed. Some experts suggest that bullies act to exert power over others with the primary purpose of gaining more power. Alternatively, other experts draw upon a social learning model in which bullying is a reaction to being bullied by other children or a reaction to a challenging home environment with associated authoritarian discipline experiences.
In cases in which bullies appear to be the popular children with no history of victimization, the bully behavior may be somewhat puzzling. In these cases, experts have suggested that bullying is a reaction to some underlying need for power. Bullies are rewarded for exerting power over others by gaining greater power, which reinforces this negative behavior.
Alternatively, the social learning perspective suggests that children who have suffered bullying may begin to bully others less powerful than themselves either as a form of retaliation or as a way of gaining some sense of empowerment. These children have been categorized as bully/victims. Similar to these bully/victims, children from abusive family environments may experience bullying at the hands of family members and, in turn, become bullies themselves. For example, Roberts and Morotti suggest that bullying behavior stems from abusive, chaotic home environments in which families bully the child, who in turn bullies a peer (i.e., a ‘‘kick-the-dog’’ phenomenon). In this type of environment a child learns to normalize and eventually utilize negative social interactions, such as bullying. This idea is supported by the identification of common characteristics of children known to suffer from abusive family experiences. For example, children who bully often display behaviors indicating low social competence, antisocial behavior, a lack of empathy, and high levels of aggression (physical, verbal, and relational). In addition, when interviewed, bullies often describe home environments that are more negative and authoritarian in style than those of children without histories of bullying.
5. Who Are The Victims?
Identified victims of bullying share many similar characteristics. In one pattern, victims are classified as either passive (never behaving aggressively) or highly aggressive (often provoking peers). Most victims are children who spend more time alone than typical children, often falling into the socially rejected category when rated by their peers. They often have poor or less than desirable physical characteristics (e.g., smaller in height, weight, and strength), are younger than the majority of their peers, display low social competence, and emotional maladjustment including depression. In general, victims of bullying are those youth whose physical, psychological, or social status is diminished compared to that of school bullies, thus making them possible targets of repeated aggression.
6. What Are The Effects?
The commonly cited short-term effects of bullying to the victim include risks of diminished self-esteem and depressed mood. Several physical symptoms, such as stomachaches and headaches, difficulty concentrating, and disruption of sleeping and eating habits, have been present among victims of bullying. Long-term effects can include depression, social anxiety, increased levels of aggression, lowered self-esteem, increased risk of suicide, decreased coping skills, and the presence of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. As a result of being traumatized by incidents of bullying, victims may carry these negative consequences into adulthood, leading to decreased levels of societal functioning.
Less well known are the effects of bullying on the bully himself or herself. It appears that the long-term effects include risks of school failure; further antisocial, criminal, and delinquent behavior; and an increase in depression, suicidal ideation, and global negative self-evaluation’s. In 1993, Olweus found that of the Norwegian children identified as bullies in grades 6–9, 60% were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Surprisingly, of this 60%, 35–40% had three or more convictions. In addition, incidents of drug abuse in conjunction with depression and suicidal tendencies have often been high among individuals identified as bullies, especially in comparison to individuals with no history of bullying. Finally, bullying is a behavior that, once engaged in, becomes a pattern that is difficult to stop. The bully may become accustomed to and rewarded by getting what he or she wants through asserting power over other individuals. This behavior may continue throughout life and affect social interactions and interpersonal relationships. In short, someone who is abusive in one aspect of his or her life tends to be abusive in various other aspects of life, which can lead to an aggressive and typically frustrating pattern of social behavior.
7. What Can Be Done?
Bully intervention programs implemented at schools seek to eliminate existing bully problems, prevent the development of new bully problems, and achieve better peer relations at school. Other goals of bully intervention programs are to create a positive school climate and increase caring behaviors toward bully victims. These goals are accomplished at the school wide level, the classroom level, and the individual level.
7.1. School-wide Responses
Before implementing a bully prevention program, the following must be considered:
- Staff training: What type of staff training is required? Who will provide training? How will training occur?
- Program funding: How much funding is available? How will funds be allocated?
- Time commitments: How much time will be required by the trained individuals outside of normal duties? How often will the program be implemented and for how long?
- Clear behavioral objectives: What will be expected of students after the intervention? Will the school rules be changed?
- Alternative programs: Which programs will be available for students who are not affected by the intervention?
- Program leadership: Who will take the lead? How will staff be chosen to participate? What qualifications and training are necessary?
In order to equip schools with appropriate tools to deal with bullying, training should include an awareness component through which the school staff is informed about the extent of bullying on campus. Staff should also be asked to examine their own beliefs about bullying. Training on bully prevention and intervention should include specific strategies as well as an overarching conceptual understanding of the nature of bullying as described in previous sections.
Because bullying often happens in unsupervised contexts, such as on the playground and in the lunchroom, where paraprofessionals and community volunteers often provide supervision, bus drivers, maintenance staff, and cafeteria workers should also receive training. Support staff should be aware of the school code and the school’s general bully response procedures.
Bully intervention programs at the school level often restructure the school environment to remove the consequences and negative impacts of bullying. Comprehensive programs typically create specific school-site committees that coordinate aspects of the program, administer questionnaires to determine the nature and extent of the bully problem, hold meetings to raise community awareness, improve supervision and the outdoor environment, and involve parents.
7.2. Classroom-Level Responses
As part of an overall school-wide plan, teachers implement many bully prevention programs within their classrooms. These programs ideally include a set of clear classroom rules and routines (preferably shared across classrooms at the same grade level), comprehensive academic lesson preparation, ample classroom structure, opportunities for students to develop empathy for one another, a warm classroom environment, cooperative instructional groups, and shared responsibilities. In addition to basic preparation and creating a positive classroom environment, teachers should never overlook bullying incidents because in doing so they may inadvertently contribute to a broader ‘‘culture of bullying’’ on the school campus. It is important to create conditions that encourage both victims and bystanders to report bullying when it occurs. It is also important to implement programs that address the unique needs and provide assistance to all involved— bullies, victims, and bystanders. Many teachers also implement programs to develop student skills for resolving conflict in order to provide opportunities for ‘‘in-the-moment’’ social skill learning.
7.3. Individual-Level Responses
It is important to determine the function that bullying serves in specific incidents because this will influence the intervention approach. Most bullies know that what they are doing is wrong, but they often have limited empathy for the victim and may have a personal need to dominate others. Merely punishing the bully (by using power over him or her) may only reinforce the notion that power is an effective social tool. Immediately following a bullying incident, a teacher or staff member should have a serious talk with the bully to determine what steps should be taken next. The talk should include a documentation of the incident, a message that bullying is not acceptable, a referral to the school’s code of conduct, and a reminder that the bully’s behavior will be closely monitored in the future. Individual responses to bullying also include continued one-on-one discussions, counseling, parent involvement, follow-up discussions, and, in extreme cases, the change of class or school for the bully or the victim.
In addition to talking to the bully, the victim should be interviewed as soon as possible, separately from the bully. It is important to obtain information about the duration and frequency of the bullying incident(s), if the victim has had similar experiences in the past, and what the victim has done to try to stop it. During this talk, the incident and nature of discussion should also be documented, the victim should receive information about the plan of action for the bully, and the victim should be taught how to report any future incidents. Assessing the social skills and status of the victim should be carried out as part of an effort to provide social skills training to enhance his or her sense of personal efficacy to cope effectively with any future bullying.
Because peers play different roles in the bully process, it is important that they be considered as a possible resource in the intervention process. Training for students should also contain an awareness component in which they are taught about the nature of bullying specific to their school and the resources available to them. It is important that their consciousness is raised about the general processes of bullying and the individual’s responsibility as a bystander. Training should focus on increasing empathy for the victims as well as provide peers with strategies to encourage them to withstand the pressures of their peer groups. Despite the common occurrence of bullying on school campuses, most students are not victims or perpetrators. They can have a powerful effect on the school climate as it relates to bullying. In part, bullying occurs on school campuses because it can. If bystanders recognize their important role in setting school standards, then its occurrence can be significantly reduced.
8. The Special Role Of Bystanders
Because peers are such an important part of the bullying process, they merit additional in-depth examination. By its nature, bullying is a social interaction that is embedded in a broader school context. The aggression that occurs between bullies and victims is rarely restricted in its impact to the bully–victim dyad. Rather, peers play an integral part in bullying and intervening. Olweus conceptualized student involvement in an acute bullying situation as being part of a continuum (or ‘‘bullying circle’’) (Fig. 1). At one end of the continuum are students who take an active part in bullying, support the bully, or follow the bully. At the other end of the continuum are students who defend the victim and dislike the bully’s actions. Many students fit in roles that fall somewhere in between— supporting the bully but not taking an active part, supporting the victim but not helping in his or her defense, or as disengaged onlookers.
FIGURE 1 Continuum of student reactions in a situation involving acute bullying. Adapted from Olweus (2001).
Simply by observing the bullying behavior, peers reinforce bullies who often gain social prestige through their aggression. In one study of school bullying, O’Connell, Peppler, and Craig found that when a higher number of peers were observing an incident of bullying, the duration of the incident was longer. The presence of peers served to encourage the bully by giving him or her more peer attention. At least for some bullying behavior, one of the primary reasons that bullying occurs is because the bully gains social prestige through this peer attention. When peers are asked for their opinions of bullies and victims, they usually say that the bully is more likeable than the victim (this is thought to be true because the popularity and aggression of bullies are more appealing than the perceived weakness of victims).
Although the influence of peers encourages bullies, the intervention of peers is also one of the most powerful ways to stop bullying. In one investigation, bullying stopped in three-fourths of cases when a peer intervened on behalf of the victim. Because adults are often unaware of instances of bullying, the impact of this peer intervention should not go underestimated. Nonetheless, although 41% of students said that they would like to help the victim, in reality only 25% intervened. The question of what leads peers to action or inaction in the face of a bullying situation is an important consideration that should be discussed openly in every school.
Students with higher social status are more likely to intervene and help the victim than students who are less popular and perhaps fear that they will also be bullied. Another reason for failing to help the victim may be related to the fact that many acts of bullying occur in front of a group. When several students together observe a peer being bullied, they may feel a lack of individual responsibility to help the victim (social psychologists call this the bystander effect). Even when students would like to intervene, they may not have the skills or know how to help the victim in a way that will be effective. These are topics that are addressed in several intervention programs that educate peers and involve the entire school community.
Research has identified the ‘‘culture of bullying’’ on school campuses. Students are less likely to report witnessing bullying or being personally victimized by a bully if they also perceive that in the past teachers at their school have not intervened to stop bullying. Thus, although many prevention and intervention efforts attempt to decrease the aggression of the bully and to enhance the social skills of victims, it is now recognized that if a school has a laissez-faire, inferred acceptance of, or a blind unawareness of bullying, then students are more likely to accept its occurrence as a ‘‘normal’’ part of the school experience. These developments in bullying research show that schools cannot afford to let students work out their conflicts. To do so may send a message that behaviors such as bullying are tacitly tolerated. Bullying is the largest violence/aggression problem in schools worldwide. As such, it is of the utmost importance that schools study their particular circumstances and take action to prevent its occurrence and to intervene when it occurs.
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