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Bullying is a form of repetitive and aggressive behavior that is intended to create a feeling of fear and intimidation in the victim and to harm the physical and/or mental well-being of the victim. Typically, there is a power difference between the bully and the victim, which allows the bully to engage in the behavior with little fear of retribution from the victim. Bullying behaviors include physical assaults, physical intimidation, psychological intimidation, name calling, teasing, social isolation, and exclusion. More specifically, these behaviors can be classified into two types of bullying: direct and indirect bullying. Direct bullying denotes the physical attacks and threats perpetrated against the victim by the bully, while indirect bullying refers to the deliberate and repetitive social isolation and exclusion of the victim from the peer group. Victims of bullying can experience both types of bullying, or can be a target of either direct or indirect bullying.
Prior to the 1970s, there was very little interest in bullying behavior among researchers studying interpersonal violence. The work of Dan Olweus was responsible for generating interest in bullying behavior through his groundbreaking research on bullies and the victims in Scandinavian schools. Olweus was instrumental in shaping the definition of bullying to focus on the repetitive and deliberate nature of the behavior, the distinction between direct and indirect bullying, and the status inequality between the bully and the victim. Currently, the Revised Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire is the template that other researchers rely on in order to measure bullying behavior through self-report surveys.
Research on bullying among school-age children has been conducted in a variety of countries, including China, Canada, England, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. While bullying behavior appears to be an international problem, the research suggests that the prevalence and intensity of bullying is greater in the United States than in other countries. This finding is probably linked to the overall pattern of higher rates of criminal and violent behavior in the United States.
Estimates of bullying behavior vary based on the sample utilized in the research and how bullying was measured by the survey. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) developed the School Crime Supplement (SCS) to collect data on criminal victimization, bullying, and other school-related issues. The SCS is administered from January to June every other year to a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents ages 12 through 18. According to the 2001 SCS, 8% of students reported experiencing direct bullying by their peers and 11% of students stated they experienced indirect bullying in the 6 months prior to being interviewed.
While the estimates of the extent of the bullying problem vary, a clearer picture begins to emerge in terms of demographic and psychological profile of bullies and their victims. Boys are more likely to engage in and be victims of bullying behavior than girls. In addition, boys and girls rely on different bullying techniques to torment their victims. Boys are more likely to engage in direct forms of bullying such as physical aggression and threats, whereas girls are more likely to rely on indirect bullying techniques such as name calling and gossiping. In terms of age, bullying is inversely related to the age of the victim. As the age increases, the likelihood of being a victim of bullying decreases. While the research suggests that the age of the bully is inversely related to behavior, it also indicates that the bully might be moving toward criminal behavior instead of ceasing the antisocial behavior. Lastly, race appears to be related to bullying behavior. White students are more likely to experience bullying by their peers than either Black or Hispanic students. Like other forms of interpersonal violence, bullying tends to be intraracial.
Psychological Characteristics of the Victim
The psychological profile of bullying victims suggests that they suffer from low self-esteem, lack self-confidence, and have insufficient social skills. Due to their low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, victims tend not to report the bullying behavior and are dependent on their peers to either report the behavior or intervene on their behalf with the bully. Therefore, the lack of social skills is a critical contributing factor in the bullying process. Victims of bullying are described by their peers as shy and socially awkward. In addition, the victims of bullying are less likely to report having a “best friend” and are more likely to report spending free time alone. Bullying victims who are successful in terminating the victimization typically rely on their friends and social network to intervene on their behalf. Victims with a limited social network will have a hard time getting the bully to cease his or her behavior. The psychological consequence of being a victim is persistent fear, reduced self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety.
Psychological Characteristics of the Bullies
The psychological profile of the bullies suggests that like of demographic and psychological profile of bullies their victims, the bullies suffer from low self-esteem.
In addition, the research suggests that bullies tend to be angry, impulsive, and depressed, and possess a belief structure that supports the use of aggression to resolve problems. Bullies report being unhappy at school and have an overall negative opinion of school. Their peers reported that bullies were likely to start fights and be a disruptive influence in school.
Therefore, bullies relied on aggression to solve school-based problems and to establish their position in the school hierarchy. The long-term consequence of bullying is a pattern of antisocial behavior, which includes delinquency, gang membership, spousal abuse, and adult criminal behavior.
Peer Responses to Bullying
The ability of the bullies to torment their peers in school is linked to two factors: first, the school officials and other responsible adults are unaware of the pervasiveness of the problem, and second, the student witnesses are unsure how to handle the situation. The school officials are unaware of the severity of the bullying problem due to the fact that students fail to report the behavior to the school officials. One reason for the underreporting of bullying behavior by the students is the student’s perception that the school is not responding effectively to the problem. For example, a study of middle school students in the United States found that the majority believed the teachers did nothing to stop bullying behavior. Therefore, students felt that reporting bullying would not correct the problem, but instead might generate reprisals or other negative consequences for the students. The failure by students to report the bullying behavior hinders the school’s ability to effectively respond and creates the student’s perception of the school as ineffective, which leads to a circular problem.
In addition to their failure to report the bullying, the student witnesses do not intervene on behalf of the victims of bullying. Instead, students respond either by acting as passive bystanders or by acting in a manner to support the bullying behavior. Research from Canada, Finland, and the United States has indicated that the majority of students would do nothing to stop bullying and would watch it take place.
- Bosworth, K., Espelage, D. L., & Simon, T. R. (1999). Factors associated with bullying behavior in middle school students. Journal of Early Adolescence, 19, 341-362.
- Devoe, J. F., & Keffenberger, S. (2005). Student reports of bullying: Results from the 2001 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCES 2005310). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Elsea, M., Menesini, E., Morita, Y., O’Moore, M., Mora-Merchan, J. A., Pereira, B., et al. (2004). Friendship and loneliness among bullies and victims: Data from seven countries. Aggressive Behavior, 30, 71-83.
- Holmes, S. R., & Brandenburg Ayres, S. J. (1998). Bullying behavior in school: A predictor of later gang involvement. Journal of Gang Research, 5, 1-6.
- Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in schools: Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Press.
- Olweus, D. (2001). Peer harassment: A critical analysis and some important issues. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized (pp. 3-20). New York: Guilford Press.
- Unnever, J. D., & Cornell, D. G. (2003). The culture of bullying in middle school. Journal of School Violence.
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