School bullying is a pervasive problem found in elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States and around the world. It can take many direct and indirect forms, including physical violence, name-calling, taunting, teasing, malicious rumor-spreading, and social exclusion. Once thought of as a normal part of growing up, school bullying is now widely recognized as a serious problem that must be met with systematic preventative efforts. This article examines the nature, prevalence, and effects of school bullying. It discusses profiles of bullies and victims, and explores the most effective methods now used to combat school bullying.
Keywords Bully; Bystander; Direct Bullying; Indirect Bullying; Low-level Violence; Prevention Program; School Bullying; Social Exclusion; Social Responsibility; Victim
School bullying is a pervasive problem found in elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States and around the world. As an international phenomenon, school bullying occurs at similar rates in disparate cultures, countries, and educational settings (Carney & Merrell, 2001). Once seen as a normal, if not harmless part of growing up, school bullying is now recognized as one of the primary threats to school safety today (Junoven, 2005; Scarpaci, 2006; Whitted & Dupper, 2005). Since the late 1990s, several fatal school shootings committed by the victims of school bullying have brought major media attention to the issue. The result has been an increase in public awareness about the harmful effects of school bullying and a flurry of local, state, and nationwide programs designed to prevent or at least contain the problem. In recent years, psychologists, sociologists, and school administrators have all published a plethora of research about school bullying.
Definitions of school bullying include four basic elements. First, school bullying does not happen between peers who share an equal or similar degree of power, but always involves a more powerful perpetrator intimidating a weaker subject. Bullying depends upon an imbalance of power, which can be created by any number of factors, including but not limited to physical size, age, popularity and psychological strength (Rigby, 2003; Junoven, 2005). Second, bullying is deliberate; a bully intends to cause harm or distress in his or her victim (Scarpaci, 2006). Third, bullying can come in direct and indirect forms. Physical violence, such as shoving, poking, hitting, or tripping, is a form direct bullying. So is verbal bullying, which includes name-calling, teasing, and derision. Indirect bullying is social in nature and involves the bully excluding his or her victim from a peer group. An example of this type of bullying is spreading malicious rumors (Scarpaci, 2006; Reid, Monsen, & Rivers, 2004). Fourth and finally, bullying is continual; it consists of an ongoing pattern of abuse (Whitted & Dupper, 2005).
School bullying is most prevalent among children between the ages of 9 and 15, who are in the stages of late childhood and early adolescence, and occurs most often in elementary and middle schools (Carney & Merrell, 2001). As children mature, the types of bullying in which they engage tends to change. Younger school bullies use name-calling and forms of physical aggression more often than older school bullies, who are more likely to sexually harass their victims, or inflect their bullying with sexual overtones (Junoven, 2005; Carney & Merrell, 2001). In some cases, bullying among older children may also involve racially charged or homophobic abuse (Whitted & Dupper, 2005). In recent years, technology-savvy adolescents have begun to use the Internet to conduct 'cyber-bullying' on websites, in chat-rooms, and via e-mail, and to send harassing text messages to mobile phones ("Cyber-bullying concerns on the rise," 2007; Reid et al., 2004).
Experts now recognize bullying as a form of violence. In fact, some consider school bullying to be "the most prevalent form of low-level violence in schools today" (Whitted & Dupper, 2005, p. 167). If allowed to continue unchecked, school bullying severely compromises school safety. Several studies have demonstrated that bullying can lead to a heightened disposition to crime and violent retributive behavior in bullies, victims, and bystanders who witness bullying (Whitted & Dupper, 2005; Scarpaci, 2006; Brown, Birch, & Kancherla, 2005). These negative effects are magnified by the fact that 85% of bullying incidents involve bystanders (Junoven, 2005).
In order to prevent children from being harmed by school bullying, professional educators and parents should understand the depth of the bullying problem in U.S. schools, be aware of the common characteristics of bullies and victims, and be acquainted with the most effective bully-prevention methods now in use.
Prevalence of School Bullying
Virtually all school children around the world are in some way affected by school bullying (Reid et al., 2004). The United States is no exception: The American Medical Association reports that 50% of all U.S. school children are bullied at some point during their schooling and 10% are bullied on a regular basis (Scarpaci, 2006). Another study has shown that 1 in 5 elementary school children and 1 in 10 middle school students in the U.S. are bullied regularly (Brown et al., 2005). Still another study, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human development, found that 13% of all 6th-10th graders bullied classmates and 11% had been bullied regularly (Scarpaci, 2006). School bullying is a universal problem throughout the U.S., occurring at similar rates in urban, suburban, and rural environments (Carney & Merrell, 2001).
School Bullying's Negative Effects
Besides disrupting classroom activities, school bullying generally harms children's ability to learn at school, and has been shown to contribute to truancy and dropout rates (Scarpaci, 2006; Whitted & Dupper, 2005). As a low-level, subtle form of violence, bullying creates an unsafe school environment and can lead to more serious types of violence among students (Whitted & Dupper, 2005). Those students who witness bullying often become distressed, intimidated, and fearful that they themselves might become victims of bullying. These feelings may harm academic performance and distract attention from school work (Reid et al., 2004; Whitted & Dupper, 2005). In fact, bullying prevention programs have been proven to raise the overall academic achievement of schools, suggesting that rampant bullying undermines educational efforts (Scarpaci, 2006).
Bullying also causes extremely damaging effects in the victims of bullies. These effects are similar to those caused by child abuse, and their intensity and persistence tend to increase when the bullying begins at a younger age (Scarpaci, 2006). Victims of bullying suffer from lowered psychological well being, poor social adjustment, and psychological distress. Many victims are targeted because they have low self-esteem, a problem that is only exacerbated by the bullying (Rigby, 2003). Victims commonly experience emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness more often than their peers (Junoven, 2005; Whitted & Dupper, 2005). They also develop somatic symptoms, such as problems sleeping, chronic head-aches and stomachaches, bedwetting, and fatigue (Brown et al., 2005). Bullying also leads to academic and behavioral problems in victims, who may lose interest in school, or use somatic symptoms as an excuse to stay home from school (Scarpaci, 2006).
While most victims react to bullying by withdrawing and suffering in silence, a rare subset of victims retaliate with violent behavior. In most cases, victims direct violent behavior against themselves in the form of suicide. However, as adults, some victims have sought out and murdered those who bullied them as children. Other victims have conducted highly publicized school shootings in which they targeted those classmates who bullied them — perhaps most prominently in the case of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Victims of bullying can increase the overall likelihood of serious school violence because they are more likely than other students to bring a weapon to school for protection (Carney & Merrell, 2001).
There is evidence that school bullies also suffer from their own behavior. However, it is difficult to establish whether these negative consequences are direct results of bullying or are products of the psychological issues that led to bullying (Rigby, 2003). Nonetheless, bullies are prone to suicide and alcoholism, and are significantly more likely to become involved in delinquent activities, such as vandalism, truancy, and carrying weapons, and to become involved in the criminal justice system (Scarpaci, 2006; Whitted & Dupper, 2005; Brown et al., 2006). Studies have shown that by the age of 24, 60% of former bullies have been convicted of a crime and 40% have more than three arrests. In comparison, only 10% of non-bullying males have...
While many parents assume that bullying is a problem confined to middle school or high school, it can begin as early a kindergarten and become firmly seeded in a school culture by the second or third grade.
If you are a parent faced with bullying, you need to take a firm stance so that the behavior is stopped before it becomes a de facto part of a child's school life.
The definition is simple: bullying is any aggressive behavior designed to intimidate or torment.
It can be physical, such as pushing or hitting, or verbal, such as name-calling or spreading gossip. In younger children, bullying can also include exclusion, either by urging others to ostracize an individual or by forming cliques to which others are conspicuously excluded.
While cyberbullying may be less prevalent in younger school children, the same behaviors that govern online bullying are played out in real life.
The statistics are dismaying. According to research published in the journal BMC Public Health, as many as 13 percent of children in kindergarten and elementary school are victims of bullying, while 11 percent admit to being a bully. An additional four percent can be described as victim-bullies, a great many of whom will become bullies in later life as a misguided form of self-protection.
Why Kids Bully
The kids most commonly targeted by bullies are those with a disability, who are obese, or are less adept at schoolwork or making friends.
In order to establish social dominance, a bully will often need little more than an unusual name to target a child for abuse, often under the guise of teasing. Other children, meanwhile, will take part, either because they are eager for social acceptance or fearful of ostracization themselves.
In the end, children will attack the same things that many adults do, namely behaviors, beliefs, or characteristics which stand out and challenge a social order to which person believes he or she is a part.
Fear of the unusual can sometimes lead children to exhibit aggressive behaviors to hide insecurities that they themselves do not understand. Such behaviors may be reinforced by parents who exhibit the same biases or use aggression as a means of dealing with conflict.
What Parents Can Do
Rather than dismissing schoolyard bullying as "a phase" that children will eventually outgrow, parents have the unique opportunity to alter these behaviors by helping young children overcome the very fears, anxieties, and insecurity that place them at risk.
There are six things you can do to help:
- Stay connected with your child. The more you know about your child's classmates and school life, the more likely you will be to spot any changes the child's demeanor or interactions. This includes both the child being bullied and the child who is bullying. Make a point of discussing the events of the day every day, and pay attention to not only what the child says but what he or she may be avoiding in conversation.
- Look for the warning signs. If a child is a victim of bullying, the first warning sign will usually a change in behavior. This may include withdrawing, exhibiting sudden aggression or anger, misbehaving, or being reluctant to go the school. If your child is a bully, the clues may be harder to pick up, but it is not uncommon to hear the bully make disparaging and boastful remarks about others, often without realizing how unkind the behavior is.
- Explain what bullying is. Young children understand that hitting or pushing another child is wrong. Even teasing is something they instinctively know is hurtful. But kids can be both sophisticated and unsophisticated in their approach to these behaviors. On the one hand, they can dismiss teasing as "just kidding around" and, on the other, fail to comprehend how other hurtful behaviors like exclusion can be. Help your child understand bullying in all its forms, both direct and subtle.
- Teach a child empathy. Young children have the unique talent of making connections. Unlike adults, who are able to navigate conflict and justify ill behaviors, kids who are five, six, or seven see action and consequence in a more straightforward way. If your child is a bully, ask how he or she would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. If your child is being bullied, help them understand why some kids misbehave can effectively "take them off the hook" and confirm that they are neither strange nor blameworthy.
- Tell a child what to do if he or she witnesses bullying. Children will often not want to get involved if someone else is being bullied out of fear of reprisal. Teach them how not acting is essentially the same as approving of the behavior. A child should understand that reporting a bully is not "tattling" but merely a way to stop others from getting hurt. Let your child know that he or she should report any such behavior to you or a teacher so that an adult can intervene.
- Lead by example. Many parents do not take bullying seriously enough and will dismiss some behaviors as being "not as bad" as others. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by these arguments. If such behaviors are ignored, young children will believe that they have been given tacit permission to bully. Even things like exclusion can be acted upon by teachers by breaking up groups, pairing kids who don't interact with school projects and regularly changing classroom seating.
As a parent, do not accept that nothing can be done. The greatest opportunity for change is not in high school when social dynamics are set; it's in kindergarten and elementary school when behaviors and personalities are still evolving.
If school officials fail to act, voice your concerns to the parent-teacher association or file a formal complaint with the local school board. Include a detailed outline of the bullying events and any other information that may support your claims. In the end, how you act can determine whether a child is allowed to suffer in silence.
Jansen, P.; Verlinden, M.; Dommisse van-Berkel, A. et al. "Prevalence of bullying and victimization among children in early elementary school: Do family and school neighborhood socioeconomic status matter?"BMC Public School. 2012; 12:494. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-494.