School bullying is a phenomenon that affects a large population of students in many countries. In a 2001 study of over 15,686 U.S. students enrolled in public and private schools, T. R. Nansel and colleagues found that 29.9 percent of the students in Grades 6 through 10 reported moderate to frequent involvement in bullying at school. The 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey indicated that 14 percent of American children ages twelve through eighteen in public and private schools had been bullied in the last six months. Bullying is often defined as a form of aggression that occurs between individuals and groups of students, and it differs from normal student conflict because it is repetitive and involves a social or physical power imbalance. Bullying can be verbal (e.g., name-calling), physical (e.g., shoving), social (e.g., rumor spreading), and electronic (e.g., namecalling through text messaging).
Often using a social-ecological approach to understanding, researchers have identified features of individuals and aspects of the family, peer group, school, and community environment that contribute to or deter bullying. School bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed through targeted prevention efforts that take into account both risk and protective factors.
Research has documented the fact that children experience bullying differently, in terms of both behavioral patterns and psychosocial adjustment. Differences among children involved in bullying have been conceptualized into categorization of four groups: bullies, bully-victims (who are victimized and also bully others), victims (who do not report bullying others), and nonaggressive children. The discrimination between bully and bully-victim groups has aroused particular interest because these subgroups appear to display different patterns of aggression. Bullies exhibit a more goal-oriented aggression, entailing more control and planning. In contrast, the bully-victims tend to display a more impulsive aggression, manifesting poor regulation of affect and behavior, which is perceived as particularly aversive by their peers. Bully-victims as a group report attention deficits, hyperactivity, and academic and conduct problems in the classroom and have higher depression and anxiety.
The Social-Ecological Perspective On Bullying
Involvement in bullying and victimization is the result of the complex interplay between individuals and their broader social environment. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) classic ecological theory is often used to illustrate the interrelated nature of the individual, multiple environments, and engagement in bullying behaviors. The social-ecological theory of bullying posits that perpetration is reciprocally influenced by the individual, family, peer group, and school.
For decades, males have been considered the more aggressive sex. In hundreds of studies, most of the research on aggression has found that, as a group, boys exhibit significantly higher levels of aggression than girls do. Recently, however, a number of researchers have begun to question whether males are the more aggressive sex. Several different terms have been used to describe female-oriented types of aggression, including indirect aggression, relational aggression, and social aggression. Relational aggression includes behaviors that are intended to significantly damage another child’s social standing or reputation. In numerous studies, relational aggression has been shown to be more prevalent among girls than boys because boys typically engage in more overt forms of aggression. However, some research results have contradicted these findings by producing data in which no significant sex differences have emerged. Therefore, there is no consensus as to whether boys bully more than girls do.
Bullies often report adverse psychological effects and poor school adjustment as a result of their involvement in bullying. Whereas victims tend to report more internalizing behaviors, bullies are more likely than their peers to engage in externalizing behaviors, to experience conduct problems, and to be delinquent. Furthermore, long-term outcomes for bullies can be serious; compared to their peers, bullies are more likely to be convicted of crimes in adulthood. One study conducted in the United States revealed that youth identified as bullies in school had a one in four chance of having a criminal record by age thirty. Anger has also consistently emerged as an important correlate of bullying perpetration.
Empathy seems to play an important role in bullying. Research has consistently found negative associations between empathy and aggression, and a positive correlation between empathy and prosocial skills. Empathy is defined as one’s emotional reaction to another’s state and consists of experiencing the perceived emotional state vicariously. However, it appears that children’s positive attitude toward bullying mediates the relation between empathy and bullying.
With respect to the family context, bullies, as a group, report that their parents are authoritarian, condone “fighting back,” use physical punishment, lack warmth, and display indifference to their children. Parents can also contribute to a decrease in children’s aggression over time; aggressive children who experienced affectionate mother-child relationships showed a significant decrease in their aggressive-disruptive behaviors. Furthermore, these positive parental connections appeared to buffer the long-term negative consequences of aggression. Children who have insecure, anxious-avoidant, or anxious-resistant attachments at the age of eighteen months are also more likely than children with secure attachments to become involved in bullying at the age of four and five years.
Peer-Level Characteristics Associated With Bullying
Given the social-ecological perspective that individual characteristics of adolescents interact with group-level factors, many scholars have turned their attention to how peers contribute to bullying. Several theories dominate the literature in this area, including the homophily hypothesis, attraction theory, and dominance theory. These theories taken together present a complex picture of how peers influence each other during early adolescence. The homophily hypothesis suggests that students hang out with peers who are similar in attitudes and behaviors, as in the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Studies examining peer networks have found support for the homophily hypothesis in that peers not only affiliate with students with similar levels of aggression but also start bullying more if their peers are bullying. Dominance theory indicates that bullying is used as a method to establish power among peers. Indeed, bullying is seen as a way to establish the pecking order as students transition from elementary to middle school. Attraction theory posits that students entering early adolescence are attracted to qualities that are indicative of adulthood and a sense of independence from parents. Studies supporting this theory indicate that girls’ and boys’ attraction to aggressive peers and students who bully increases when they enter middle school.
Much of the research on school factors and bullying has focused on components of school climate. School climate is a particularly important variable to consider because adult supervision decreases from elementary to middle school. In turn, less structure and supervision are associated with concomitant increases in bullying rates among middle school students. For instance, at particularly salient times such as recess, diminished supervision can have important ramifications. Classroom practices and teachers’ attitudes are also relevant components of school climate that contribute to bullying prevalence. Aggression varies from classroom to classroom, and in some instances aggression is supported. Bullying tends to be less prevalent in classrooms in which most children are included in activities, teachers display warmth and responsiveness to children, teachers respond quickly and effectively to bullying incidents, and parents are aware of their children’s peers relationships.
Risk And Protective Factors
Both individual and group characteristics influence the likelihood of bullying. Risk factors for bullying perpetration include individual characteristics such as being male, having less empathy, being morally disengaged, and having positive attitudes toward bullying. In some cases, perpetration is associated with other forms of delinquency. The ability to feel morally engaged with others is a protective factor, while moral disengagement appears to be associated with a positive attitude toward bullying. Risk factors also include less perceived social support from family members and insecure and/or anxious parental attachments. Peer group affiliation also plays an important role, as members appear to socialize one another to bully others through group norms that support bullying perpetration. Characteristics of teachers and of the classroom environment also serve as both risk and protective factors. Only programs that consider these factors will be successful in impacting the ecology surrounding bullying.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2003). Research on bullying and victimization: What have we learned and where do we need to go? In S. M. Swearer & D. L. Espelage (Eds.), Bullying prevention and intervention: Integrating research and evaluation findings [Special issue]. School Psychology Review, 32, 365–383.
- Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (Eds.). (2004). Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Nansel, T. R., Haynie, D. L., & Simons-Morton, B. G. (2003). The association of bullying and victimization with middle school adjustment. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 45–61.
- Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B. G., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094–2100.
- National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. (1984). National anti-gay/lesbian victimization report. Washington, DC: Author.
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