It hasn't been studied much in the United States, it isn't part of most teacher training curricula, and many educators think there's little they can do to stop it. But bullying at school is getting new attention, as researchers find mental health implications in the fact that as many as one-third of students say they have either bullied someone or been the target of bullying. Researchers also consider it important that some 70 percent of young people who have committed extreme acts of school violence such as shootings were later found to have been either victims or perpetrators of bullying in their schools.
There is a definition of what we mean by the general term "bullying." It's different from "teasing," which is often intended to be funny to both the teaser and the teased. Instead, bullying is defined as aggressive behavior (words, actions, or social exclusion) that intentionally hurts or harms another person. The behavior occurs repetitively and there is a power imbalance; the bully is either physically, verbally, or socially stronger than the victim. Bullying may be perpetrated by one person or a group. In schools it generally occurs where supervision is limited, as in the cafeteria, en route to or from school, or in hallways and at lockers, which may account for the fact that teachers and principals often protest they never saw any bullying behavior take place. Boys tend to bully physically -- pushing, shoving, or even injuring their victims. Girls tend more often to use social exclusion and gossip as weapons, though girls, too, have been known to become physical.
Writing in a 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researcher Tonja Nansel of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and associates analyzed data from a representative sample of 15,686 students in grades 6 through 10 in public and private schools throughout the United States who completed the World Health Organization's Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children survey during the spring of 1998. Their finding that 29.9 percent of the sample reported moderate or frequent involvement in bullying indicates that "The prevalence of bullying among U.S. youth is substantial," the researchers said.
"Given the concurrent behavioral and emotional difficulties associated with bullying, as well as the potential long-term negative outcomes for these youth, the issue of bullying merits serious attention, both for future research and preventive intervention."
Those "concurrent conduct, school, emotional, and physical problems" can include fighting, alcohol use, smoking, and poor academic achievement for bullies and poor relationships with classmates, loneliness, and isolation for victims. Bullies seem not to be socially isolated, which may mean that they have friends who also engage in bullying, but victims are often avoided by their peers as not "fitting in" and other students may be fearful of becoming victims themselves if they associate with them. There have been few studies of the longer-term consequences of bullying, but existing research suggests as much as a four-fold increase in criminal behavior on the part of bullies by the time they reach their mid-20s, while those who have been bullied appear to have higher rates of depression and poor self-esteem.
The reaction to bullying by schools in the United States is a work in progress. Folklore has it that being bullied is part of growing up and builds character, an approach that has led many educators to look the other way when bullying interactions took place. This seeming acceptance only leads to more of the same behavior, researchers now believe, and what is needed is more and more effective intervention, as well as development of a school climate that makes bullying inappropriate -- clear rules and strong social norms against the practice, for example -- an approach often used in countries such as England and Norway but less frequently implemented in the U.S.
Commenting on the Nansel study, physicians Howard Spivak and Deborah Prothrow-Stith suggest that such a high prevalence of bullying in schools is "an important indicator that something is wrong" and that both bulliers and the bullied need help. Preventing bullying involves eliminating the factors that promote such behaviors -- a tactic known generally as "risk reduction" -- and teaching children the skills for more prosocial interpersonal reactions -- "resiliency development." That isn't happening much in U.S. schools, they say, but programs of that kind are having good success in other countries, and the outcomes seem to be better than the more punitive approaches adopted by many schools in this country, which tend to blame children for problem behaviors rather than trying to understand what may be underlying them. And there is a lack, they point out, of mental health services for both bullies and the bullied and their families.
"Maybe most important," says Spivak, "is the need to address the larger school environment that supports or condones bullying as reflected by the reported high social status that bullies enjoy among their school mates. We need to identify ways to shift the social norms and values in schools and communities to ones that promote healthy peer interactions and reject bullying, intimidation, and other forms of physical and verbal coercion as acceptable."
The View from Inside
Every nursery school and kindergarten teacher knows that some children are more aggressive and assertive than others, but most studies of what can technically be called "bullying" that have been conducted in the United States start with fourth grade, possibly because at that age the infliction of harm or discomfort on others may seem to adults to be intentional and planned, rather than random and careless.
Researchers who conducted carefully constructed surveys of approximately 1,000 children in grades 4 to 9 at twelve health education centers in seven states, found even the youngest children in that age group were completely aware of what is called "bullying" and thoughtful about the reasons it happens and the possible consequences. About half the children said, for example, that they had been bullied "at least once in a while." When asked what they did about bullying when it happened, almost half said they fought back, one-fourth told an adult, and 20 percent did nothing. Nearly two-thirds said they tell or try to stop bullying when they see it, but 16 percent do nothing, and 20 percent join in. Primary reasons for bullying: "to get popular" and "to get their own way."
Other studies have concentrated on sixth grade and middle school as starting points for serious bullying. One that looked specifically at sixth graders from Latino and African American communities found that almost one-fourth of those surveyed reported some experience with bullying, and 6 percent said they both bullied and were bullied. At these grade levels, bullies appeared to have higher rates of conduct disorders and problems with school, but they also enjoyed high social standing in their peer groups.
Bullying is often most visible, and possibly most dangerous, among older adolescents, where bullying may include sexual harassment. On high school campuses, studies have found that anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent of students are frequently involved in bullying as either bulliers or victims, and students report that bullying seriously affects their physical, social, and academic well-being. In a study conducted by Sandra Harris and colleagues in rural and suburban areas in Texas, Georgia, and Nebraska, high school students reported that the most common forms of bullying were being called names and being left out of activities, followed by being hit or kicked or threatened. And the bullying happened almost everywhere at school -- in classrooms, the lunchroom, at break, at extracurricular events, at initiations for clubs or athletics, and on the way home or on the way to school.
Bystanders and Adults
Rarely discussed is the role of bystanders -- students or teachers -- who watch bullying take place and do nothing to intervene. The students, in particular, may be "secondary victims," says psychologist Linda Jeffrey. "Witnessing bullying is in itself a social experience in which children directly learn fundamental lessons about power, authority, empathy, injustice, social responsibility, and courage or the lack of it -- lessons that are likely to be more salient than academic lessons about civic responsibility taught in schools." And when the passive bystanders include teachers, the message is that bullying is condoned as a part of school life.
The psychology of peer bystanders can be complex, Jeffrey points out, ranging from guilt, distress, fear, anxiety, discomfort, indignation, and anger to indifference or even enjoyment. In any case, she notes, by failing to intervene the bystander has passively supported bullying.
Adults -- teachers and school administrators -- who see bullying or to whom it is reported have little training in how to respond, and many prefer to take the view that bullying is part of life, possibly even character-building. "What's the big deal?" was one teacher's response to a researcher seeking information about his school's experiences. And intercession by faculty or administrators, unless it is part of a school-wide emphasis on inclusion and bullying prevention, is widely believed to make things worse for the victim, not to stop the victimization.
Two factors may make it harder to ignore bullying in the future. One is that recent police investigations of shootings, suicides, and other violence in schools have found that the student perpetrators had been bullied or had engaged in bullying. The other factor is that, increasingly, schools are being sued for failing to stop harassment of which they knew or should have known.
Whether schools can continue to view bullying as an issue between students that schools are not required to control remains to be seen. At the least, schools can expect increased public and judicial scrutiny of a troubling problem.