There have long been many misconceptions about the nature of bullying. Below is a brief quiz that presents some common questions and ideas that many people still have about this complicated problem. As you answer each of the 12 true/false questions, the correct answer will pop up in a new window with some additional information.
As K-12 prevention coordinators, it is likely that you are quite well-versed on the topic of bullying. However, it is also likely that many members of your school community would not do quite so well on this quiz. As you address the issue of bullying in your schools, it is important to keep in mind that many people have only just begun to understand that bullying is not just a matter of kids being kids -- that bullying actually leads to serious and enduring problems for all involved.
Punita, ten years old
"A girl had a balloon and was playing."
"But just then 3 bullies took her balloon."
"She was very sad."
~ Bullying Is Bad!
Now that the quiz has provided some brief answers to several questions about bullying, let's look deeper into what the research says about the following questions:
What Is Bullying?
Nearly every publication on the topic of bullying presents its own definition of the problem. Separated by primarily semantic differences, the majority of definitions proposed by researchers and practitioners incorporate the following key concepts:
Bullying involves intentional, and largely unprovoked, efforts to harm
Bullying can be physical or verbal, and direct or indirect in nature.
Bullying involves repeated negative actions by one or more against another.
Bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power.
In her book Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do (Second Edition), Dorothea Ross -- cofounder of the Society of Pediatric Psychology and research psychologist at Stanford Medical School -- reviews many of the different conceptualizations of bullying used by researchers over the years.
Click here to read some of these definitions.
Ross then proposes the following definition of bullying, which represents a synthesis of the varied definitions presented in the bullying literature:
"Bullying refers to intentional and generally unprovoked attempts by one or more individuals to inflict physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more victims. There must be an imbalance of physical or psychological power, with the bully actually being stronger or perceived to be stronger than the victim. The bullying may be direct, with face-to-face physical or verbal confrontations, or indirect, with less visible actions such as spreading rumors or social exclusion. Although a single attack on a victim if severe enough can be accurately described as bullying, the term more often refers to a series of negative actions that occur frequently over time."
In addition to presenting her own definition, Ross also reviews some of the obstacles that impede consensus among researchers on the definition of bullying. Specifically, there are some disagreements about whether bullying must involve repeated attacks and an imbalance of power. Consider the following:
Repeated attacks: Many people believe that a behavior that occurs just once or
twice, no matter how serious, should not be considered bullying. One persuasive argument for this has to do with the notion that bullying leads to two kinds of distress among victims: the immediate physical or psychological distress that results from the actual bullying incident and the anticipatory fear that often occurs from the spoken or implied threat of future attacks. However, others contend that attacks should not have to occur repeatedly and over time to be classified as bullying. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this perspective comes from children themselves. In an unpublished survey, respondents ranging in age from 5 to 20 years did not think that negative actions had to be repeated to be considered bullying.
Imbalance of power: Most people agree that bullying involves an imbalance
of physical or psychological power, either real or perceived, between the aggressor and the victim; however, Thompson and Smith (1991) questioned this based on conversations they had with children who labeled as bullying any situation involving unprovoked aggression, even when the odds seemed to be even.
It is interesting to note that these two problems with definition seem to result from differences in the ways that adults and children conceptualize bullying. Researchers and practitioners alike will need to investigate these differences to better understand and more effectively address the problem of bullying in the future.
While the definition of bullying presented above alludes to different types of bullying behaviors, the following is a breakdown of four distinct categories:
Includes punching, poking, strangling, hair pulling, beating, biting, and excessive tickling.
Includes rejecting, extorting, defaming, humiliating, blackmailing, manipulating friends, isolating, ostracizing, and peer pressure.
Includes exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexual propositioning, sexual harassment, and abuse involving physical contact and assault.
Includes such acts as
teasing, and gossip.
Within each of these categories, specific bullying behaviors can occur at different levels of severity. While all bullying is unacceptable, many of the more serious behaviors are actually illegal. Over the past two decades, severe school bullying has been increasingly acknowledged to fall under the rubric of criminal behavior. In 1987, during a meeting held at Harvard University to discuss the problem of school bullying, an international group of scholars made the following statement:
"Under the euphemism of 'bullying,' we see a much broader, more serious affair. We see instances of assault and battery, gang activity, threat of bodily harm, weapons possession, extortion, civil rights violations, attempted murder, and murder.
"Everybody knows these are crimes. The fact that they were committed by minors upon minors does not make them less than crimes. The fact that they were committed on school grounds by students does not make them less than crimes."
It is important to understand that bullying exists at multiple levels, and that behaviors at each level of severity must be taken seriously -- because any and all bullying is harmful, and because bullies can easily progress from less to more severe bullying.
Click here to download a bullying behavior chart
in Microsoft Word format. It presents three categories
of bullying behavior, breaking each down into
three levels of severity.
How Common is Bullying?
In the United States:
Bullying may very well be the most prevalent form of school violence in the United States. While specific studies have revealed rates ranging from a low of 10 percent to a high of 75 percent of school-aged children who reported being bullied at least once during their school years, most studies indicate that approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of students will experiencing bullying at some point from kindergarten through high school graduation.
In a nationally representative survey of youth in grades 6 through 10, conducted in 1998 by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), 3.2 million students reported that they were victims of bullying and 3.7 million students reported that they bullied others. Students were considered moderate to frequent bullies if they participated in bullying “sometimes” to “several times a week.” Of these students, 1.2 million reported that they were both victims of bullies as well as bullies themselves. So, at the time of the survey, 30 percent of young people across the nation were involved in moderate to frequent bullying, either as perpetrators, victims, or both. See the chart below, taken from the recent report Bullying Prevention Is Crime Prevention by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, for a more detailed breakdown of students' involvement in bullying.
In other countries:
While bullying was not high on the list of school safety priorities in the United States until well into the 1990s, it has been the focus of wide public concern in Scandinavia since the early 1980s. In 1982, three Norwegian boys ages 10 to 14 committed suicide as a result of severe, long-term bullying. In response to widespread demand for governmental action by school administrators and the general public, Norway launched the Campaign Against Bullying in 1983. Dan Olweus, an internationally renowned pioneer and expert in this field, selected a representative sample of 715 schools participating in this campaign, with 130,000 students ranging in age from 8 to 16 years, for the Norwegian National Survey. To be considered a bully, a child had to have bullied others one or more times per week. The data revealed that approximately 15 percent of the students were actively involved in bullying to some degree, while 5 percent were involved in more serious bully behaviors.
Investigators in England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, and Canada -- many of whom used slight modifications of Olweus's survey -- have reported even higher rates of bullying. For example, Canadian data from the World Health Organization Health and Behaviour Survey of School-Aged Children revealed that approximately 54 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls in grades 6, 8, and 10 reported that they had bullied others in the last six weeks, while 34 percent and 27 percent respectively reported being victimized at least once in the last six weeks.
Where and When Does Bullying Occur?
According to the NICHD survey, youth from urban, suburban, and rural areas were all equally likely to be bullied, while suburban youths were slightly less likely and rural youths were slightly more likely than the national average to bully others. Across all three settings, bullying tends to happen most often in and around schools -- specifically in those areas where there is little or no adult supervision (e.g., playground, hallways, cafeteria, classroom before the lesson begins).
As for age differences, the bullying literature presents a rather inconsistent picture of the manner in which bullying rates change across the K-12 grade range. Some studies indicate that bullying is most prevalent during the elementary school years, while others show an increase and peak during early adolescence. Consider the following:
In Olweus's Norwegian National Survey data, as well as many other studies,
the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school decreased with increasing age and grade level. In fact, such studies indicate that there are approximately twice as many victims of bullying in the primary grades as in the secondary grades. In contrast, the number of self-reported bullies remained fairly stable across the years.
Click here for some potential explanations of these findings.
According to the NICHD survey, as well as many other studies, the typical
trajectory of bullying is an increase and peak after elementary school, during the middle school years, followed by a decrease during the high school years. If this is the case, then the transition from elementary to middle school would be a particularly critical period for prevention and intervention efforts.
When asked about this inconsistency in the bullying literature, Susan Swearer, assistant professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and principal investigator of a comprehensive program of research examining the ecology of bullying and victimization in school-aged youth, made the following comment:
"I think that perhaps the most accurate statement is that bullying takes on different forms across the lifespan. For example, bullying in elementary school may be more physical and therefore, more easily observed. Bullying in high school may be more akin to sexual harassment and thus, more covert and less observable. Most research suggests that bullying peaks during the middle school years and researchers have hypothesized that the transition from elementary to middle school, the need to re-establish peer relationships, and puberty may all account for this 'increase.' In any case, I think the most defensible statement is that bullying is a problem across all ages!"
How Does Bullying Differ Among Students?
Not all students bully or are bullied in the same way. Consider the following information about how race/ethnicity, gender/sexual identity, and gender seem to influence bullying among young people.
There is very little information about racial/ethnic differences in bullying and victimization among young people. According to the NICHD survey, Hispanic youth reported bullying others only marginally more than white or black youth; however, black youth reported being bullied significantly more than white or Hispanic youth. In contrast, Graham and Juvonen (2002) found that African American students were more likely to be nominated as aggressive than Latino and multi-ethnic urban middle school students. In another study by Moran and colleagues (1993), Asian and white students aged 9 to 15 did not differ with respect to the frequency of bullying others or being bullied. However, the content of the bullying experience was different in that 50 percent of the bullied Asian children were called names because of their skin color while none of the white children experienced this form of bullying.
"Collectively, the relation between race/ethnicity and bullying is complex and is potentially influenced by the racial/ethnic composition of the classroom, school, or community (Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2001) (p. 372)."
- Espelage and
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth are at particular risk for all forms of bullying. In 2001, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network conducted the National School Climate Survey -- the only national survey to document the experiences of LGBT youth in U.S. high schools. A total of 904 LGBT youth from 48 states and the District of Columbia completed the survey. The vast majority of respondents (84.3%) reported that they frequently or often hear homophobic remarks (e.g., words such as "faggot," "dyke," or "queer"). Many further reported experiencing some form of harassment or violence, which broke down in the following manner:
83.2% reported being verbally harassed (e.g., name calling, threats) because of
their sexual orientation
65.4% reported being sexually harassed (e.g., being the target of suggestive
comments, being touched inappropriately)
74.2% of lesbian and bisexual young women reported being sexually harassed
73.7% of transgender students reported being sexually harassed
48.3% of LGBT students of color reported being verbally harassed because of
both their sexual orientation and their race/ethnicity
41.9% reported being physically harassed (e.g., shoved or pushed) because of
their sexual orientation
21.1% reported being physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a
weapon) because of their sexual orientation
Studies frequently reveal that boys bully and are bullied more often than girls. For example, according to the NICHD survey, 26 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls were moderate to frequent bullies. A similar pattern emerged with respect to victimization, with 21 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls reporting that they were moderate to frequent victims of bullies. These findings, however, may be due -- at least in part -- to the manner in which bullying is defined and/or identified by researchers. Bullying by girls tends to be more subtle and, as a result, more difficult to detect than bullying by boys. According to Olweus, boys are three to four times more likely than girls to use physical aggression when bullying others.
"Historically, many studies on aggression have excluded girls from the sample (Crick & Rose, 2001) and have defined aggression as overtly physical or verbal, but have failed to consider more subtle, covert forms."
- Espelage and
While male bullies certainly use other tactics as well (e.g., verbal bullying, telling lies, and spreading rumors), the tendency toward physical aggression is a critical difference between boys and girls. Female bullies tend to engage in verbal bullying, such as direct teasing and indirect rumor-spreading, as well as social ostracism/isolation -- but they rarely use physical tactics. Perhaps boys more than girls are able to label -- and thus report -- their experiences as bullying because of the direct and physical nature of the bullying incidents in which they are involved (both as bullies and as victims).
Click here to view a scene in which a female student engages in verbal (teasing) and emotional (threatening social ostracism) bullying.
A Final Note About These Categories
Tensions related to race/ethnicity, gender, and gender/sexual identity among students often lead to a wide range of behaviors that can be classified as bullying. For example, in the 9th Biennial California Student Survey, conducted with 8,238 students in grades 7, 9, and 11, nearly one-fourth of the students reported having been bullied or harassed at school at least once because of their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability status. Race/ethnicity was the most frequently cited reason for being victimized (14%).
Bullying is a highly sensitive issue to address in the school setting. It becomes even more challenging as you come to realize that it is connected to other sensitive issues associated with race/ethnicity, gender, and gender/sexual identity. In order to truly understand and address the problem of bullying among students, school personnel need to appreciate the interconnectedness of these important issues. For example, many state and federal laws prohibit discrimination and harassment based on these and other identity characteristics. When a bully targets a victim specifically because of race/ethnicity, gender, or gender/sexual identity, the assault may actually be considered a hate crime.
Now that we have reviewed the meaning of bullying as well as some information about prevalence and gender differences, we will go on tomorrow to explore the three primary roles that students play during a bullying incident: bully, victim, and bystander. We will look at the characteristics displayed by students in each of these roles as well as the short- and long-term consequences associated with bullying.
Please think about the questions below and share your responses, comments, and/or any questions about today's material in the Discussion Area.
How does your school define bullying, and how much of a problem is it in
or around your school? In your experience, does it seem to be more common during the elementary or middle school years?
In your opinion, should the definition of bullying include reference to
"repeated attacks" and/or an "imbalance of power"? Have you noticed any differences in the ways that adults and children seem to define bullying?
In his presentation at the OSDFS National Technical Assistance Meeting
(2002), Dan Olweus stated:
Do the girls at your school seem to be as aggressive as the boys? Have you seen differences in the type(s) of aggression displayed by male and female students? Please explain.
This completes today's work.
Please visit the Discussion Area to share your responses to the discussion questions!
Day 1 Youth Artwork:
Day 1 Video Clip:
Don't Embarrass Us. Leadership Skills: Bystanders Can Make A Difference [CD-ROM]. Available on-line at: www.interactivelibraryseries.com.
References for Day 1 materials:
Batsche, G. M. & Knoff, H. M. (1994). Bullies and Their Victims: Understanding a Pervasive Problem in the Schools. School Psychology Review, 23, 165-174.
Colorado Anti-Bullying Project. Available on-line at: www.no-bully.com/index.html. Retrieved January, 2004.
Craig, W. M. & Pepler, D. J. (2003). Identifying and Targeting Risk for Involvement in Bullying and Victimization. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48 (9), 577-582.
Ericson, N. (2001, June). Addressing the Problem of Juvenile Bullying. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Available on-line at: www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200127.pdf. Retrieved January, 2004.
Espelage, D. L. & Swearer, S. M. (2003). Research on School Bullying and Victimization: What Have We Learned and Where Do We Go From Here? School Psychology Review, 32 (3), 365-383.
Fox, J. A., Elliott, D. S., Kerlikowske, R. G., Newman, S. A., & Christeson, W. (2003). Bullying Prevention Is Crime Prevention. Washington, DC: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network & Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. (2001). Appendix B: GLSEN's National School Climate Survey. A Guide to Effective Statewide Laws/Policies: Preventing Discrimination Against LGBT Students in K-12 Schools. New York, NY: Author.
Graham, S. & Juvonen, J. (2002). Ethnicity, Peer Harassment, and Adjustment in Middle School: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Early Adolescence, 22, 173-199.
Hoover, J. H., Oliver, R., & Hazler, R. J. (1992). Bullying: Perceptions of Adolescent Victims in the Midwestern U.S.A. School Psychology International, 13, 5-16.
Limber, S. P. (2003). Implementation of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Lessons Learned from the Field. In D. Espelage & S. Swearer (Eds.) Bullying in American Schools: A Social-Ecological Perspective (pp. 351-364). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Moran, S., Smith, P. K., Thompson, D., & Whitney, I. (1993). Ethnic Differences in Experiences of Bullying: Asian and White Children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 431-440.
Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying Behaviors among US Youth: Prevalence and Association with Psychosocial Adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285 (16), 2094-2100. (Referred to in this event as the NICHD survey.)
National Resource Center for Safe Schools. (1999). Recognizing and preventing bullying (Fact Sheet No. 4). Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
North Central Educational Service District. Myths and Realities. Bullying Prevention Documents, Safe and Civil Schools. Available on-line at: www.ncesd.org/SDFS/programs.htm. Retrieved January, 2004.
Olweus, D. (1985). 80,000 Pupils Involved in Bullying. Norsk Skoleblad, 2, 18-23.
Olweus, D. (2002). Bully Prevention: Research and Strategies. Presentation audiotaped at the 2nd National Technical Assistance Meeting: Leave No Child Behind, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Washington, DC, August. [A.V.E.R. Associates, 6974 Ducketts Lane, Elkridge, MD 21075; 410-796-8940].
Ross, D. (2003). Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Smith, P. K. & Levan, S. (1995). Perceptions and Experiences of Bullying in Younger Students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 489-500.
Smith, P. K., Madsen, K. C., & Moody, J. C. (1999). What Causes the Age Decline in Reports of Being Bullied at School? Towards a Developmental Analysis of Risks of Being Bullied. Educational Research, 41, 267-285.
Swearer, S. M., Song, S. Y., Cary, P. T., Eagler, J. W., & Mickelson, W. T. (2001). Psychosocial Correlates in Bullying and Victimization: The Relationship Between Depression, Anxiety, and Bully/Victim Status. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2/3), 95-121.
U.S. Department of Education (1998). Preventing Bullying: A Manual for Schools and Communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
WestEd. (2002). Violence and Safety Fact Sheet. California Student Survey. Available on-line at: www.safestate.org/index.cfm?navID=254. Retrieved January, 2004.
Whitney, I. & Smith, P. K. (1993). A Survey of the Nature and Extent of Bully/Victim Problems in Junior/Middle and Secondary Schools. Educational Research, 35, 3-25.