The Science of Bullying

Dr. Sam Goldstein

Childhood aggression, particularly children aggressing against other children, has long been a significant clinical and social problem. Over the past fifteen years the emphasis and focus of this problem has shifted to understanding and preventing a specific form of aggression referred to as bullying. A recent search of bullying on Google yielded sixteen million results in 0.17 seconds. Contrast that number that with a search for mental illness yielding about the same and child development yielding over eighty million results. Very clearly bullying has become a topic of interest. A review of these results finds a wide range of citations from papers and research to individual and school wide programs. For example, there were fewer than 200 articles published on bullying between 1980 and 2000. Since that time, there have been over 600 published.

Bullying is distinct type of aggression. Children who bully deliberately hurt others, often in a systematic way such as name calling, threatening, isolating others, spreading rumors, text messaging and emailing hurtful ideas. Since bullying involves a bully and victim, early research focused on children falling into one of these two mutually exclusive groups. However, it is now known that there is a third group of “bully victims” who both bully and are bullied by others. It is estimated between 10% and 30% of children and teenagers are involved in bullying although prevalence rates vary significantly as a function of how bullying is evaluated. Bullying has also been found to increase during the middle school years. It is a problem that is not isolated to specific cultures but prevalent world wide.

There is also a large, emerging body of research suggesting that bullies are more likely to be convicted of criminal offenses as a adults, suffer from greater psychiatric problems, have difficulty with relationships and abuse substances. Victims of bullying also suffer, including reports of loneliness, diminished self-esteem, physical complaints and depression. They also have been reported to have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Much is written and studied about bullying. Not all of it is peer reviewed, scientific research, however. A recent study published in the June, 2010 issue of School Psychology Quarterly offers an important glimpse into the current state of the available science concerning bullying. In their article titled Predictors of Bullying and Victimization in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-analytic Investigation, Clayton Cook, Kirk Williams, Nancy Guerra, Tia Kim and Shelly Sadek of the Universities of Washington and California Riverside, examined a pool of over 1,500 studies conducted since 1970 about bullying and specifically identified 153 which they combined and analyzed to discover the current state of knowledge concerning bullying. Their findings are worthy of discussion as this study represents a comprehensive effort to synthesize research on bullying and victimization drawing on research conducted over thirty years. These reported findings are fascinating.

First these authors report that the typical bully not only exhibits significant disruptive or externalizing behavior but also suffers from internalizing symptoms such as depression. These children are not socially competent, struggle academically, possess negative attitudes and beliefs about others, possess negative thoughts about themselves, have trouble resolving conflict with others, come from a family environment characterized by conflict and poor parental monitoring. These children are more likely to see school as having a negative atmosphere. Most importantly they tend to be negatively influenced by their peers.

The typical victim emerging from this study is likely to demonstrate internalizing symptoms but also engage in externalizing behavior. Such youth lack adequate social skills, have negative thoughts about themselves, experience difficulty solving social problems, come from a negative community, family and school environment and are typically rejected and isolated by peers.

Interestingly, the third group of bully victims experiences both disruptive and non-disruptive problems, has significant negative attitudes and beliefs about themselves, low in social competence, struggle to socially problem solve, perform poorly academically and are not only rejected but neglected by peers. These youth also have a negative influence on the peers with whom they interact.

Boys were found to be more involved in bullying than girls across all bully status groups. Although the strength of gender effect depended on the specific bully group being evaluated, boys were more likely to be involved in bullying as a bully, victim or bully victim. Additionally, family and home environment, school climate and community factors significantly predicted involvement for bullies and victims. This reflects the important role social context plays in the development and maintenance of bullying.

The authors report that another common predictor across the three groups was poor social problem solving skills. It would appear that this weakness may place children on a developmental trajectory to become involved in bullying. Adversely, those children and youth with adequate social problem solving skills may be better able to negotiate confrontations or problems with peers and thereby avoid bullying or victimization.

In our work, Dr. Brooks and I have focused heavily on assets and the role that positive factors may play in mediating many of the negative factors just discussed. In the bullying research, few positive factors have yet to be studied nor evaluated. This represents a significant gap in the bullying research. Though there are some variables such as internalizing behaviors (depression or anxiety) that were found significantly related only to being a bully during the teenage years but not during the childhood years, bully’s appear to be rejected and isolated by their peers during childhood. It appears they may become more accepted and liked by peers as they enter adolescence. The authors point out that being perceived as popular and being liked by others are different phenomena.

These findings hold significant implications in research and school wide programs. At this point many of the interventions for general aggression, including bullying, have focused on the individual. Altering the context without a focus on changing individuals and vice versa is limiting an approach. It ignores the multiple variables and environmental issues that contribute to and influence bullying. The authors point out that the most promising programs are those that focus on the individual, the immediate family and the broader community simultaneously to alter the course of those youth likely to become bullies, to be bullied or both.