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BullyingA Guide to Research, Intervention, and Prevention$

Faye Mishna

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199795406

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199795406.001.0001

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The Context of Bullying: Definition, Prevalence, and Controversies

The Context of Bullying: Definition, Prevalence, and Controversies

(p.3) Chapter 1 The Context of Bullying: Definition, Prevalence, and Controversies

Faye Mishna

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter will set the stage for examining and addressing bullying with a discussion on the pervasiveness of bullying of children and adolescents around the world along with an overview of the short term and potential long lasting effects of bullying. Also included will be a review of the confusion and controversies surrounding the term “bullying.” The term “bullying” typically is defined as a form of aggression which can be direct or indirect and includes physical, verbal or psychological and relational acts, that is intentional and occurs in a relationship characterized by a power imbalance, and is repeated over time. Notwithstanding the complexity of bullying and ensuing difficulties in defining and recognizing bullying, the damage caused by bullying can be considerable and far reaching. The adult-child relationship in particular influences the ability of children and youth to manage in many areas, including bullying situations.

Keywords:   bullying, confusion, controversy, physical bullying, verbal bullying, psychological bullying, power imbalances


Bullying is a deceptively complex phenomenon, thus making it difficult to understand bullying problems and to determine how to respond. Its pervasiveness, coupled with the detrimental and often subtle effects long after episodes are over, makes bullying critical to address. The dynamics of bullying extend beyond the children who bully or who are bullied. Rather, individual features, family and peer interactions, and cultural conditions all contribute to bullying problems. Confounding the situation are the new forms of bullying such as cyber bullying, with unique implications for prevention and intervention.

This book is a compilation of key information on bullying and will be a resource for students in undergraduate and graduate programs such as social work, psychology, education, and youth care. Faculty members may adopt this book as a text for practice courses on children and adolescents and on working with families. The book is also relevant for practitioners, including for example social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, and youth workers, in settings such as schools, social welfare organizations, mental health agencies, hospitals, and private practice. The prevalence of bullying suggests that bullying may be an issue in situations even when it is not described or perhaps even considered to be part of the presenting problem. The impact of the child or youth’s involvement in bullying, as victim or as the aggressor, might consequently go unrecognized by the child or youth and his or her parents and by the practitioner.

There is a tremendous amount of research on the prevalence, associated factors, and effects of bullying; on the theoretical approaches applied to bullying; and on the evaluation of anti-bullying prevention and intervention schoolwide programs. The complex issues related to bullying will be reviewed and examined. Challenges and obstacles will be discussed, as will strategies and practice principles to overcome barriers in prevention and intervention with children and youth who are bullied and who bully. Examples will be used to illustrate the issues and concepts.

(p.4) Background

A common schoolyard phenomenon for decades, bullying has been a predictable, “accepted,” and often unspoken albeit painful part of childhood. Indeed, bullying is considered “the most prevalent form of low-level violence in schools today” (Tutty et al., 2005; Whitted & Dupper, 2005, p. 167). Customarily tolerated in Western society (Oliver, Oaks, & Hoover, 1994; P. K. Smith & Brain, 2000), bullying was not acknowledged or was considered a “normal” childhood experience (Carter & Spencer, 2006), one perhaps with a positive outcome through character formation. Although this view persists, and possibly is fueled by the pervasiveness of bullying (Astor, 1995; P. K. Smith & Brain, 2000), there is growing recognition that bullying is a public health issue that must be addressed (Blosnich & Bossarte, 2011; David-Ferdon & Hertz, 2007; Feder, 2007).

Dan Olweus is regarded as the first to conduct research on bullying among children and youth, after the suicides of three boys in 1982 that were associated with bullying victimization. Olweus developed and evaluated an anti-bullying program, launched by the Norwegian Ministry of Education, that targeted various levels of the system: the whole school, the classroom, and individual students.2 There has since been a veritable explosion around the world of research and programs and evaluations in efforts to understand and address bullying. Yet it has taken extreme cases in which bullying appeared to be a factor for this phenomenon to stop hovering and to truly enter the public consciousness. For example, analysis of the April 1999 Columbine tragedy revealed that one of the multiple factors that may have contributed to the killing rampage by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was their chronic victimization by popular school athletes (Greenfield & Juvonen, 1999). The horrific violence that occurred at Columbine represents extreme violence, which clearly does not occur in the majority of schools. Some students, teachers, and parents depicted the school as one in which bullying was tolerated (Greenfield & Juvonen, 1999; Kass, 2000), a not uncommon situation, especially when perpetrated by high-status groups such as “jocks” (Hong, Cho, Allen-Meares, & Espelage, 2011).

In the last decade, first in Europe and more recently in other countries including Canada and the United States, attention has increasingly been paid to abusive behavior in the workplace, also known as “mobbing,” and to prison bullying. Although for the most part these phenomena involve adults, some of the prison bullying research has focused on Young Offender Institutions. Workplace and prison bullying are beyond the scope of this book, however, which focuses on children.3

Defining Bullying: Why Is It So Confusing?

Although a great deal is known about bullying problems and dynamics, there remain questions, controversies, and discrepancies about the phenomenon, beginning with the definition. Awareness of areas about which there is agreement and where there is uncertainty is helpful.

Heinemann (1973) was the first to write about the phenomenon of bullying (P. K. Smith, Cowie, Olafsson, & Liefooghe, 2002), for which he used the Norwegian term “mobbning” (or mobbing) to refer to an attack that occurs and subsides suddenly, (p.5) by a group against an individual who deviates from the norm in some way(s). This term refers to group actions against an individual, as does the English word “mobbing.”4 Olweus (1978) originally defined bullying as the systematic use of physical or mental aggression by one or more children against a peer. This definition did not mention power, intention (Besag, 1989; Griffin & Gross, 2004), or motivation, which other researchers added at later dates (Bosworth, Espelage, & Simon, 1999).

Although countless researchers have tried to develop a comprehensive and clear definition, there remains disagreement on how bullying should be defined (Griffin & Gross, 2004; P. K. Smith et al., 2002). There is some consensus about certain elements of the definition, specifically, that bullying refers to a form of aggression5 that can be direct or indirect and includes physical, verbal, or psychological and relational acts, that is intentional and occurs in a relationship characterized by a power imbalance, and is repeated over time.6

Bullying motivated by intolerance toward others based on actual or perceived membership in a particular group, such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status, is known as “bias-based bullying”7 (Greene, 2006; Rigby, 2002; Stein, 2003). Bias-based bullying both results from and reinforces discrimination toward minorities and marginalized groups within society, based on certain characteristics (Greene, 2006; Rigby, 2002). Bias-based bullying occurs frequently, and children and youth who belong to marginalized groups or minorities are more vulnerable to the experience of victimization by peers.8

A number of researchers stress that a fundamental component of bullying dynamics is that the victimized child finds it more and more difficult to defend him or herself (Craig et al., 2007; Monks & P. K. Smith, 2006). It follows, based on the principle that protection from abuse is a fundamental human right, that others, most particularly adults, have a duty to intervene (Atlas & Pepler, 1998; Finkelhor, 1995; Olweus, 1991, 1997; Sawyer, Mishna, Pepler & Wiener, 2011). The following section examines the key elements in the definition of bullying.

Form of aggression. Regardless of the form, bullying constitutes aggression and damages the child or youth’s sense of self or their peer relationships (Craig et al., 2007). A substantial percentage of children and youth have some bullying involvement—either overt/direct or covert/indirect (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). The recent advent of the Internet and communication technologies has provided new means through which children can bully and be bullied.9

Direct and indirect forms of aggression have been described as distinct (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Cullerton-Sen & Crick, 2005), although children and youth who use both forms of aggression have similar risk factors (Herrenkohl et al., 2007). Overt aggression can be physical or verbal (Ando et al., 2005; Bauman & Del Rio, 2006); for example, hitting, pushing, kicking, and making verbal threats or putdowns (Craig et al., 2007; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003). Despite the inclusion of covert or indirect aggression in definitions of bullying, it is concerning that some of the most common and hurtful forms, such as exclusion, are often not considered to be bullying. One consequence is that the damage of certain types of bullying can be overlooked (Boulton & Hawker, 1997; Craig, Henderson & Murphy, 2000; Townsend-Wiggins, 2001). If they regard indirect bullying as less detrimental, teachers may be less likely to intervene in situations (p.6) of indirect aggression or have empathy for children who are victimized by this form of bullying (Bauman & Del Rio, 2006; Craig et al., 2000; Landau Milich, Harris, & Larson, 2001). The reduced visibility and ambiguity of indirect bullying make it difficult to measure. Moreover, the everyday nature of indirect bullying perpetuates the view that it is normal and hence harmless (Crick &Grotpeter, 1995; Currie, Kelly, & Pomerantz, 2007).

In a study conducted with colleagues comprising interviews (Mishna, 2004; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna, Scarcello, Pepler, & Wiener, 2005; Mishna, Wiener, & Pepler, 2008), we examined bullying from the perspectives of fourth-grade and fifth-grade students who self-identified as victimized and of their parents, teachers, and school administrators. The participants talked about situations in which the child respondents were involved. We administered the “Safe School Questionnaire” (Pepler, Connolly, & Craig, 1993, adapted from Olweus, 1989) to 157 students to obtain students’ self-reports of bullying behavior in school.10 Most of the children and adults included direct and indirect behaviors in their definitions of bullying. Regarding indirect forms, several children mentioned spreading stories and leaving others out, and one principal stated, “the rumor mill, especially for grades five and six is deadly.” Corresponding with the literature, however, we found that in response to the incidents involving the child participant, the adults and children typically “normalized” the behavior, thus minimizing and overlooking nonphysical aggression. Many of the participants used a hierarchy to categorize bullying behaviors. For instance, despite incorporating exclusion and gossip in her definition, one girl said that indirect behavior such as gossip was “less serious.” A principal commented that it is the physical incidents that are typically brought to his attention.

Boys tend to use direct bullying, while girls are prone to use indirect aggression (Brown, Chesney-Lind, & Stein, 2007; Craig & Pepler, 1997; O’Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999; Owens, Shute, & Slee, 2000). While some indirect aggression in adolescence may not seriously damage relationships, the behavior must be understood within the broader peer context, and intent to hurt must be identified (Geiger & Fischer, 2006; Goldstein & Tisak, 2004; Landau et al., 2001; Pellegrini & Roseth, 2006). For example, verbal aggression that targets a feature such as ethnicity, race, or disability may reflect societal discrimination (Geiger & Fischer, 2006; Lloyd & Stead, 2001)11 and must not be regarded as typical (harmless) youthful conflictual behavior.

Girls tend to act in more relationally aggressive ways than boys. While some evidence suggests that this difference appears as early as preschool (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Geiger, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Crick, 2004; Lagerspetz, Bjoerkqvist, & Peltonen, 1988), other evidence indicates that gender differences do not appear until grade six (Bjoerkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992; Zimmer-Gembeck, Geiger, & Crick, 2005).

Indirect or covert aggression, also described as “meanness,” includes exclusion, ridicule, and name calling with the goal of manipulating social networks (Currie et al., 2007; Owens et al., 2000). As explained by Currie and colleagues (2007): “the harm (and the power) of meanness as an attempt to regulate group membership comes by robbing the ‘othered’ of control over defining ‘who she is’ and ‘what she is all about’” (p. 26) and may result in others feeling envious and afraid of the perpetrator. The popular girls were envied by the others, as the “girls with the power” (p. 27). Utilizing longitudinal data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Use study, Faris and Felmlee (2011) (p.7) examined the association between peer status and aggressive behaviors (including indirect aggression) (Ennett, Bauman, Foshee, Hussong, & Durant, 2000). Among 3,722 middle and high-school students across 19 schools, multivariate analysis revealed that high peer status is associated with increased aggression toward peers. The aggressive behaviors escalated until the child reached the top of the social hierarchy, at which time there was less need for aggressive behaviors. Despite overlap, several forms of indirect or covert aggression have been described: relational, reputational, and psychological or social, each of which is reviewed next.12

Relational aggression can be direct or indirect and involves manipulating relationships in order to cause harm (Crick, Casas, & Ku, 1999; Crick & Grotpeter, 1996; Pellegrini & Roseth, 2006; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003). The intent can be to retaliate or to sustain or increase conflict with the aim of damaging relationships. Direct forms include breaking confidences or talking just loud enough or within earshot so that the targeted peer hears; indirect forms comprise behaviors such as excluding or ignoring someone (Ando et al., 2005; Crick, 1996; Owens et al., 2000; Scheithauer, Hayer, Petermann, & Jugert, 2006). Relational aggression typically occurs within friendships characterized by a high degree of jealousy, exclusiveness, and intimacy (Grotpeter & Crick, 1996).13 Not investigated until fairly recently, this form of aggression, which is most likely to be utilized by girls, has been traditionally underestimated (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995).

Reputational aggression comprises spreading rumors, gossiping, and manipulating friendships in order to influence one’s position on the social hierarchy (Owens et al., 2000; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003). Gossip has been found to cause more damage to girls’ relationships than social exclusion (Goldstein & Tisak, 2004). One study entailed interviews and a questionnaire with 103 adolescents to examine their beliefs about relational aggression and to examine associations between their beliefs and their own aggressive behavior. On a four-point rating scale, “definitely wrong,” “sort of wrong,” “sort of okay,” or “definitely okay,” the adolescents reported gossip to be “definitely wrong,” whereas they rated exclusion as “sort of okay” (Goldstein & Tisak, 2004). In contrast, the adolescents rated gossip and physical aggression similarly, reporting both to be “definitely wrong.”

When youth use psychological or social aggression they are often able to elude adult detection. This form of aggression includes ridicule, intimidation, and group rejection. “Ridicule is a powerful social ritual designed to demean certain individuals and set them apart from others” (Brendtro, 2001, p. 47). Psychological bullying can involve mocking a youth’s appearance or personality or disparaging a youth’s race, gender, or family (Brendtro, 2001; Owens et al., 2000). Other examples include making prank phone calls or making sure that an individual knows about a party to which they are not invited (Brendro, 2001; Goldstein & Tisak, 2004; Owens et al. 2000). Nonverbal and subtle yet powerful forms of psychological bullying include “looks,” making faces, and rolling eyes, which typically are not seen or detected despite the presence of teachers (Brendro, 2001; Goldstein & Tisak, 2004; Scheithauer et al., 2006).

Even when they notice such behaviors, most (96 percent) teachers ignore these subtle forms of aggression, hoping or thinking the students will resolve the issue on their own (Brendtro, 2001). In the study described above, in which we obtained the perspectives of fourth-grade and fifth-grade students and their parents and educators, both the (p.8) teachers and students concurred that teachers often did not intervene in response to relational or psychological bullying, even when they observed or were made aware of an incident. The meaning teachers ascribed to incidents seemed to influence whether they viewed an incident as “normal” or problematic, which then influenced whether they responded. One teacher, for instance, who believed that physical behaviors were more serious than verbal or indirect forms, expressed “shock” that a student identified as victimized. She relayed that on several occasions this boy had complained about being bullied. “Because he has friends and is liked,” however, the teacher had not taken his complaints seriously. During the interview she became visibly agitated and voiced self-doubt, wondering whether she could “take care of him and others if I don’t see enough.” Another teacher made an effort to be sensitive to her students. She described a situation in which a boy pulled down a girl’s pants. Other girls who witnessed the incident told the teacher the girl had pulled her own pants down. When the boy admitted responsibility, the teacher sent him to the office, which resulted in a suspension. The teacher stated in the interview that she never dealt with the girls who had “lied about the incident” for fear of “making things worse and fueling gossip.” Many of the teachers in the study described feeling incapable of covering the curriculum and dealing with the recurrent “bullying-type incidents” that went on “all day every day”. To complicate matters, the teachers often found it hard to distinguish “normal” conflict from bullying, and thus did not know how to respond. They compared the existence of school policies for dealing with physical aggression with the lack of such guidelines for addressing nonphysical bullying.

Intentional. There appears to be consensus that intent to cause harm or discomfort to an individual is an integral criterion in the definition of bullying (Arora, 1996; Besag, 1989; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). Nevertheless, some researchers suggest that behaviors that are not necessarily intended by the perpetrator to cause harm should be considered bullying if the victimized child or youth considers the behavior to be bullying (Guerin & Hennessy, 2002).

In the preceding study,14 most of the children, parents and educators stressed that bullying is intentional. According to one girl, for example, “bullies enjoy hurting and scaring others.” Many parents referred to children who bully as “trying” to make a child feel “down,” “lower,” or “in a lesser category.” A teacher talked about one child trying to make another child “feel inferior and bring about feelings of fear, anxiety, and intimidation” and another referred to children who “deliberately want to hurt somebody.” When discussing how they responded to incidents, many respondents stressed that they look for intent to cause harm, which they believed was central to bullying. Few of the children and adults did not feel there was always intent to cause harm.

A number of children and adults highlighted their difficulty labeling bullying due to the “thin line between bullying and teasing.” One mother, for instance, said that when she asked her daughter whether anyone bullied her, “she always answers ‘well they tease me.’ I’m not sure if teasing is when they are just kind of playing with you but not necessarily having a hidden agenda of hurting you. I think bullies really want to hurt you.” Evidence suggests that teasing is ambiguous. There is no intent to harm in “friendly teasing,” which is thus not considered bullying. In contrast, “nasty teasing” is intended to harm and is thus considered bullying (P. K. Smith et al., 2002). Other respondents in our study tried to sort out whether an incident was bullying based on whether the child who (p.9) bullied was “joking.” For instance, one child reported that she was not upset after a peer treated her “meanly,” because “when she says she was joking, I feel much better because she didn’t really mean it.” Referring to a boy who bullied her son, a mother expressed concern about accepting the assertion that he was joking: “When you throw somebody to the ground and start kicking them, that’s not playing.”

Interpersonal relationship. “Relationship” was not explicitly included in the original definition of bullying. While there is no controversy about including relationship, there has been a momentous shift in the past several years, as researchers have placed greater emphasis on bullying as a relationship problem rather than a problem related to a child’s aggression or vulnerability to victimization. Researchers have explicitly highlighted the relational context of bullying incidents, as well as elements such as aggression and power imbalance (Craig & Pepler, 2007; Craig et al., 2007; Cummings et al., 2006; Lee, 2006; Monks & P. K. Smith, 2006; Rigby, 1996; Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Craig and Pepler (2007) define bullying as a “destructive relationship problem” whereby “children who bully are learning to use power and aggression to control and distress others; children who are victimized become increasingly powerless and unable to defend themselves from this peer abuse” (p. 86).

Our study’s findings15 correspond with the view that bullying is first and foremost a relationship problem. Analysis of the interviews with the children, their parents, and educators revealed that the prevailing pattern was how difficult it was to determine bullying, which emerged as a complex process whereby each individual considered factors that influenced how he or she viewed a particular incident. Their ultimate views and responses were based on how the respondent viewed and reacted to the children involved in bullying, as aggressor or victim. For instance, one teacher reflected, “it’s hard to know whether somebody constantly picked on is doing something to cause it.” Another teacher asserted, “in some cases victims seem to thrive on being victims,” and yet another commented that some children “make themselves victims by seeing bullying where it isn’t.” These teachers’ interpretations were informed by their own relationship with the child and by how they understood the child’s interpersonal behavior.

Power imbalance. A key element of the definition is an imbalance of power where-by children who bully gain more power than those they bully (Besag, 1989; Gini, 2004; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Olweus, 1991, 1993; Stein, Dukes, & Warren, 2007). Determining whether there is a power imbalance however, can be deceptively difficult. In the study referred to above,16 the children and adults all referred to a power imbalance in bullying situations. One child remarked, “older kids think they can overpower the little ones,” and another commented, “it’s the kids’ fault because they think that they’re powerful.” A parent talked about “one child trying to exert their power toward another child to intimidate”; a teacher described a child who bullies as “trying to get some kind of power or control over that person”; and a principal depicted bullying as an individual “putting another in a position where they are intimidated or feel they need to do something they are not comfortable with.” Despite the unanimous view that power imbalance is critical, a recurring theme that emerged was the adults’ struggle to determine whether an incident entailed a power imbalance, which could be pivotal in whether they intervened. This dilemma is illustrated by one teacher’s comment that “it can be very hard to decide whether it really is a bullying situation, whether it’s one up, one down, or 50-50.”

(p.10) Although there is not an inherent power imbalance among children as there is between a child and an adult, the perceived power imbalance is integral to bullying dynamics. The literature abounds with the numerous and complex ways through which power can be derived in bullying situations, succinctly summarized by Craig and colleagues (2007):

This power can derive a social advantage such as a dominant social role (e.g. teacher compared to a student), higher social status in a peer group (e.g. popular versus rejected student), strength in numbers (e.g. group of children bullying a solitary child) or through systemic power (e.g. racial or cultural groups, sexual minorities, economic disadvantage, disability). Power can also be achieved by knowing another’s vulnerability (e.g. obesity, stuttering, learning problem, sexual orientation, family background) and using that knowledge to cause distress (p. 465).

Although the power difference may be readily apparent in some situations, in others the power differential may be obscure. Since bullying dynamics are not static, children may not readily fit into one category, such as “the bully” or “the victim” (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). There are important implications of this lack of a clear and constant difference in power between children who bully and who are victimized. Most apparent is how hard it can be to identify bullying, determine roles of the involved children, and decide how to respond.

Analysis of the interviews in the previously mentioned study17 revealed that many respondents struggled to sort out the dynamics in their attempt to sort out whether the situation constituted bullying. For example, one mother expressed feeling confused about whether a friend was “bullying” her daughter. Before participating in the study interview she had not considered this girl’s behavior bullying but rather believed her daughter “picks manipulative friends, and it’s an age thing, I won’t be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.” As this example illustrates, determining whether a situation constitutes bullying may be confusing and can influence the adult’s interpretation and response.

Repeated over time. Repetition is rather controversial (Lee, 2006; Monks & P. K. Smith, 2006). Several researchers stress that repetition is key in defining bullying (Byrne, 1994; Craig & Pepler, 2007; Griffin & Gross, 2004). Repetition can constitute actual repeated bullying incidents over a specified period or fear of future bullying incidents, which can be triggered by even one bullying incident (Guerin & Hennessy, 2002; Lee, 2006). Although Olweus (1993) included repetition in his definition, he nevertheless recognized that a single serious instance could under some circumstances be regarded as bullying. Other researchers argue that focusing on repetition can be limiting (Monks & P. K. Smith, 2006).

In their study on the definitions of bullying held by children, teachers, and parents, Monks and P. K. Smith (2006) found that younger children paid less attention than older children to repetition, imbalance of power, and intention whereas many adults believed that the behavior must be repeated in order to be considered bullying. In contrast, a notable finding in our study18 was that few of the children or adults mentioned repetition in their definitions of bullying, a result that corresponds with other findings (p.11) (Siann, Callaghan, Lockhart, & Rawson, 1993). Further analysis, however, revealed that despite not being mentioned by many respondents in their definitions, repetition seemed deeply embedded in their responses. Several children who had not told an adult about their victimization were adamant that telling adults makes bullying worse. As one boy explained, “they think if I go to the principal’s office and tell him they won’t do it any more, but they’ll do it more because you told on them.” This boy’s comments were illustrative of several children when he stated that he would only tell his teacher if it was “very serious” and the child(ren) continued to physically hurt him. The effects of repetitious bullying, regardless of the severity of a particular incident, are well documented (Craig et al., 2000; Hazler, Miller, Carney, & Green, 2001), as is the dread or fear of future occurrences, which intensifies a child’s distress (Sian et al., 1993). This dread of future occurrences and stress were evident in the responses of the children in our study. It is vital to recognize repetition as underlying the bullying dynamic, either due to actual repetition or fear and anxiety, which are reinforced over time.

Definition of Bullying: Summary

Bullying consists of actions that are a direct or indirect form of aggression; may entail physical, verbal, or psychological and relational acts that are intended to hurt the victimized child or youth; occur in a relationship characterized by a power imbalance; and are repeated over time. There tends to be agreement about the intention to hurt, the relationship context, and the power imbalance in bullying dynamics. There remains controversy about the form of aggression. Although included in the definition, indirect bullying continues to be considered less serious than direct forms (e.g., physical), despite compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. The most contentious element in the definition is repetition, about which there are disparate views—from considering repetition core in the definition to believing repetition is not needed or even helpful when considering bullying. Repetition can include actual repeated incidents or the dread and stress accompanying the fear of future bullying, in which case the repetition is in the subjective response of the victimized child or youth.


Bullying is a pervasive problem (Harel-Fisch et al., 2010; Hazler et al., 2001; O’Connell et al., 1999; Olweus, 1994; Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, & Haynie, 2007). Large-scale surveys on prevalence in schools have been conducted in countries throughout the world, including, for example, Sweden (Olweus, 1994), Norway (Roland, 2000), the United States (Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000; Nansel et al., 2001), England (Whitney & P. K. Smith, 1993), Canada (Paetsch & Bertrand, 1999; Pepler, Craig, Ziegler, & Charach, 1993, 1994), Australia (Rigby & Slee, 1991), Ireland (O’Moore & Kirkham, 2001), Italy (Gini, 2004), and Japan (Rios-Ellis, Bellamy, & Shoji, 2000). Although the frequency and impact of bullying is not questioned, there is considerable variation across countries;19prevalence estimates range from 9 to 73 percent, with an average prevalence (p.12) of 33 percent (Craig & Harel, 2004; WHO, 2004). According to a 2001/2002 survey on Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC), conducted with youth aged 11, 13, and 15 years in 35 countries by the World Health Organization, approximately 34 percent of the youth reported being bullied at least once and about 35 percent reported bullying others, on at least one occasion in the previous two months. These rates are comparable with one of the few studies using an American representative sample of youth (Nansel et al., 2001). According to this research 13 percent of students in middle school acted as perpetrators, 10.6 percent were victimized, and 6.3 percent were victims of bullying.

Reported prevalence rates (and thus interventions) vary considerably likely due to differences across countries and cultures, and the developmental stage and age of involved youth (Craig et al., 2000; P. K. Smith et al., 2002). Notwithstanding differences across schools, cultures or countries, comparing rates amongst countries and cultures and among studies is difficult due to the inconsistent ways of defining, understanding and categorizing bullying (Bosworth et al., 1999; Craig et al., 2000; Griffin & Gross, 2004; P. K. Smith, 2004; Solberg & Olweus, 2003). Certain behaviors may be more acceptable in some countries than in others (Craig & Harel, 2004) and many languages do not have an equivalent word for the term “bullying”20; both of these factors influence the reported prevalence and intervention rates (Arora, 1996; Craig et al., 2000; P. K. Smith et al., 2002; Smorti, Menesini, & P. K. Smith, 2003).

Other factors that confound bullying rates include differences such as the data source (e.g., self-report questionnaires or peer and teacher ratings); providing a definition or leaving room for participants’ perspectives; time period (e.g., no specified period, months, school term); rating categories (ranging from general frequencies such as “rarely” or “often” to specific frequencies such as “once” or “several times a week”); use of composite or single items to rate bullying and victimization; and variation in cut-off points to distinguish children who are or are not categorized as either bullying or as victimized (Boyle, 1996; Solberg & Olweus, 2003).

The Canadian and American Contexts

Canadian research illustrates varying prevalence levels among studies due to differences in definitions of bullying and variability of frequency measures. According to some studies, 14 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls experience bullying victimization at school at least some of the time (CCSD, 2006) while other findings place this number closer to 30 percent (Craig & Harel, 2004). The majority (53 percent) of Canadian girls and boys aged 10–15 report feeling like an outsider at school sometimes, and the number of Canadian youth aged 10–15 who reported liking school “very much or quite a bit” decreased from 1998 to 2000 (CCSD, 2006).

According to the WHO Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, the rates of bullying and victimization in Canada and the United States are considerably higher than in many other countries. Canada ranked a dismal 26th and 27th out of 35 participating countries on measures of bullying and victimization, respectively (Craig & Harel, 2004; Craig et al., 2007). The United States did not fare much better, ranking (p.13) 25th and 23rd on rates of bullying and victimization. Across all categories of bullying or victimization, Canada and the United States ranked approximately at or below the middle of the international group.

Effects of Bullying and Associated Issues

Bullying can seriously affect the academic, social, emotional, and psychological functioning and the physical health of children and youth who are victimized and who bully (Olweus, 1984; Rigby, 2000; Schwartz, Gorman, Nakamoto, & McKay, 2006). The children who bully and who are victimized are at risk of developing various psychosocial and psychiatric problems that may persist into their adult years (Nansel et al., 2001; Olweus, 1993). Children who are bullied tend to experience internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety, whereas those who bully are more likely to experience externalizing problems such as aggression and antisocial behavior (Olweus, 1994; Solberg & Olweus, 2003).

Compelling evidence indicates that many areas of victimized children’s lives may be affected—academic, social, emotional, psychological, and physical health (Crick & Bigbee, 1998; Olweus, 1984, 1993; Rigby, 2000). Victimization is associated with more mental health problems (Roland, 2002; Slee, 1995). Rigby (2000) found that students who reported being bullied often and who lacked social support appeared to be at greater risk for poor mental health. Victimized children are at higher risk to experience more stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches than nonvictimized children (Due et al., 2005; Williams, Chambers, Logan, & Robinson, 1996), to have difficulty sleeping (Due et al., 2005), and to wet their bed (Williams et al., 1996). These children are much more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety and to feel more insecure than their peers who are not bullied (Due et al., 2005; Salmon, James, & D. M. Smith, 1998) and to have poorer self-esteem (Beaty, & Alexeyev, 2008; Egan & Perry, 1998; Matsui, Tsuzuki, Kakuyama, & Onglatco, 1996; Mynard & Joseph, 1997; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010; Rigby & Slee, 1993; Wild, Flisher, Bhana, & Carl, 2004). Based on a meta-analysis of studies published between 1978 and 1997 that examined the link between bullying and maladjustment, Hawker and Boulton (2000) concluded that boys and girls of all ages who experience all forms of victimization “suffer a variety of feelings of psychosocial distress. They feel more anxious, socially anxious, depressed, lonely, and worse about themselves than do nonvictims” (p. 453). Cook and colleagues (2010) conducted a recent meta-analysis examining individual and contextual predictors of children who bully others, children who are victimized, and children who both bully others and are victimized. Quantitative studies conducted between 1970 and 2006 were included. Findings revealed that “a number of common and unique predictors were found for the bully status groups” (p. 65).

Indirect bullying (e.g., relational, reputational, psychological, social) can damage a person’s sense of self, self-esteem, and social status (Brendtro, 2001; Currie et al., 2007). Effects of relational bullying include emotional distress, fear and intimidation, problems with adjustment, and feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as depression as adults (Bauman & Del Rio, 2006; Crick, Grotpeter & Bigbee, 2002; Landau et al., 2001). Girls (p.14) may consider relational bullying more hurtful and hostile than boys (Goldstein & Tiskak, 2004). Family, school, community, and peer risk factors including gang involvement and substance use have been correlated with relational aggression (Herrenkohl et al., 2007).

Victimized children describe themselves as unpopular, unhappy, powerless, afraid, and unsafe at school (Astor, Meyer, & Pitner, 2001; Colvin, Tobin, Beard, Hagan, & Sprague, 1998; Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996b; Slee, 1994; Slee & Rigby, 1993; Vaillancourt et al., 2010). They report avoiding school more often. Indeed, about one quarter of children said they do not attend school because of bullying (Rigby, 2003). They tend to lack friends and to be rejected (Hodges & Perry, 1999; Olweus, 1994). These children may become less motivated in school, which can be accompanied by grade deterioration (Clarke & Kiselica, 1997; Duncan, 1999a). Individuals may suffer from the effects of bullying episodes long after they cease (Duncan, 1999a; Olweus, 1993). Notwithstanding the need to exercise caution when inferring cause, bullying may cause many problems experienced by victimized children (Hodges & Perry, 1999; Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996b; P. K. Smith & Myron-Wilson, 1998). The impact of bullying is exacerbated by a cycle whereby the emotional, physical, and social effects leave victimized children more vulnerable to further bullying (Crick & Bigbee, 1998). Egan and Perry (1998) write, “the fact that victimization and self-perceived peer social competence influence each other suggests a vicious cycle in which low self-regard and abusive treatment by others are mutually reinforcing” (p. 307).

Children who bully are more likely to be unhappy at school (Nansel et al., 2001; Slee & Rigby, 1993), have attention deficit disorder (Kumpulainen, Räsänen, & Puura, 2001), and be depressed as youth and as adults (Slee, 1995). Youth who bully are almost five times more likely than peers to report using alcohol and approximately seven times more likely to report using drugs (Pepler, Craig, Connolly, & Henderson, 2001; Pepler, 2006). Childhood aggression often continues into adolescence (O’Connell et al., 1999), and childhood bullying may progress into behaviors such as delinquency, gang activity, and criminal behavior (Farrington, 1993; Finkelhor, 1995; O’Connell et al., 1999; Olweus, 1991, 1993). This corresponds with findings that youth who bullied through physical or relational means displayed significantly more externalizing behaviors, manifest through symptoms associated with oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder (Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg, 2001). Similarly, children involved in relational bullying have been found to display increased behavior problems, including conduct problems (Wolke, Skuse, & Reilly, 2006). Olweus (1993, 1997) found that boys in grades six to nine who bullied were about four times more likely to be convicted of a crime by the time they were 24 years old than were victimized boys or those not involved in bullying. A Finnish study that followed a birth cohort from the age of eight years gathered bullying information from the children, parents, and teachers and examined criminal offenses of the youth, obtained from the National Police Register data. Frequent bullying in childhood predicted delinquent and criminal behavior in adolescence, and predicted recidivism (Sourander et al., 2007), a link that was strengthened when the child was diagnosed with hyperactivity or conduct disorder. The researchers concluded that “frequent bullying may serve as an important red flag that something is wrong and that intensive preventive or ameliorative interventions are warranted” (p. 550).

(p.15) Concluding Comments

The World Health Organization’s quality of life indicators include emotional, material, and physical well-being; interpersonal relations; absence of pain and discomfort; self-esteem; self-determination; social inclusion; and individual rights. Individual rights include “not being harassed or discriminated against by virtue of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, personality or circumstance” (P. K. Smith, 1997, p. 254). Bullying of children and adolescents is clearly a serious and pervasive worldwide phenomenon that threatens these core values and compromises the healthy development of children and youth. Adults are obligated to intervene in order to protect children and youth. There is consensus in the literature about the need to employ an ecological systems framework to understand and address bullying. Controversy surrounds several issues, including the definition of bullying and the degree of seriousness of various forms of bullying. Notwithstanding the complexity of bullying and ensuing difficulties in defining and recognizing bullying, we must remain mindful that the damage caused by bullying can be considerable and far-reaching. The adult-child relationship in particular influences the ability of children and youth to manage in many areas, and especially in bullying situations. (p.16)


(2) For more details of Olweus’s work, see Olweus, 1991, 1992, 1994; Olweus & Limber, 2010; Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999.

(3) For more details on workplace bullying or mobbing, see Duffy & Sperry, 2007; Hoel, Rayner & Cooper, 1999; Leymann, 1990; Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy, & Alberts, 2007; P. K. Smith, 1997; Westhues, 2005, 2006. For more details on prison bullying see Ireland, 2000.

(4) As previously noted, workplace bullying is often referred to as “mobbing.”

(5) Bullying is also described/defined as a form of abuse by peers (Craig & Pepler, 2007); peer abuse (Englander & Lawson, 2007); peer victimization and peer harassment (Paul & Cillessen, 2003).

(6) See Ahmed, 2006; Ahmed & V. Braithwaite, 2004; Ando, Asakura & Simons-Morton, 2005; Andreou, 2004; Baldry, 2004, 2005; Bauman & Del Rio, 2005; Brinson, 2005; Craig et al., 2007; Cullingford & Morrison, 1995; Cummings, Pepler, Mishna, & Craig, 2006; Juvonen & Graham, 2001; Konishi et al., 2009; Mishna, Pepler & Weiner, 2006; Monks & P. K. Smith, 2006; Nicolaides, Toda, & P. K. Smith, 2002; Olweus, 1991, 1993, 1999 (p. 10–11), 2003; Parada, Craven, & Marsh, 2003; Pellegrini, 1998; Pepler & Craig, 2000; Pepler et al., 2006; Rigby, 2002; Sampson, 2002; P. K. Smith et al., 2002; Sullivan, Cleary, & Sullivan, 2004.

(7) For a more detailed discussion of bias-based bullying see Chapter 4.

(8) The underlying motivations in bias-based bullying must be recognized and addressed, such as sexual harassment (Astor, Benbenishty, & Meyer, 2004; P. K. Smith & Brain, 2000; P. K. Smith et al., 2002; J. D. Smith, Cousins, & Stewart, 2005; Sourander et al., 2007; Stein, 1995), racism, ableism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism (Eslea & Mukhtar, 2000; Hugh-Jones & P. K. Smith, 1999; Thompson, Whitney, & I. Smith, 1994).

(9) For a fuller discussion of cyber bullying, see Chapter 6.

(10) For details of the study see Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna et al., 2005; Mishna et al., 2008.

(11) See Chapter 4 for a discussion of bias-based bullying.

(12) For a fuller review of relational/covert/indirect forms of bullying see Archer, 2001; Bjorkqvist, 1994, 2001; Crick, 1995; Currie et al., 2007; Galen & Underwood, 1997; Goldstein, & Tisak, 2004; Lagerspetz et al., 1988; Paquette & Underwood, 1999; Pellegrini & Roseth, 2006; Simmons, 2002; Underwood, Galen, & Paquette, 2001.

(13) For a fuller discussion of bullying among friends, see Chapter 7.

(14) Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna et al., 2005; Mishna et al., 2008.

(15) Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna et al., 2005; Mishna et al., 2008.

(16) Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna et al., 2005; Mishna et al., 2008.

(17) Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna et al., 2006; Mishna et al., 2005; Mishna et al., 2008.

(18) Mishna, 2004; Mishna & Alaggia, 2005; Mishna, Pepler, & Wiener, 2006; Mishna, Scarcello, Pepler, & Wiener, 2005; Mishna, Wiener, & Pepler, 2008.

(19) Craig, W. M., & Harel, Y. (2004). Bullying, physical fighting, and victimization. In C. Currie, C. Roberts, A. Morgan, R. Smith, W. Settertobulte, O. Samdal, & V. Barnekow Rasmussen (Eds.), Young people’s health in context (pp. 133–144). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

(20) In France and Spain there is no equivalent term for “bullying” and in Scandinavia and Germany the terms bullying and “mobbing” are used (Craig et al., 2000; P. K. Smith et al., 2002). Although the Japanese term that appears most equivalent to bullying is “ijime,” it has a connotation that is less physically violent (P. K. Smith et al., 2002). The Italian terms appearing most equivalent, “prepotenza” and “violenza,” have more physically violent connotations. In the US the terms “victimization” and “peer rejection” tend to be used (P. K. Smith et al., 2002).