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School BullyingNew Perspectives on a Growing Problem$

David R. Dupper

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199859597

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199859597.001.0001

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What Do We Know About Face-to-Face Peer Bullying?

What Do We Know About Face-to-Face Peer Bullying?

Chapter:
(p.8) 2 What Do We Know About Face-to-Face Peer Bullying?
Source:
School Bullying
Author(s):

David R. Dupper

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199859597.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a history of research on face-to-face peer bullying, provides a definition of bullying that is used throughout this volume, and differentiates bullying from other types of peer conflict. It discusses factors that contribute to bullying across a number of contexts including individual characteristics, family characteristics, and school characteristics. It presents recent statistics on the extent of and types of face-to-face bullying in schools and discusses which children and youth are at greatest risk of becoming victims of bullying. It discusses the educational and emotional consequences for victims, the bullies themselves, as well as those who are both bullies and victims (i.e., “bully-victims”). The chapter concludes with a discussion of several important developments in recent research on bullying that challenge some commonly held perceptions: the socially connected, popular bully; the critical role of peers who witness bullying; and the ways in which teachers and other adults in school perceive and respond to bullying incidents.

Keywords:   bullying, peer conflicts, individuals, family, schools, bullies, bullied children

The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.

—Mahatma Gandhi

This chapter presents a brief history of research on face-to-face peer bullying, provides a definition of bullying that is used throughout this volume, and differentiates bullying from other types of peer conflict. It discusses factors that contribute to bullying across a number of contexts including individual characteristics, family characteristics, and school characteristics. It presents recent statistics on the extent of and types of face-to-face bullying in schools and discusses which children and youth are at greatest risk of becoming victims of bullying. It discusses the educational and emotional consequences for victims, the bullies themselves, as well as those who are both bullies and victims (i.e., “bully-victims”). This chapter concludes with a discussion of several important developments in recent research on bullying that challenge some commonly held perceptions: the socially connected, popular bully; the critical role of peers who witness bullying; and the ways in which teachers and other adults in school perceive and respond to bullying incidents.

A Brief History of Research on Bullying

Systematic research on bullying in the United States is a relatively recent development. For example, it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s (p.9) that bullying began to attract attention in the United States (Olweus & Limber, 2010). Since that time, research on this topic has grown tremendously. In the mid-2000s, there was a marked shift in bullying research toward research on cyberbullying (Smith, 2011). (A detailed discussion of cyberbullying can be found in Chapter 3 of this volume.) Similarly, state laws that focused on combating bullying in schools were nonexistent in 1999 (Olweus & Limber, 2010). However, as of early 2012, all but three states in the United States have passed some form of antibullying legislation (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2011). (A more detailed discussion of antibullying laws across the United States can be found in Chapter 6 of this volume).

What Is Bullying?

Based on my extensive research on this topic, I believe that the most succinct and useful way of conceptualizing bullying in all of its forms is as a “a systematic abuse of power” (Rigby, 2002). This “systematic abuse of power” differentiates bullying from other forms of aggression and conflict, and as such, I discuss bullying from this perspective throughout this volume.

Beyond the general notion of defining bullying as a systematic abuse of power, a number of researchers have focused on three key elements in definitions of bullying. Specifically, bullying refers to the unprovoked physical or psychological abuse of an individual by one student or a group of students over time to create an ongoing pattern of abuse against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself. In other words, bullying is a specific type of aggression that involves an imbalance of power where the bully consciously intends to harm his or her victim physically and/or psychologically and has the power and the means to do so. Youth who engage in bullying behaviors have a need to feel powerful and in control, and they derive satisfaction from inflicting injury/suffering on their victims (Center for School Mental Health Assistance, 2002). Bullies are also skilled at “picking victims who are unlikely to fight back and for finding victims in unsupervised settings where they can’t walk away or find an adult to help” (Goodwin, 2011, p. 83). The public tears of victims often serve to solidify the power and status of the bully (Jacobson, 2010). Table 2.1 contains a listing of the various forms of bullying and respective definitions, and Box 2.1 contains examples of several common forms of bullying. (p.10)

Table 2.1 Types of Bullying

Term

Definition

Physical bullying

An attack on a victim that is physical in nature, including hitting, kicking, pushing, poking, hair pulling, excessive tickling, punching, choking, taking or damaging belongings

Verbal bullying

Includes such acts as calling hurtful names, taunting, threatening, malicious teasing

Relational/Indirect bullying

A form of bullying where the bully does not directly confront the victim but covertly attempts to socially isolate and exclude the victim from social groups and social events. It includes the spreading of vicious rumors intended to damage one’s reputation, rejecting and humiliating the victim, and manipulating friendships.

Cyberbullying (see chapter3 of this volume)

Cyberbullying has been defined as the repeated use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices to harm, harass, humiliate, threaten, or damage the reputation and relationships of the intended victim. It includes “sexting,” which is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones. It involves “private (such as chat or text messaging), semi-public (such as posting a harassing message on an email list), or public communications (such as creating a website devoted to making fun of the victim)” (Schrock & Boyd, 2011, p. 374).

Sexual bullying

Any physical or verbal bullying behavior that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It includes making fun of someone for being homosexual, making fun of the size of a girl’s breasts or buttocks, using sexual terms (e.g., “slut,” “bitch”) to put someone down, making jokes about rape, spreading rumors about someone’s sex life, touching parts of someone’s body where they don’t want to be touched, and putting pressure on someone to act in a sexual manner (e.g., sexual propositioning). It also includes exhibitionism.

Bias bullying

Bullying that is based on (or justified by) the victim being a member of a particular group, often a marginalized or disadvantaged one, rather than on individual characteristics

Note. Sources: Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2011; Crick et al., 2001; Espelage, 2004; Hinduja & Patchin, 2007; Holladay, 2010; Ragozzino and O’Brien, 2009; Schrock & Boyd, 2011.

(p.11) (p.12)

(p.13) I have referred to bullying as a low-level form of violence in schools (Dupper & Meyer-Adams, 2002). This is because bullying in schools is largely “hidden” from adults and is more insidious than high-level violence. Much more attention needs to be focused on low-level violence in schools, such as bullying, since low-level violence can impact its victims in substantial ways (Boxer, Edwards-Leeper, Goldstein, Musher-Eizenman, & Dubow, 2003) as well as escalate into more serious acts of violence (Goldstein, 1999). I view peer-on-peer bullying as peer child abuse. As such, victims of peer bullying are no different from victims of child abuse. Just as we do not expect child abuse victims to “fight off” their abusers, we should not expect bullying victims to “fight off” bullies on their own. Peer bullies should be confronted and held accountable for their actions, and victims of bullying need the help and support of peers and adults in order to stop the bullying.

How Is Bullying Different From Other Types of Peer Conflict?

It is important to be able to distinguish between bullying and other types of peer conflict. While any two people of relatively equal status can have a conflict or a disagreement or even a fight, as stated earlier, bullying only occurs where there is a power imbalance with the victim having a difficult time defending him or herself (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,e).

Since teasing is a “rite of passage” and a hallmark of male-to-male adolescent friendship (Darling, 2010), it is extremely important to (p.14) differentiate teasing from bullying. While some teasing and exchanging of insults can become relatively aggressive in nature, teasing is not intended to harm the other person (Doll, Song, Champion, & Jones, 2011). While a bully fully intends to harm his or her victim from the outset, a “teaser” seeks to elicit some type of reaction from the other person initially. How the other person reacts to a teasing episode will largely determine how the interaction proceeds. For example, if a boy laughs off a comment about his pants being too short, the teasing episode may stop right there. However, if the boy reacts angrily after hearing that his pants are too short, the interaction might evolve into a fight among peers of equal status. Or the “teaser” may decide to intentionally harm his victim on a chronic basis, and the initial teasing episode evolves into bullying (Darling, 2010).

Factors Associated With Bullying at Various Contextual Levels

As stated in Chapter 1 of this volume, bullying is a complex behavior with multiple causes and risk factors (Barboza et al., 2009). Research findings by Barboza et al. and others have increased our understanding of specific factors that contribute to bullying across a number of contexts, including individual characteristics (see Table 2.2), family characteristics (see Table 2.3), and a number of school characteristics (see Table 2.4). As seen in Table 2.2, one’s temperament is the best-documented individual characteristic associated with bullying behaviors. It also appears that being impulsive, easily frustrated, and having lower-levels of empathy are associated with bullying behaviors. There is also growing evidence that bullies, rather than feeling bad about themselves, have average to above-average self-esteem and that bullies are often more confident and socially astute than generally assumed (Kazdin & Rotella, 2009). We can also see in Table 2.2 that males are more likely to be bullies than females and that males engage in direct (i.e., physical and verbal attacks) bullying as opposed to females, who engage more frequently in indirect (i.e., spreading rumors, manipulation) bullying.

Table 2.3 identifies a number of family characteristics that have been found to be associated with being a bully. A significant predictor of engaging in bullying behaviors is coming from a home where a child has experienced physical and/or emotional abuse and where there is aggression among siblings. The role of the father in the family also appears to be important. For example, coming from a family where a father is a bully himself or where a father is (p.15)

Table 2.2 Individual Characteristics Associated With Children and Youth Who Engage in Bullying Behaviors

Temperament

The best-documented individual factor in bullying is temperament. Students who are active and impulsive in temperament may be more inclined to develop into bullies. Students who bully their peers regularly tend to be easily frustrated, have low levels of empathy, have difficulty following rules, view violence positively, are defiant toward adults, break school rules, have poorer school adjustment, and are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke. Male bullies tend to be physically stronger than other children.

Having good self-esteem

Most research indicates that children and youth who bully have average or above average self-esteem. Scant evidence exists to support the contention that bullies victimize others because they feel bad about themselves.

Being a bullying victim

Victims of bullying are more likely to bully others, and the odds of bullying increase significantly with age.

Being male

Males consistently exhibit a higher probability of bullying than females. Boys are much more likely to report being bullies, and boys are more likely to be the perpetrators of “direct” bullying (bullying that involves direct physical or verbal attacks). Girls are more likely to use “indirect” bullying (social exclusion, manipulation of friendship relationships, spreading rumors).

Note. Sources: Barboza et al., 2009; Center for School Mental Health Assistance, 2002; Haynie et al., 2001; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,d; Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003.

absent is associated with children who are bullies. It also appears that family relationships that lack warmth as well as families with inconsistent parental discipline are associated with children and youth who bully others.

Table 2.4 identifies a number of school characteristics that have been shown to be associated with bullying. This is an important area of current and future research on bullying since it takes into account factors in the larger environment that can serve to reinforce or diminish the likelihood of bullying in a particular school. Research has indicated that a negative (p.16)

Table 2.3 Family Characteristics and Dynamics Associated With Youth Who Engage in Bullying Behaviors

Aggressive behavior and violence are common in the family

Bullies often come from homes where physical punishment is used. This modeling of aggressive behavior at home toward the child by parents or by parents toward each other is associated with bullying. Sibling aggression and abuse are also significant predictors of bullying involvement. A high level of sibling violence is often found in the homes of bully-victims, with the majority of bully-victims admitting that they both bully and are victimized by their siblings. There is also an association between being physically or emotionally abused as a child and engaging in bullying behavior.

Having a father who is a bully or an absent father

Fathers who were bullies in school are more likely to have sons who bully others. Bullies are also likely to grow up in homes without a father figure and/or where mothers are perceived to be relatively powerless.

Inconsistent discipline

Children who engage in bullying are more likely to come from homes in which parents are overly permissive and do not set limits on or monitor their children’s behavior.

Lacking warmth and closeness

Families of bullies are also characterized as lacking warmth and lacking close relationships.

Note. Sources: Center for School Mental Health Assistance, 2002; Duncan, 2011; Farrington, 1993; Ragozzino & O’Brien, 2009; Smith, 2011.

school climate, poor teacher–student relationships, low levels of adult supervision, and the absence of school security procedures or devices are all associated with higher levels of reported bullying in schools.

How Extensive Is Bullying in Schools?

Bullying at school has been on the rise since 2001 (DeVoe, Kaffenberger, & Chandler, 2005) and appears to be widespread in our public schools today. Estimates of bullying differ depending on whether it is measured on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis as well as the grade level where it occurs. According to recent national survey data on school violence and student safety from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as well (p.17)

Table 2.4 School Characteristics Associated With Bullying

Student perceptions of school climate

A school climate characterized as unpleasant, unfair, and unwelcoming by students increases the probability of bullying. Bullying is more prevalent in school environments where students receive negative feedback and negative attention on a regular basis.

Teacher–student relationships

Having poor relationships with teachers is associated with more bullying while perceived social support from teachers has been shown to be associated with lower levels of bullying.

Structure and adult supervision

Low levels of adult supervision in the school playground, school yard, and hallways are associated with higher levels of bullying. Less school structure has also been shown to be associated with higher levels of bullying.

School security procedures or devices

Students were less likely to report being bullied in schools with target-hardening devices or procedures (e.g., metal detectors, security cameras) and/or campus police officers.

Attitudes of school personnel toward bullying

There is less bullying in schools where school personnel adopt antibullying values and actively intervene during bullying episodes. Conversely, there is a higher probability of bullying in schools where school personnel tolerate, ignore, or dismiss bullying behaviors.

Note. Sources: Center for School Mental Health Assistance, 2002; Cohn & Canter, 2003; DeVoe, Kaffenberger, & Chandler, 2005; Doll, Song, Champion & Jones, 2011; Espelage, 2004; Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010; Troop-Gordon & Kopp, 2011.

as data from the 2009–2010 School Survey on Crime and Safety, a much higher percentage of middle schools (39%) reported bullying on a daily or weekly basis compared with high schools (20%) or elementary schools (20%) (Neiman, 2011). These findings are comparable to other nationally representative surveys of high school–age students, which indicate that over a 12-month period as many as 20 percent of students experience bullying on school property (CDC, 2011). A recent national survey involving over 43,000 students found that half of U.S. high school students admitted to bullying someone in the past year, and 47% reported being bullied, teased, or taunted “in a way that seriously upset them” in the past year (Josephson Institute, 2010). Other studies have reported that 61% of girls and 60% of boys had been bullied one or more times a month (Nishioka Coe, Burke, Hanita, & Sprague, 2011) and that 7% of students face bullying every day (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2011).

(p.18) Based on these findings, it appears that bullying occurs at all school levels, including preschool, with more direct physical forms of bullying escalating through elementary school and middle school and gradually declining as students reach high school. Verbal bullying appears to increase as students move into middle and high school (Institute of Education Sciences, 2011). Bullying occurs in rural, suburban, and urban schools, and among children of every income level, race, and geographic region (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,e). Bullying occurs most frequently in school hallways or stairwells (47.2%) and classrooms (33.6%) (Institute of Education Sciences, 2011), with the notable exception of cyberbullying (see Chapter 3 of this volume for a detailed discussion of cyberbullying).

It is also important to note that these bullying statistics may seriously underestimate the true extent of bullying in schools. There are several reasons for this. First, students may not report being a victim of bullying because it would require the victim to acknowledge him or herself as powerless as well as require the perpetrator to acknowledge him or herself as abusive (Boyd & Marwick, 2011). Second, victims of bullying may be reluctant to report their victimization out of concern that nothing will be done about it and that their “tattling” will result in more severe bullying incidents in the future (Franks, 2010).

What Types of Bullying Occur in Schools?

It appears that the majority of bullying incidents are verbal (54%) or relational (51%) in nature, including such behaviors as spreading rumors or ostracizing the victim; fewer than 30% of bullying incidents are physical in nature (Goodwin, 2011; Petrosino, Guckenburg, DeVoe, & Hanson, 2010; Wang Iannotti, & Nansel, 2009). According to the most recent NCES national survey, 21% of respondents reported that they had been made fun of by their peers, 18% reported that they had been the subject of rumors, 11% reported that they had been pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on, and 6% reported that they had been threatened with harm (Robers, Zhang, & Truman, 2010).

Which Groups of Children/Youth Are at Greatest Risk of Becoming Victims of Bullies?

The most reliable predictor of becoming a bullying victim is being viewed as “not fitting in” or “being different” in some way (Furlong, Chung, (p.19) Bates, & Morrison, 1995; Shakeshift et al., 1995). For example, girls who are perceived by their peers as physically unattractive or physically well developed, or who do not dress stylishly, are often victims of bullying. Other victims of bullying include students who are known to be or presumed to be gay or lesbian, including boys who do not fit a stereotypic macho male image (see Chapter 4 of this volume for a detailed discussion of LGBT bullying). Other students who are at risk of becoming bullying victims include students who have a religion that is different from the majority (see Chapter 5 of this volume for a detailed discussion of religious bullying), students who wear unique and unusual clothing, and students who exhibit physical or emotional weaknesses (Furlong et al., 1995; Shakeshift et al., 1995). In addition, overweight and obese students are often victims of bullying (Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett, 2004; Lumeng et al., 2010). Students with disabilities (e.g., LD [learning disability], ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]) are two to three times more at risk of being bullied as well as at greater risk of taking part in bullying others (Knox & Conti-Ramsden, 2003; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,c). Children with medical conditions that affect their appearance (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and spinal bifida) (Dawkins, 1996) and children who have diabetes and who are dependent on insulin (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.,c) are also at higher risk of being bullied at school.

Victims of bullying also share some personal characteristics, in general. For example, victims are typically quiet, shy, anxious, insecure, and cautious; have few friends; are socially isolated; and rarely defend themselves or retaliate when confronted by students who bully them (Cohn & Canter, 2003). Victims of bullying often have overprotective parents and overly close relationships with siblings (Cohn & Canter, 2003; Duncan, 2011).

What Are the Educational and Emotional Consequences for Victims of Chronic Bullying?

Bullying is no longer viewed as a normative phase that most children outgrow, but rather, bullying is now linked to a broad range of long-term harmful effects (Nansel et al., 2001). There is substantial evidence, based on the findings of longitudinal studies across four continents, that being a victim of bullying “is consistently associated with depression, loneliness, social anxiety, school phobia, and low self-esteem” (Greene, 2006, p. 71). Victimized youth are also at increased risk for mental health problems such (p.20) as depression and anxiety, and psychosomatic complaints such as headaches and poor school adjustment (Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005). Victims of bullying have higher rates of eating disorders, lower academic achievement and school connectedness, and higher rates of truancy and disciplinary problems (Craig, 1998; Gastic, 2008; Gini, 2008; Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpela, Rantanen, & Rimpela, 2000; O’Brennan, Bradshaw, & Sawyer, 2009; You et al., 2008).

Recent neuroscience research findings provide additional evidence that the short- and long-term impact of psychological forms of bullying can be as devastating for the victim as physical abuse. Specifically, it has been discovered that psychological forms of bullying activate the same regions of the brain as physical pain and that bullying can, over time, alter brain functioning in ways that increase a victim’s “sensitivity to future victimization and pain…[and] jeopardize [one’s] capacity for effective functioning” (Vaillancourt, Hymel & McDougell, 2011, p. 29–30).

Youth who are bullied have also been shown to be at greater risk of developing poor self-esteem, depression, and suicidal ideations, and at greater risk of attempting suicide (Ivarsson, Broberg, Arvidsson, & Gillberg, 2005; Klomek, Marracco, Kleinman, Schonfeld, & Gould, 2007; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010; Roland, 2002). Among middle school students, bullying victims were 3 times, and bully-victims were 6.6 times more likely to report seriously considering suicide compared with youth who were not victims of bullies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). However, the small number of studies that have focused on the link between bullying and suicide have shown that youth who complete suicide after being bullied had other serious suicide risk factors including mental health or substance abuse problems, a family history of suicide, or a previous suicide attempt (Underwood et al., 2011). As a result, Underwood et al. (2011) emphasize the importance of being “alert to preexisting suicide risk factors when dealing with a youth who may be a victim of bullying” (p. 13).

There is also evidence that there is potential for escalating violence resulting from bullying incidents. According to a recent national report, 4.1% of bullied students ages 12 through 18 reported bringing a gun, knife, or other object that could be used as a weapon to school, compared with 2.1% students who were not bullied (Institute of Education Sciences, 2011). Table 2.5 summarizes the latest research findings on the educational and emotional consequences experienced by victims of bullying. (p.21)

Table 2.5 The Educational and Emotional Consequences Experienced by Victims of Chronic Bullying

Victims of Chronic Bullying Are More Likely Than Other Students to:

Consider school to be an unsafe and unhappy place. It has been estimated that as many as 7% of America’s 8th graders stay home at least once a month because of bullies

Have low social status (in contrast to bullies, who are often considered popular) reflecting the differential power status between bullies and their victims

Fear using the school bathroom

Fear riding on the school bus

Have poorer grades and increased rates of truancy and dropping out

Start fights or bring weapons to school to exact vengeance on the bully(ies)

Be depressed, lonely, anxious, have poor self-esteem, and think about suicide

Have psychosomatic problems (e.g., headaches, sleep disturbances)

Develop even more severe mental health problems such as psychotic symptoms

Note. Sources: Center for School Mental Health Assistance, 2002; Hazler, 1994; Juvonen & Graham, 2004; Limber, 2002; Olweus & Limber, 2010.

What Are the Educational and Emotional Consequences for the Bullies Themselves?

Youth who bully others are at increased risk for substance use, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood (Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005). There is also evidence that bullying behavior in school predicts later criminality and delinquency (Hymel, Rocke-Henderson, & Bonanno, 2005). For example, bullies are five times more likely than their classmates to wind up in juvenile court, to be convicted of crimes, and, when they become adults, to have children with aggression problems (Hazler, 1994). Sixty percent of boys who were bullies in middle school and high school were convicted of one or more crimes before they reached the age of 25 while 40% had three or more convictions (Fox, Elliot, Kerlikowske, Newman, & Christenson, 2003). It has been reported that youth who bully their peers are more likely to report that they own guns to gain the respect of others or to frighten others (Cunningham, Henggeler, Limber, Melton, & Nation, 2000). In the most extreme cases, bullying has been linked to school shootings (Meyer-Adams & Conner, 2008). Youth who bully are also more likely to engage in bullying behavior in the workplace or in their future relationships with their partners (Garbarino & deLara, 2003). Interestingly, bullies were 4.1 times more likely to report seriously considering suicide (p.22) compared with youth who were neither bullies nor victims (Underwood, Rish-Scott, & Springer, 2011).

What Are the Educational and Emotional Consequences for Bully-Victims?

A growing body of evidence suggests that, although they are a relatively small subset of students, bully-victims (i.e., children and youth who are bullied and who then go on to bully other youth) appear to be the most maladjusted group of students and the most likely group of students to remain chronically involved in bullying years later (Hamburger, Basile, & Vivolo, 2011; Nishina, 2004; O’Brennan, Bradshaw, & Sawyer, 2009). Specifically, one study found that bully-victims felt less safe and more disconnected to their school environments than their peers and were at increased risk for aggressive-impulsive behavior (O’Brennan, Bradshaw, & Sawyer, 2009). Compared with youth who only bully, or who are only victims, bully-victims suffer the most serious consequences and are at greater risk for both mental health and behavior problems (Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005). Of particular concern is the finding that bully-victims were 6.6 times more likely to report seriously considering suicide compared with youth who were neither bullied nor victims (Underwood, Rish-Scott, & Springer, 2011).

Socially Connected, Popular Bullies

As stated in Chapter 1 of this volume, we have recently begun to acknowledge the impact and importance of peer group dynamics on bullying. These recent findings are challenging some popular notions about bullies. Rather than view bullies as misfits, we are beginning to acknowledge that many school bullies have a wide variety of friends and are popular among their peers as a result of their physical attractiveness, athleticism, and highly developed social skills (Farmer et al., 2010). One example of a highly developed social skill is the way that a bully plans and anticipates the reaction of his or her victim and proceeds in a way that escapes adult detection (Coivin, Tobin, Beard, Hadan, & Sprague, 1998).

The high social status of many bullies further magnifies their power relative to the low social status of their victims (Juvonen & Graham, 2004). As a result, “popular” bullies are proactive and goal directed in their aggression (Farmer et al., 2010) Rodkin, 2011; Vaillancourt, McDougall, Hymel, & Sunderani, 2010). There are several types of “popularity” among bullies. One type is “perceived popularity” or how socially prominent the individuals are, and the other type is “sociometric popularity” or how well (p.23) liked they are (Paul, 2011). Perceived popularity has been linked to high levels of “relational aggression” where efforts are made to socially isolate and exclude victims from social groups and social events (Hamburger et al., 2011). It appears that the capacity for aggression increases as peer status increases and that “aggression wanes only at the highest echelons of status, where its utility is questionable” (Faris & Felmlee, 2011, p. 49). Socially connected, popular students often bully students of the same sex “as part of a struggle for dominance, particularly in the beginning of the school year or between transitions from one school to another, when the social hierarchy is in flux and when unpopular children can be targeted” (Rodkin, 2011, p. 13). Some children may even bully peers in an effort to “fit in,” even though they may be uncomfortable with the behavior (Cohn & Canter, 2003). It appears that many students “climb the social pyramid on the backs of other students, using ostracism, ridicule, and gossip to gain social status” (Goodwin, 2011).

Faris & Felmlee (2011) point out the importance of the social context of aggression and the link between status and violence by concluding:

Our findings call into question several traditional assumptions, including the argument that isolated individuals on a group’s fringes are the most likely to behave aggressively. Instead, aggression remains most common among centrally located students, with the exception of the few at the very top of the hierarchy. Moreover, we find that social factors at the dyad, group, and school level all powerfully shape harmful behavior in a school setting; these factors include the aggressive behavior of an adolescent’s friends, location in the friendship hierarchy, and patterns of relationships between the genders in a school. (pp. 68–69)

These are noteworthy findings with important implications for combating bullying in schools. Even among unpopular and socially marginalized bullies, bullying may be viewed as a way of gaining status among one’s peers. For example, unpopular, marginalized bullies are motivated to target victims in an effort to “gain the status that generally eludes them” (Rodkin, 2011, p. 12). While it is important to recognize that some bullies are unpopular and socially marginalized and have a “host of problems of which bullying behavior is but one manifestation” (Rodkin, 2011, p. 12), school personnel should not focus all their efforts on peripheral, antisocial cliques but should also focus their efforts on more socially connected (p.24) and popular youth who may be responsible for a substantial number of bullying incidents in a school.

Are Witnesses Innocent Bystanders or Critical Players?

We are also beginning to acknowledge the critical role of peers who witness bullying incidents (Juvonen & Graham, 2004). The potential power of the bully is largely dependent on the reaction and behavior of peer witnesses (Rodkin, 2011). Rather than being “innocent bystanders,” peer witnesses, who are present in the overwhelming majority (i.e., 85%–88%) of bullying incidents, play a critical role in diminishing, encouraging, or even prolonging bullying incidents (Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010; Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Salmivalli, Kärnä, & Poskiparta’s (2010) review of the literature on the group processes and group involvement in bullying reported that peer witnesses were often effective in ending a bullying episode when they intervened on behalf of the victim. For example, one study reported that 20% of witnesses defend the victim and attempt to stop the bullying and that these “defenders” are successful over 50% of the time (Salmivalli et al., 2010). Bystanders’ reactions impact the victim’s adjustment following a bullying episode. For example, one study found that victims who had one or more classmates defending them when victimized were less anxious, less depressed, and had a higher self-esteem than victims without defenders (Salmivalli et al., 2010). Despite the fact that many peer witnesses and bystanders believe that bullying is wrong and that defending their bullied peer would be the right thing to do, peer witnesses and bystanders rarely offer support to bullying victims (Salmivalli et al., 2010). Some of this reluctance to get involved may be explained by their desire to avoid being bullied themselves, despite the fact that youth who witness bullying often report increased feelings of guilt or helplessness for not confronting the bully and/or not supporting the victim (Hamburger et al., 2011). On the other hand, some peer witnesses actively convey support for the bully or even join in on the bullying (Pepler, 2001; Smith, Ananiadou & Cowie, 2003). Some peers have even reported being “excited,” “energized,” and “hyped” by the experience of witnessing peer-on-peer bullying (Kerbs & Jolley, 2007). Salmivalli et al. (2010) describes the dilemma facing witnesses and bystanders:

The literature suggests that children and adolescents facing bullying problems as bystanders are trapped in a social dilemma. On one hand, they understand that bullying is wrong and they (p.25) would like to do something to stop it—on the other hand, they strive to secure their own status and safety in the peer group. However, if fewer children rewarded and reinforced the bully, and if the group refused to assign high status for those who bully, an important reward for bullying others would be lost. (p. 117)

The potential impact of peer witnesses and bystanders in combating bullying in schools is unmistakable. Based on these recent findings pointing to the importance of peer group dynamics on bullying, peer witnesses and bystanders appear to be an untapped resource in combating bullying in schools.

How Do Adults in School Perceive and Respond to Bullying?

It is important to recognize that teachers and administrators often seriously underestimate the extent to which bullying is a problem in their school as well as the role that they can play to prevent it (Kallestad & Olweus, 2003). This can be explained by several factors. First, the vast majority of bullying incidents in schools occur outside the view of adults (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). For example, it has been estimated that teachers and administrators typically see only about 4% of bullying incidents (Kazdin & Rotella, 2009). Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior (Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; Cohn & Canter, 2003. For example, teachers and other adults may often overlook or dismiss the bullying behaviors of popular, high-status bullies because these students are liked by teachers and other adults (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Even when teachers or administrators witness bullying incidents, they don’t always intervene, or they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim (Rodkin & Hodges, 2003). Franks (2010) describes the various reasons why adults may not take action when they witness bullying in schools and the devastating implications of adult inaction or inconsistent action on victims:

Teachers don’t always take action because they receive little or no backup…or are fearful for their own physical safety. Principals are also often afraid of the parents of bullies, who are usually bullies themselves and who come tearing in, threatening lawsuits. In light of the new anti-bullying laws, principals fear the unwanted publicity will lead to a reduction of their school funding. And sometimes they are simply lazy. It is easier to ignore an incident, pretend it’s just a part of growing up. As a result of this (p.26) lassitude—in school boards as well as individual schools—many adolescents come to believe that they deserve bullying. (p. 2)

Based on these facts, it should not be surprising that as few as 25%–30% of students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure (Smith & Shu, 2000; Unnever & Cornell, 2004). Moreover, adults’ failure to take consistent action in response to bullying incidents may also impact students who witness bullying. In other words, if bullying behavior is wrong, why aren’t adults stopping it?

Summary

I discuss bullying in all of its forms as a “systematic abuse of power” throughout this volume. Bullying is a specific type of aggression that involves an imbalance of power where the bully consciously intends to harm his or her victim physically and/or psychologically and has the power and the means to do so. It is important to be able to distinguish between bullying and other types of peer conflict, such as teasing. Teasing is not bullying because it is not intended to harm the other person. How the other person reacts to a teasing episode will largely determine how the interaction proceeds.

Recent research findings have increased our understanding of specific factors that contribute to bullying across a number of contexts, including individual characteristics, family characteristics, and a number of school characteristics. Bullying appears to be widespread in our public schools today with 39% of middle schools and 20% of elementary schools and high schools reporting that bullying occurs on a daily or weekly basis. However, it is also important to note that bullying statistics may seriously underestimate the true extent of bullying in schools. The most reliable predictor of becoming a bullying victim is being viewed as “not fitting in” or “being different” in some way. Bullying is no longer viewed as a normative phase that most children outgrow; rather, bullying is now linked to a broad range of long-term harmful effects including depression, loneliness, social anxiety, school phobia, and low self-esteem. Recent neuroscience research findings provide additional evidence that the short- and long-term impact of psychological forms of bullying can be as devastating for the victim as physical abuse. Youth who are bullied have also been show to be at greater risk of attempting suicide.

(p.27) Rather than viewing bullies as misfits with low self-esteem, we are beginning to acknowledge that many school bullies have high self-esteem and a wide variety of friends, and are popular among their peers as a result of their social competence, physical attractiveness, and athleticism. Bullying is increasingly being viewed as a strategy for gaining or maintaining status among one’s peers. We are also beginning to acknowledge the critical role of peers who witness bullying incidents, with the potential power of the bully largely dependent on the reaction and behavior of peer witnesses.

Teachers and administrators often seriously underestimate the extent to which bullying is a problem in their school as well as the role that they can play to prevent it. Even when teachers witness bullying behavior, they often fail to recognize it as bullying behavior, and they may even exacerbate the problem by blaming the victim. As a result, very few students who have been bullied report the incident to an authority figure.