Bullying is not limited to unpopular loners, say researchers; many childrenbully each other especially in middle school

August 20, 1999

Bullies are also victims much more than thought

Bullying is a pervasive problem, with estimated worldwide rates of 5 to 15 percent. Bullying occurs more frequently and with greater lethality today than in the 1970s and 1980s, as incidents like Littleton, Colorado illustrate. Findings from three studies that examine the prevalence of bullying behavior, children's perceptions of who bullies and who the victims are and why bullying is rising in middle schools will be presented at the American Psychological Association's 107th Annual Convention in Boston.

In a survey of 558 students in a Midwestern middle school, 80 percent of the students had engaged in bullying behaviors during the previous 30 days. "These findings indicated that the bullying behaviors measured (teasing, name calling, threatening, physical aggression and social ridiculing of peers) are very common," according to psychologist Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-researchers. This survey will appear in the August issue of the Journal of Early Adolescence.

"It looks like bullying is a continuum of behaviors. Rather than labeling a kid a bully, a non-bully or a victim, it seems that many of the students engage in bullying behavior, although most reported low to moderate levels of that behavior," said the researchers.

"By asking students if they had engaged in certain behaviors over the past month without telling them those behaviors were defined as bullying, we found that our results support that adolescents don't neatly fall into categories of either bullies or non-bullies," said the authors.

Interestingly, from other interview-based research conducted at other Midwestern middle schools, noted Dr. Espelage, "kids who bully a lot also say they've been victimized too. Nearly 80 to 90 percent of adolescents report some form of victimization from a bully at school."

Researchers Christine S. Asidao, M.A., Shontelle Vion, M.A., and Dr. Espelage also found similar results from a study of 89 middle school students (11-14 year olds) in three mid-sized Midwestern towns. In the study, students defined bullying behavior and their personal experiences of bullying and victimization. The students consistently described bullying as a wide range of behaviors (from verbal teasing to physical aggression). Furthermore, the students who reported bullying others also reported being victimized themselves.

"Students who are physically different (race, body size, clothing) are more likely to be victimized," said the authors. "Many middle school students tease their peers to fit into the crowd, but do feel uncomfortable with their behavior. And we did find that teachers and parents can be a source of support for students who are being bullied."

An effective intervention for bullying, said Dr. Espelage, "would be to change the school climate, since it isn't just a few problem kids that are causing this rise in aggressive behaviors in school. Future research also needs to explore the differences between physical aggression and bullying (teasing, humiliation and rumor spreading) so interventions can be tailored accordingly."

Presentation: "Interviews With Middle School Students: Bullying, Victimization, and Contextual Factors," Christine S. Asidao, M.A., Shontelle Vion, M.A., and Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Session 2148, Saturday, August 21, 11:00 - 11:50 AM, Hynes Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A (E-13).

Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., can be reached at (217) 333-9139 or at espelage@uiuc.edu

Another study of middle school students from a Midwestern school that examined the accuracy of teacher ratings, peer ratings and self-ratings of bullies and victims of bullies found similar results. Researchers Diana L. Paulk, Ed.S., Susan M. Swearer, Ph.D., Sam Song, M.Ed., and Paulette Tam Carey, M.A., of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that 75 percent of the students identified themselves as bullies, victims, or both bullies and victims (bully-victim) during the 1998/1999 school year.

Eighty-three sixth graders (47 male and 36 female) were asked to identify themselves as bullies, victims or both bullies and victims. Teachers and peers were asked to identify the bullies, the victims and the bully-victims. "Both the teachers and peers had difficulty in accurately identifying pure victims of bullying. Teachers accurately identified 50 percent of the self-rated bullies and 10 percent of the self-rated victims. Peers accurately identified 33 percent of the self-rated bullies, 7 percent of the self-rated victims and 29 percent of the self-rated bully-victims," said the authors.

"Perhaps the most striking finding from this study was that teachers did not recognize victim behaviors even among students who exhibited both bully and victim behaviors. This could be because many bullies may also be victims of bullying and many victims of bullying may also be bullies as discovered in other research on this age group. The bully behaviors perceived by others may actually be a response initiated in self-defense," said the authors.

Peer identifications of bullies and victims tended toward traditional gender stereotypes. "Sixty-seven percent of male bullies were not nominated for any category, possibly because male bully behaviors were seen as consistent with the male stereotype of overt expressions of aggression. Students were consistent in identifying 67 percent of female bullies. Perhaps because the externalizing aggressive behaviors of the female bullies operated in such sharp contrast to the passive female stereotype," said the researchers.

"Bully-victims are often punished for their bully behaviors while their experiences as victims go unnoticed. Punishing bully behaviors without acknowledging victim experiences may actually foster increased frustration and subsequent displays of aggressive behavior by bully-victims. Interventions must acknowledge that bullies may also be victimized," said the authors.

Presentation: "Teacher-, Peer-, and Self-Nominations of Bullies and Victims of Bullying," Diana L. Paulk, Ed.S., Susan M. Swearer, Ph.D., Sam Song, M.Ed., Paulette Tam Carey, M.A., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Session 2148, Saturday, August 21, 11:00 - 11:50 AM, Hynes Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A (E-16).

Susan M. Swearer, Ph.D., can be reached at (402) 472-1741 or at sswearer@unlinfo.unl.edu
Diana L. Paulk, Ed.S., can be reached at (402) 472-5416 or at dpaulk@unlgrad1.unl.edu

Other research shows why bullying may increase in middle school. In a longitudinal study of bullying, victimization and peer affiliation, researcher Maria Bartini, M.S., of the University of Georgia and psychologist Anthony D. Pellegrini, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities found that bullying increased with the initial transition from fifth to sixth grade and then declined. Bullying was also used as a strategy to establish dominance in new peer groups as the students entered a new and bigger school.

"Once the dominance is established and their place with their new friends is secure," said the researchers, "the aggression subsides. But some students bully throughout their school years, never feeling secure in their peer alliances." This finding was discovered by asking 154 fifth grade students (87 males and 67 females) to rate their own and each other's popularity, friendships and feelings of isolation. The students were also asked how often they engaged in bullying behavior and how often bullies have victimized them. Their teachers were asked to rate the fifth graders' emotional intensity.

A year later when the students moved into sixth grade, direct observations of the student's behavior and written diaries by the students were added to the other measurements of peer nominations, self-report measures and students' behaviors rated by teachers to assess the changes in bullying behavior.

"Our findings do support that early adolescence witnesses an increase in aggression while youngsters look for new friendships. As soon as peer groups are formed, many of the aggressive behaviors subside," said the researchers. "We also found that boys engage in and support bullying behaviors more than girls and fifth grade bullies were also sixth grade bullies, even after making the transition to a new school and making new friends. And, having friends in sixth grade did not necessarily protect a student from a bully's target. However, having friends did inhibit victimization. Those that were most aggressive also received the highest ratings from teachers on emotional intensity."

Presentation: "Bullying and Victimization in Early Adolescence- Description and Prevention," Anthony D. Pellegrini, Ph.D., University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and Maria Bartini, M.S., University of Georgia, Session 4186, Monday, August 23, 1:00 - 2:50 PM, Hynes Convention Center - Meeting Room 308

Anthony Pellegrini, Ph.D., can be reached at (612) 625-4353 or at pelle013@tc.umn.edu
Maria Bartini, M.S. can be reached at (706) 353-0817 or at mbartini@arches.uga.edu

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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