What do the above have in common? Exclusion.
Exclusion is a familiar experience that most people in these groups have experienced. Maybe you were the ‘fat kid’ or the one who never got chosen for the sports teams first; at some point you were excluded or shunned. And it hurt. A lot. Humans are social creatures and research into the brain regions involved with social exclusion, have shown that those areas activated for physical pain are also activated for social pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman and Williams, 2003), demonstrating that we have adapted physical pain to warn us when our social relationships are threatened (Panksepp, 1988).
Bullying is a multifaceted, coercive behaviour that is defined as ‘any repeated negative activity or aggression intended to harm someone who is perceived by peers as being less physically or psychologically powerful than the aggressor’ (Glew, et al., 2005). It would be nice if we could simply say, “kids will be kids”, and parents often do, however nowadays, it can take place in school, around the neighbourhood and on the Internet, making it an increasing problem throughout the world.
This week I will address the short and long term consequences of bullying for both victims and bullies; the characteristics of victims, bullies and bystanders; and the prevention of bullying.
Short-term consequences (by no means an exhaustive list): First of all, as a result of being bullied, victims may experience extreme depression. Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpelä, Marttunen, Rimpelä and Rantanen (1999) observed secondary schools in Finland and found that there was an increased prevalence of depression and severe suicidal ideation among victims. Bullied victims may also experience a loss of self-esteem/self-worth, trouble sleeping, anxiety, truancy and a decrease in grades. Woods and Wolke (2004) found that bullying and victimisation were associated with poor academic achievement.
The short-term consequences for bullies are similar to that of the victims, with a general decrease in academic performance (Holt, Finkelhor & Kaufman Kantor, 2007), truancy and a prevalence of depression (Kaltiala-Heino et al., 1999). Bullies also experience difficulty in maintaining friendships and have a higher risk for alcohol/substance abuse (Ialongo, Werthamer, Kellam, Brown, Wang & Lin, 1999).
Long-term consequences of bullying that affect victims include chronic depression – which can lead to suicidal tendencies – self-destructive behaviours and a likelihood that the individual will partake in alcohol or substance abuse. Whereas the long-term consequences for the bully include a continued difficulty in maintaining relationships, an increased chance of spousal/child abuse as an adult, and a study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, found that nearly 60 percent of bullies are convicted of crime by the age of 24.
So what determines whether someone becomes a bully, a victim or a bystander?
Becoming a bully: bullying behaviour is a ‘red flag’ that a child has not learned to control his or her aggression. Children who bully have typically witnessed physical or verbal violence/aggression at home, leading them to have a positive view of the behaviour (Rigby, 2005). Bullies may have trouble following rules, show little concern for the feelings of others and often expect others to look up to them or behave according to the wishes of the bullies (Lyznicki, McCaffree and Robinowitz, 2004).
Becoming a victim: passive victims tend to lack defense skills, be more anxious and sensitive than their peers and will not retaliate when confronted. Provocative victims are impulsive and tend to annoy the bully. Relational victims are usually excluded from the group or ‘clique’ and tend to lack the social skills to fit in. A typical victim is usually different in some way; Norwich and Kelly (2004) show that pupils with special educational needs for moderate learning difficulties, experience far more bullying from both children in mainstream schools and even their own peers.
Becoming a bystander you are part of the largest group affected by bullying behaviour; these students are considered the “caring majority, 85% of children who are neither bullies nor victims” (Garity, Jens, Porter, Sager & Short-Camilli, 1998). Bystanders are either part of the problem – watching and encouraging for the thrill or to show off – or the solution – doing nothing for fear of being the next victim.
Prevention or Cure?
The need for evidence-based intervention programmes: bullying has gradually crept onto the official school agenda as something that needs to be intervened and prevented. But how can we address this pressing issue? The Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP) is a whole-school programme proven to reduce bullying in a school setting. Statistics from their site show that there are significant reductions in antisocial behaviour, including bullying, truancy and school violence. They also report significant improvements in the classroom ‘climate’. Bauer, Lozano and Rivara (2006) found that relational and physical victimisation decreased, with students actively intervening in bullying incidents. Similarly, Olweus (2005) studied approximately 21,000 students who partook in the OBPP and found substantial reductions (32-49%) in bullying problems.
It is clear that bullying will never be cured. Exclusion among students is prevalent in schools and spills out into the work environment. It is so common that there is almost a social tolerance regarding bullying: “It happens to everyone. Get over it.” It can take hold of you from a young age and stay with you, forever etched into your memory. But if we can grasp this demon from nursery to our schools, establishing rules and interventions to prevent bullying, then the children of tomorrow may treat each other with more respect and kindness and be able to carry that through the rest of their lives.
Panksepp, J. (1988). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camilli, C. (1998). Bully proofing your school: A comprehensive approach for elementary schools. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.