Bullying refers to aggressive behavior intended to harm the physical well-being of the victim or to create a feeling of fear and intimidation. Bullying includes physical assaults, physical intimidation, psychological intimidation, name-calling, teasing, social isolation, and exclusion. Two characteristics distinguish bullying from other forms of aggressive behavior. The first is the repetitive and prolonged nature of the bullying act; hence, not all name-calling is a form of bullying. Many students experience verbal insults by their peers, but the name-calling does not rise to the level of bullying until the student experiences it regularly over a period of time. The second characteristic that distinguishes bullying from other forms of aggressive behavior is the status inequality between bully and victim. In comparison, the victim is physically, psychologically, and socially more vulnerable, which allows the bully to engage in the behavior with little concern for reprisals or other consequences. For example, physical assaults might be classified as acts of bullying if the victims were selected because they lacked the resources to defend themselves due to their physical stature, psychological profile, or social skills.
Until the 1970s, the problem of bullying received little attention from educators, researchers, or the general public. Bullying behavior was viewed as almost a rite of passage that most young people experience at some point during their childhood, adolescence, or both. Such a perception led to the belief that bullying behavior had no long-term consequences for either the victim or the bully. Today, the research suggests that neither perception is true. Both bullies and their victims are socially and psychologically different from their peers, and there are lasting implications for both. Not only has the traditional view of bullying as a rite of passage undermined our understanding of the causes and consequences of bullying; it may also have supported a “culture of bullying” within our education system.
A Culture of Bullying
Research suggests that the environment within schools is inadvertently supportive of bullying, thus creating a “culture of bullying.” For a school’s environment to be so described, it must possess two critical components that undermine the school’s ability to act as a protector against bullying and instead allow development of a milieu that not only tolerates bullying behavior but also allows bullies to enhance their social standing through aggression without fear of consequences. First, it must possess an administration and faculty that are unaware of the extent of bullying behavior and therefore fail to effectively protect vulnerable students from being victimized or to punish those students who engage in bullying behavior. The research is consistent in suggesting that the schools’ response to bullying is often ineffective in curbing the problem. In addition, schools rarely hold bullies responsible for their behavior when their behavior is brought to the attention of the faculty. This lack of effective response may be due to other social problems to which the schools must respond, such as teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, and other forms of violence. However, by focusing on these more “serious” problems within the schools, administrators may be ignoring an important precursor to these behaviors.
The second component that creates a culture of bullying within the educational system is the reaction of the student witnesses. Although some student eyewitnesses will intervene on behalf of the victim, the majority of students either become passive bystanders or else active participants in the bullying. Students who act as passive bystanders usually fear the consequences for themselves in an environment where the adults cannot be relied on to punish the bullies. Therefore, victims of bullying usually cannot depend on their fellow students to act as capable guardians against bullying behavior. Students who become active participants in the bullying act do so because the victim may be viewed by their peers and the faculty as an acceptable target because of an outcast status within the school social system. The culture of bullying evolves because both the school and the student body fail to send the message that bullying behavior is unacceptable behavior. Instead, they may be sending the message that aggression against a social outcast is tolerated, if not condoned, as a means of resolving problems and improving one’s social standing.
The psychological profile of bullies suggests that they suffer from low self-esteem and a poor self-image. In addition, bullies can be described as angry or depressed and tend to act impulsively. In comparison to their peers, bullies possess a value system that supports the use of aggression to resolve problems and achieve goals. Finally, school is a negative situation for the bullies, who tend to perform at or below average in school and are unhappy in school. Further, teachers and peers view them as a disruptive influence. Due to their psychological profile, value system, and attitude toward school, bullies rely on aggression to solve school-based problems and to establish their position in the school hierarchy. While the research clearly demonstrates that bullying behavior is most common among middle school students and steadily declines with age, bullies may nonetheless graduate into more serious anti-social behaviors, including drug and alcohol use/abuse, delinquency, spousal abuse, and adult criminal behavior.
Bullies do not select their targets at random; rather, they select targets specifically for their vulnerability. Victims are typically shy, socially awkward, low in self-esteem, and lacking in self-confidence. Furthermore, these characteristics reduce the victims’ social resources and limit the number of friends they have. This makes them a desirable target for the bullies because the victims are unlikely to successfully defend themselves or have the social resources to force the bullies to cease their behavior. They are also less likely to report the behavior to an authority figure. In contrast, bullying victims who are successful in terminating the victimization typically rely on friends to intervene on their behalf with the bully or report the behavior to an authority figure. For victims, the act of bullying can have lasting consequences, including persistent fear, reduced self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety. In addition, the research suggests that those students targeted by bullies in school are more likely to experience adult criminal victimization than those students who were not bullied in school.
- Bosworth, K., D. L. Espelage, and T. R. Simon. 1999. “Factors Associated with Bullying Behavior in Middle School Students.” Journal of Early Adolescence 19:341-62.
- Elsea, M., E. Menesini, Y. Morita, M. O’Moore, J. A. Mora-Merchan, B. Pereira, and P. K. Smith. 2004. “Friendship and Loneliness among Bullies and Victims: Data from Seven Countries.” Aggressive Behavior 30:71-83.
- Olweus, D. 1999. “Sweden.” Pp. 7-27 in The Nature of School Bullying: A Cross-national Perspective, edited by P. K. Smith, Y. Morita, J. Junger-Tas, D. Olweus, R. Catalano, and P. Slee. New York: Routledge.
- Unnever, J. D. and D. G. Cornell. 2003. “The Culture of Bullying in Middle School.” Journal of School Violence 2:5-27.