Researcher Wendy Troop-Gordon, North Dakota State University, wrote this piece for ND Compass. Read more for common myths about bullying, current research and what the newest bully research says.
Wendy Troop-Gordon is an Associate Professor in the department of Psychology at NDSU. She received her doctoral
degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002. Her research focuses on peer relationships in childhood and adolescence, the factors that shape those relationships, and how peer relationships influence mental health and school adjustment.
October was bullying prevention month. While much important outreach is conducted during that month, it does not mean that the work stops there. The work to prevent bullying can be carried out year-around, and therefore today is a perfect time to discuss what researchers have learned about bullying and how we can keep all of our children safe at school and in our communities. As a developmental psychologist who studies bullying, parents often ask me for advice because their child has been bullied. Many times what they describe is an incident in which their child has been in a fight with a friend or was made fun of by a peer. These incidents can be painful, and it is important to help children learn how to cope with stress in their peer relationships. However, they are not what researchers would label as “bullying.” Bullying is a very specific pattern of behavior in which one or more children repeatedly aggress against a weaker peer. Children who are bullied are often the targets of their peers’ aggression weekly, or even daily. More concerning is that this bullying may last for years. Not surprising, then, understanding the dynamics that support bullying and the consequences for victims has been at the forefront of developmental psychology for over 30 years.
What Do We Know about Bullying That We Did Not Know Three Decades Ago?When researchers first started studying bullying, they asked the questions everyone wanted answered. Who are the kids who bully? Why are they doing this? Why do some kids get bullied and others don’t? How do we stop this from happening?
To understand the children who bully, researchers turned to an already extensive literature on children’s aggression. This literature suggested that bullies possess characteristics not that different from what we often picture when we hear the word “bully.” Children who bully were thought to be highly aggressive, socially incompetent, disliked by other kids, and unable to control their emotions. It was also assumed that bullies were typically boys. However, as the research on bullying matured, researchers noticed some counterintuitive findings. Some children who bullied were very popular with their classmates. Some were quite socially skilled. Some were girls. Furthermore, rather than bullying because they could not control their anger, these popular bullies were using aggression effectively to dominate their peers and elevate their own social status.
We now know that children who engage in bullying are quite different than the stereotype portrayed in the media. Children who engage in bullying are often some of the most popular in their school, and they typically have a large number of friends. In addition, rather than showing deficits in their social skills, they are quite socially adept. Not only are they able to understanding others’ feelings, they are able to use this information to aggress against weaker peers.
In contrast, the children they bully are typically overly sensitive, anxious, and submissive to peers’ demands. Children who are bullied are often rejected by kids their own age and have few friends. Not infrequently, children who are bullied are younger than the children who bully them. Researchers have also found that children who violate gender norms, are LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning), or are cognitively impaired are at heightened risk for being bullied. Somewhat surprising was the discovery that some victims, approximately a third, are aggressive (i.e., aggressive-victims). However, their aggression is often ineffectual and elicits further bullying from peers. The consequence is that these children often end up in a vicious circle of being bullied, aggressing against others, and then being bullied again.
Perhaps the most important advancement in the study of bullying is the recognition that bullying is a group phenomenon. Around 85% of bullying occurs in the presence of bystanders, and the behavior of these bystanders is critical to the initiation and maintenance of bullying. Some bystanders are assistants, who aid in the bullying, or reinforcers who laugh and smile. Their behaviors reward the children engaging in the bullying. Other children act as defenders who stand up for the victim, elicit the help of adults, or provide the victim emotional support. Children bully because they want power and popularity in their peer group. The presence of assistants and reinforcers signal that their aggression is having the desired effect. When children act as defenders, the bullying no longer serves as a means of gaining popularity, and we see decreases in bullying among children. It is not surprising, then, that bullying is targeted at weaker peers who are often disliked by others and unlikely to have peers willing to defend them.
What Common Myths Persist that Hurt Anti-bullying Efforts?
Despite huge efforts to educate the public about bullying, a number of myths still abound. Unfortunately, these misconceptions hamper our ability to effectively prevent bullying and address it when it happens.
- Myth: Bullies hurt others because they suffer from low self-esteem. It is true that children who are aggressive-victims show very low self-esteem. However, most children who bully are quite popular, experience little ridicule from peers, and feel quite good about themselves. In my own research, I find that boys who are popular and bully show decreased depression over time. Dismissing these children’s aggression as simply a manifestation of low self-esteem does not help stop the bullying and, in the long run, will not help the child being bullied.
- Myth: Bullying is just part of growing up. Only a small percentage of children are bullied, approximately 10-20%. Similarly only a small percentage of children, 5-10%, bully. Therefore, bullying is hardly an experience most children encounter. This myth is particularly dangerous because it implies that bullying is a rite of passage that everyone goes through and survives unscathed and stronger for the experience. In reality, children who are bullied show long-term risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems. My own research shows that being the target of bullying changes how children think about their peers and cope with interpersonal problems leading to later depression and aggression. Furthermore, my research has shown that children who are bullied fare worse if they have parents who believe bullying is just a normal, childhood experience.
- Myth: Victims should just stand up for themselves. Often when talking about bullying, people will tell me a story about when they were picked on. The story ends with them simply punching or kicking the other child, never to be bothered again. What these stories miss is that bullies often choose victims who are unable to stick up for themselves. Moreover, research has shown consistently that when children who are bullied report that they respond by trying to get revenge, their bullying actually escalated, and they experienced increased emotional distress.
- Myth: Bullying is socialization. People often believe that bullying is a means of getting children to change their behavior. For example, people believe that making others feel bad for being overweight will get them to eat better. In reality, such bullying does not change behavior, but rather increases risk for related psychological problems (e.g., eating disorders). In my own research, I have tested the common assumption that children act in gender typical ways because they get bullied if their behavior violates gender norms. In actuality, gender atypicality rarely goes down after children have been bullied. What bullying children who are overweight, gender atypical, or LGBTQ does do is lead to increased mental health problems such as depression, social withdrawal, and suicidal ideation.
- Myth: Rural areas are safe from bullying. Bullying is just as common in rural areas as it is in suburban or urban communities. Moreover, bullying can be even more detrimental in schools with very low diversity. In more diverse schools, children are able to blame their bullying on characteristics outside of their control (e.g., their ethnicity) and find a subgroup of peers with whom they can become friends. In more homogenous schools, victims of bullying are more likely to blame themselves for their bullying, leading to increased risk for mental health problems.
How does this information inform bully prevention efforts?
Foremost, prevention should focus on changing the peer group dynamics that support bullying. Teaching children to defend victims, rather than reinforce children for bullying, is a critical component of anti-bullying interventions. Furthermore, it is not enough to hope that victims will learn to deal with bullies on their own. Moving children who are bullying away from the children they victim (e.g., rearranging classroom seating assignments) has been shown to reduce bullying in classrooms and lead to better adjustment for the victims. Once victims are safe, teaching them how to effectively assert themselves without being aggressive can help prevent future bullying. Efforts should also be made to help victims make friends, particularly ones who would be willing and able to defend them from potential bullies.
Last, adults should be careful to model respect for all students, especially those most likely to be at risk for bullying, such as children who are cognitively impaired or who are LGBTQ. If they notice a child being bullied or marginalized, showing warmth to the child and highlighting the child’s talents can go a long way to gaining the child’s acceptance in the peer group. One of my favorite stories came from a North Dakota teacher who had noticed a boy in his class who was getting picked on. He found out the boy was good at Taekwondo, so every day he had the boy help him teach a little Taekwondo to the class. The result was the children learned that the boy was a valued member of their classroom, and the bullying stopped. Bullying is a difficult problem to tackle, but caring adults, such as this teacher, make a huge difference in lives of bullied children every day.
Excellent information about bullying can be found at www.stopbullying.gov including basic facts about bullying and tips on how to prevent bullying in our schools and communities.
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