The subject of bullying has come up in recent days in the wake of some well-publicized suicides of gay teens. It is hardly a new problem. The pain caused by bullying doesn't go away. It's chronic, as many people who have been bullied can tell you. (These tragedies prompted one Fort Worth, TX councilman to publicly share his personal experiences with being bullied.)
Many Americans dismiss bullying as a childhood rite of passage, but it is now recognized as a form of aggression. Suicide is a rare and tragic response, but, short of that devastating outcome, bullying can also have long-lasting psychological effects for both the victims and the bullies.
In response last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its policy statement about preventing youth violence to include, for the first time, information about how to recognize and address bullying.
Bullying takes many forms. It can be subtle and psychological (spreading rumors or excluding someone), verbal (making threats or demeaning someone), or physical (slamming someone against the wall).
A new form of harassment is growing: cyber-bullying. The most recent example is that of a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He committed suicide after fellow students used a web-camera to stream an intimate moment over the internet. Whatever its form, bullying involves certain core attributes:
Boys usually bully in physical ways, such as hitting someone. Girls, on the other hand, use indirect forms of bullying, such as spreading rumors.
Most research on bullying comes from Australia and Europe. Rates of frequent bullying range from 2% of youths in a sample in Ireland to 19% in a sample in Malta.
A nationally representative study of 15,686 U.S. students, grades 6 through 10, reported that 9% of students bullied others at least once a week, while 8% themselves were bullied that frequently. Victims of weekly bullying were 1.5 times as likely to carry a weapon as other students, while the bullies themselves were 2.6 times as likely to carry a weapon.
Victims and bullies — and bystanders who witness their interaction — all suffer, just in different ways.
Victims – Children and adolescents who are victims of bullying suffer the sort of low-grade misery usually described as "poor psychosocial adjustment" in the literature. It remains unclear if this is because they are more at risk to begin with, if it's because of the bullying, or if it's some combination of the two. Often singled out for being "different," they find it hard to make friends, tend to be lonely and isolated, and suffer emotionally and socially. As a result, they may skip classes or avoid school, or use drugs or alcohol to numb themselves emotionally. Victims of chronic bullying are also at risk for longer-term problems. They are more likely to develop depression or think about suicide later on. And a prospective study in England, based on health data and annual interviews with 6,437 children, found that those who were repeatedly bullied at ages 8 or 10 were almost twice as likely as others to experience psychotic symptoms as adolescents.
Bullies – Perpetrators of bullying behavior also suffer in the long term. They are more likely than other students to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. One of the few long-term studies found that, by age 24, 60% of former school bullies had already been convicted at least once on a criminal charge.
Bystanders – Witnesses to bullying include students, parents and teachers. Far from being passive onlookers, bystanders may play an active, if indirect, role in encouraging bullying. Some bystanders may be afraid to speak up for fear of becoming victims themselves, while others identify with the bully and enjoy watching someone else suffer. Both types of bystanders contribute to an atmosphere that condones bullying. The AAP and other experts have noted that the most helpful interventions are those directed not only at bullies and victims, but also at bystanders who want to do the right thing, but don't know how.
Many resources to prevent bullying are now available to help students, parents and school administrators with this issue. (See Information and Resources.)
In general, school-based efforts to prevent bullying try to:
Some programs are designed to help reduce aggression at home by providing training to parents who may yell, hit or otherwise act aggressively toward their children. Because abuse at home is linked to bullying behavior, helping parents be less aggressive may also help reduce bullying behavior at school. It's unclear how much these programs help, partly because they are so diverse and studies vary in design. But there's plenty of research that supports efforts to help children and adolescents withstand bullying behaviors — and other types of stress — by making them more resilient.
Stop Bullying Now!
Connected Kids: Safe, Strong, Secure
Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program
Adults and Children Together Against Violence
The Trevor Project
Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.