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90% of Elementary School Kids Are Bullied: Survey

Some experts doubt the problem is that pervasive, but all agree it needs to be eliminated

FRIDAY, April 13, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Nine out of 10 elementary school kids have been subjected to physical or psychological bullying by their peers, while six in 10 have been bullies themselves, according to a new study.

"The results show that even going down to young ages, we have very high levels of bullying and victimization," said study lead author Dr. Thomas P. Tarshis, who conducted the research while with the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University Medical Center.

Citing the lack of a fast and insightful way to gauge elementary school bullying, Tarshis first teamed with Stanford colleague Dr. Lynne C. Huffman to design a new and simple questionnaire that could be completed by children quickly and reliably.

The survey was restricted to a single page of multiple-choice questions aimed at a third-grade reading level and was designed to be completed in a classroom setting within five to 10 minutes. The children were asked 22 questions describing one of two bullying scenarios -- "direct" bullying involving physical violence or the threat of harm and "indirect" bullying involving social ostracizing, teasing, giving "looks" or spreading rumors.

With funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Tarshis and Huffman administered the questionnaire in 2004 to 95 boys and girls attending fourth through sixth grades at two California elementary schools and 175 students attending third through fourth grade in one school in Arizona. The schools from which the kids were drawn were approximately 60 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic and 6 percent African-American.

Of the nine out of 10 students who indicated they had been a victim of bullying at some point, most said they had been subjected to several types of bullying at least "sometimes" -- a finding the researchers defined as a "high level" of victimization.

The percentage of children who said they had been bullies themselves did not vary significantly between grades. By contrast, fewer fifth graders said they had been a victim of bullying, compared to children in the other grades.

The findings are published in the April issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Tarshis, who is now director of the Bay Area Children's Association in Cupertino, Calif., and Huffman suggested that the new test seems to be a useful and easy-to-administer tool to help educators get a quick handle on the degree of bullying going on in schools. It can also be used to spark discussion among students on what appears to be a widespread problem, the researchers said.

"We need to shift the mindset that being bullied in school is OK, because we know that kids who are victimized and bullied have poor outcomes in the future," he said. "And, in reality, it's affecting a majority of kids in our schools."

"So, we need to increase awareness, and parents need to talk to their kids about what's going on in school," Tarshis said. "Children and their peers, teachers and school staff, and parents and guardians, all need to be involved."

But Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of psychiatry at New York University's Child Study Center and director of its Early Childhood Service, thinks the problem of bullying may not be quite so pervasive as the new survey suggests.

"I'm very skeptical about nine out of ten," said Lucas. "That number is huge. But you have to keep in mind that when little kids self-report, there tends to be a lot of over-reporting. And my suspicion is that they may well be including behaviors that wouldn't be regarded by most people as bullying in terms of either frequency or intensity."

Lucas' own research suggests considerably lower levels of bullying -- along the lines of 50 percent saying they've been bullied and 15 percent saying they've bullied themselves.

But he agreed that bullying is a widespread problem that needs serious attention.

"New ways of bullying -- not always violent -- are constantly developing, such as the name-calling and insulting that's happening now on social networking sites like 'Facebook' and ',' " he said. "And there are a lot of negative consequences for all kinds of bullying. It's one of the most common forms of stress among young people, and people who are bullied have more physical illness, more school absence, lower academic achievement, and are more likely to become bullies themselves over time. So, yes, it's serious."

More information

For advice on how to handle bullying, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Thomas P. Tarshis, M.D., director, Bay Area Children's Association, Cupertino, Calif.; Christopher Lucas, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, Child Study Center, and director, Early Childhood Service, New York University, New York City; April 2007, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
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