Bullies Rule the School

And their victims suffer in silence, study finds

MONDAY, Dec. 8, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- It may not seem fair, but in the world of sixth graders bullies are considered cool and are often quite popular with their peers, while their victims suffer in silence and obscurity.

That's the conclusion of a study appearing in the December issue of Pediatrics.

After surveying nearly 2,000 young teens, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), report that nearly one in four youngsters have been involved in bullying, and those involved can be separated into three distinct groups: bullies, victims and bully-victims.

"Bullies are strong psychologically and get a great deal of peer support," says study co-author Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA. "[Victims] suffer from symptoms of psychological distress that are not necessarily observable. Victims have feelings of depression and social anxiety and loneliness, quiet signs of distress."

The third group, bully-victims, was the worst off, Juvonen says. "Bully-victims were the most troubled in terms of being extremely socially ostracized by peers and also showing the most school problems, as well as some signs of social distress."

Juvonen and her colleagues surveyed 1,985 sixth graders from 11 different urban schools. The kids were mostly Latino or black, and most came from lower-income homes. The researchers gathered data from the children and from their teachers.

Twenty-two percent of the youngsters said they had been involved in bullying. Juvonen says the researchers considered both physical and psychological abuse to be bullying.

Seven percent of the group reported having bullied someone, while 9 percent said they had been victims. Six percent of the students said they had been both bullies and victims.

Bullies reported the lowest levels of depression, social anxiety and loneliness. Though their classmates may not choose to spend time in their company, bullies are considered high in social status, according to the study.

Victims scored highest on measures of loneliness, depression and social anxiety, and were socially marginalized by their peers.

Bully-victims had the most severe problems. They were most likely to have conduct and other school problems, and they were ostracized by their peers. Bully-victims also had high levels of depression and loneliness.

Juvonen says this study wasn't designed to tease out the reasons why kids who bully are more popular, but suggests other children may be protecting themselves by siding with the bully rather than taking a stand against him or her.

"We need to recognize that bullies are getting a lot of peer support, and if we don't address that, we won't get very far [in addressing this problem]," Juvonen notes.

She recommends comprehensive school-wide programs that discourage bullying and emphasize collective responsibility and caring.

"Bullies cannot be just dealt with individually. We need to change the peer culture," Juvonen explains.

She says it appears that bully-victims are highly reactive to being bullied, and may also be provoking some of the bullying. She says these kids may have trouble regulating their emotions, and it's possible they may have psychological problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Ellen deLara, author of And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment and Emotional Violence, wasn't surprised by the findings and agrees schools need to implement preventative measures that teach kids to respect each other.

"One of the things that keeps bullying going is that kids notice we're not doing anything about it, especially verbal abuse," deLara says.

If your child's school isn't doing anything to address bullying, deLara recommends getting other parents together and approaching the school administration as a group.

"Even if this is not directly impacting your child," she says, "your child is witnessing this behavior each and every single day and it's having an impact on their psychological development."

More information

To learn more about handling bullies, visit KidsHealth.org or Canada's Safety Council.

SOURCES: Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D., professor, developmental psychology, University of California, Los Angeles; Ellen deLara, Ph.D., assistant professor, social work, Syracuse University, and co-author, And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment and Emotional Violence; December 2003 Pediatrics
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