Understanding Bullying: Facts vs. Fiction

At 10:00 P.M. every night, I receive an email update from Google Alerts listing all the news articles from the day containing the word "bully". Some of these are inspiring stories of victims who have spoken up and made a difference, others are heartbreaking accounts of bully-related suicides. What strikes me about many of these news stories is that they oftentimes perpetuate certain myths of bullying. Although some components of bullying may seem easily explained by common sense, extensive scientific research in this domain has helped us to better understand how and why bullying occurs, and it's not always what you might expect. Below, I provide a list of some popular assumptions about bullying--let's see what holds up! Bullying is just like teasing. 

Before trying to answer questions like "why do kids bully" or "what are bullies like", it is important to understand what exactly bullying really means. Although in some ways similar to behaviors like teasing or taunting, bullying refers to a very specific type of aggression that is a) intentional b) characterized by imbalance of power and often c) repeated [1]. So, Bobby playfully calling his friend a loser can be distinguished from Bobby purposely tripping a less popular peer in front of everyone in the school cafeteria. This is not to say that teasing is always harmless, but rather demonstrates that the language used to discuss 'bullying' carries a very specific meaning.

Bullies have no social skills.

So, why would any kid want to intentionally and repeatedly aggress against their peers? One common assumption has been that bullies have no friends, and bullying serves some sort of compensatory function. Early research on bullying also posited that aggression may be common among youth without social skills. However, more recent empirical evidence suggests that bullies are actually quite socially savvy and experience high status among their peers [2]. These students often desire social power and use bullying as a way to establish dominance within the peer group. Especially during the early teen years, as students transition from elementary to middle school, aggression becomes closely associated with high status and popularity. And when students who witness bullying fail to defend victims, or stand by laughing and smiling, the bully's behavior is reinforced as being both tolerated and even encouraged. Youth seeking greater popularity in the peer group may even mimic this behavior and jockey for status by engaging in similar types of aggression. Thus, part of what makes bullying so difficult to curb during the early adolescent years is its association with high social status.

Victims of bullying become school shooters.

In an attempt to understand why school shootings occur, one explanation that has become regularly cited is that these students were bullied to a breaking point. Stories of victims seeking revenge and power through acts of mass violence have permeated the news, and many people have latched onto this seemingly logical explanation for such horrifying behavior. Although there have been school shooters with a history of being bullied, we also know that this sort of gun violence is provoked by a multitude of other factors, including psychological problems and access to firearms [3]. Moreover, of the many students that have been bullied, an extremely small percentage ever bring weapons to school or take this sort of extreme revenge on their classmates. In contrast, victims of bullying typically react submissively to bullying (e.g., crying) and experience various internalizing problems (i.e., anxiety, depression) [2]. These students are also often sensitive and lacking social confidence. There are also some students termed 'provocative victims', in that they react to being bullied by engaging in aggressive behavior themselves. However, this retaliatory aggression is typically ineffectual and provocative victims also experience high levels of distress. So, rather than displaying violent and dangerous behaviors following being bullied, the majority of victims are socially withdrawn, distressed, and/or suffering silently.

Zero-tolerance policies are effective.

In light of the negative consequences of bullying, a critical question that follows is how to deal with bullying, either by reducing its prevalence or its impact. For the past several decades, many schools have adopted "zero-tolerance policies" as a disciplinary philosophy. This can be used in an attempt to reduce bullying, as well as other problematic behaviors like drug use and truancy. The premise behind zero-tolerance policies is that any sort of disruptive or rule-breaking behavior will receive a predetermined punishment, oftentimes school suspension or expulsion. It is hoped that by enforcing these rules, other students will learn by example and be deterred from engaging in similar activities.

What could go wrong? While it is laudable that schools are making an effort to address bullying problems, there is very little evidence for the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies. In fact, some research shows that zero-tolerance policies are associated with worse school climates. One of the key assumptions underlying the effectiveness of this policy is that witnessing rule-breakers get punished will deter other students from similar behaviors; however, in schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates, students have been shown to rate the school climate as even worse [4]. Additionally, school suspension actually predicts a higher chance of future behavioral problems, and a greater chance of school dropout down the road. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the utility of zero-tolerance policies is based on a set of unsupported assumptions, and that this disciplinary policy is unlikely to help schools reduce bullying problems. In order to tackle the problem of bullying, schools must consider both the social function of bullying (i.e., asserting power and status) and the structure of peer groups during the teenage years. For information on one bullying intervention that has shown great promise, check out the KiVa program developed in Finland.

Lessons Learned

Bullying is a pressing problem among today's youth, and media attention on this topic is no doubt a valuable way to raise awareness. However, as with any widely publicized topic, it is critical to keep a cautious eye when reading about the latest news on bullying. Stories that perpetuate beliefs that bullying is harmless, bullies are socially inept, and victims are ticking time bombs not only misrepresent existing scientific evidence, but also misinform intervention and prevention efforts aimed to decrease the prevalence of bullying and improve the well being of victims.

[1] Olweus D. (1993). Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can do. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.

[2] Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2014). Bullying in schools: The power of bullies and the plight of victims. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 159-185.

[3] Leary, M.R., Kowalski, R.M., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202-214.

[4] American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63, 852-862.