A Norwegian researcher named Dan Olweus published the first study on bullying, Aggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys, in 1978. In it, he established the most widely used definition for bullying. Olweus defines bullying as follows:
A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students … it is a negative action when someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort on another … Negative actions can be carried out by words (verbally), for instance, by threatening, taunting, teasing, and calling names. It is a negative action when somebody hits, pushes, kicks, pinches or restrains another–by physical contact. It is also possible to carry out negative actions without the use of words or physical contact, such as by making faces or dirty gestures, intentionally excluding someone from a group, or refusing to comply with another person’s wishes. (1993, p. 9)
In addition to this basic definition of bullying, researchers who focus their work on secondary schools have identified sexual harassment as a form of bullying. Most recently, bullying behaviors that happen electronically, also known as cyber-bullying, have also emerged as prevalent in the lives of many secondary school students.
Bullying has been identified as an international problem. During the years 2001 and 2002, the World Health Organization conducted a comparative study on rates of bullying in Europe and North America among 13-year-olds. The countries with the highest numbers of students who reported engaging in bullying behaviors (two or more times in the past month) were Lithuania (43.6% boys, 29.5% girls), Germany (26.2% boys, 15.8% girls), and Austria (25.7% boys, 14.5% girls). Canada (17.8% boys, 11.6% girls) and the United States (17.9% boys, 11.5 % girls) were in the middle of the pack and ranked 10th and 11th respectively. The countries with the lowest rates were Malta (5.6% boys, 4.2% girls), Czech Republic (5.5% boys, 2.6% girls), and Sweden (5.1% boys, 2.3% girls). The average percentages of all students who reported engaging in bullying in the 35 participating countries were 16.4% of boys and 8.4% of girls.
Researchers have identified a large number of negative effects associated with being the victim of bullying. Students who are victims of bullying often report symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, hopelessness, and low self-esteem, and are more likely to skip school, have lower grades, and attempt self-harming behaviors and suicide.
Much bullying research focuses on easily observable physical behaviors that tend to be more common among boys. Authors such as Rachel Simmons and Lyn Mikel Brown provide a more in-depth look at the types of covert and relational bullying that happens in girls’ social groups; such bullying is quite difficult for researchers to observe and measure but clearly has lasting harmful impacts on the well-being of girls. Neil Duncan has contributed much to this area with his research on “sexual bullying.” Duncan has investigated the sexualized element of much of the bullying that goes on in secondary schools. His later works focuses on bullying between girls, including accusations of being a lesbian or heterosexual promiscuity.
Sexual harassment is related to bullying but has some unique factors that distinguish it from other forms of bullying. It is defined as unwanted behaviors that are sexual in nature that have negative effects on the target or the environment. In one study that examined students’ understandings of bullying and sexual harassment, researchers reported that students see sexual harassment as physical contact from a boy to a girl. Nevertheless, much sexual harassment is not physical in nature. As with bullying, it can also take verbal, electronic, and nonverbal forms (e.g., gestures, leers, social exclusion). Gruber and Fineran recently examined the prevalence and impacts of bullying and sexual harassment behaviors and found that more students experienced bullying (52%) than sexual harassment (34%) and that boys and girls experienced similar levels of both bullying (53% versus 51%) and harassment (36% versus 34%). Where they did find a difference was in students who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation (GLBQ). According to Gruber and Fineran, GLBQ students experienced more bullying (79% versus 50%) and more sexual harassment (71% versus 32%) than non-GLBQ identified students.
The same study also examined the effects of bullying and sexual harassment on the health of students. Gruber and Fineran found that girls and GLBQ students generally have poorer health (self-esteem, mental and physical health, and trauma symptoms) during middle and high school. They concluded that sexual harassment has a more severe impact than bullying on a student’s overall health and that schools need to include sexual harassment interventions as a distinct focus in addition to bullying reduction programs.
As noted previously, sexual orientation harassment is a prevalent form of bullying in schools. The earliest published report that began documenting incidents of bullying related to sexual orientation in schools was conducted by the American Association of University Women in 1993. This study addressed issues of sexual harassment in schools, an area that overlaps with much bullying behavior. The 1993 study included a question that asked whether participants had ever been called gay or lesbian in school. When this study was followed up eight years later (2001), researchers found that the one behavior that had increased since the previous study was calling another student gay or lesbian. Boys reported such behavior occurred twice as often, and girls three times as often, as it had a decade earlier, whereas most other forms of harassment had remained constant or decreased.
In research conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 64% of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) students reported being verbally bullied at school. In addition, 83% reported that faculty or staff rarely or never intervened when they were present at a time when homophobic remarks were made. A study conducted in California reported the frequency and effects of harassment for gender nonconformity by identifying students who were targeted for being “not as masculine as other boys” or “not as feminine as other girls.” This study found that harassment for gender nonconformity was generally related to either actual or perceived sexual orientation: 49% of students who were harassed for their sexual orientation were also harassed for gender nonconformity, whereas 27% of the overall student population reported experiencing harassed for “not being masculine enough” or “not being feminine enough.” The most encouraging finding was that in situations where students saw teachers stop negative comments and slurs based on sexual orientation, they reported less name calling and stronger feelings of school safety. These findings demonstrate how effective intervention can alter the experiences of students in schools.
Cyberbullying is defined as “using an electronic medium, such as emails or text messages, to threaten or harm others” (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006, p. 27). Much research has shown strong links between bullying at school and cyberbullying. One online survey in 2008 found that students who were bullies or victims at school were more likely to be involved in cyberbullying as well. In a Canadian study reported in 2006, researchers also found similarities between cyberbullying and schoolyard bullying: Males (22%) were more likely to be cyberbullies than females (12%), and males and females reported being victimized online at similar rates (25% versus25.6%). Cyberbullying is a very difficult phenomenon for educators to address because much of it occurs outside school, yet it has a clear impact on students’ experiences at school. This practice differs somewhat from schoolyard bullying in that it can be anonymous and can have broader impacts owing to the widespread dissemination of information through broadcast text messages, posted videos, and webpages. Conversely, these same elements can make cyber-bullying easier to prove by documenting the exact nature of the interaction.
Researchers have noted that cyberspace is becoming an increasingly hostile environment, particularly for girls and GLBT youth who are targets for harassment online. According to GLSEN’s research, 41% of LGBT students had experienced this type of harassment in the past year. This percentage is four times higher than the national average of 9% reported in a recent large-scale study conducted at the University of New Hampshire. It reflects the higher victimization of GLBT youth in school reported by other studies.
The emergence of new virtual spaces such as discussion boards, blogs, instant messaging programs, and social networking sites such as Friendster, Facebook, and MySpace have created new arenas in which youth can interact–and can bully and harass. The increasing accessibility of these spaces from Internet-connected laptops, personal data assistants (PDAs), portable gaming devices, and cell phones simply multiplies the potential contact points for bullying and harassment. Nevertheless, this factor does not necessarily mean that such bullying falls outside the realm of educators’ interventions. The visibility and public forum of Internet interactions can actually provide evidenceforinvestigationsaswellasaplace where teachers and parents can offer support and guidance. This form of online interaction is an important one for educators and researchers to address, as youth behaviors spill out of the schoolyard and into cyberspace.
- Brown, L. M. (2003). Girlfighting: Betrayal and rejection among girls. New York: New York University Press.
- California Safe Schools Coalition. (2004). Consequences of harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender non-conformity and steps for making schools safer. Davis, CA: University of California.
- Duncan, N. (1999). Sexual bullying: Gender conflict and pupil culture in secondary schools. London: Routledge.
- Gruber, J. E., & Fineran, S. (2008). Comparing the impact of bullying and sexual harassment victimization on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Sex Roles, 59, 1-13.
- Harris & Associates. (1993). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America’s schools. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.
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- Kosciw, J., & Diaz, E. (2006). The 2005 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
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- Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
- Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls.New York: Harcourt.
- Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2006). Online victimization ofyouth: Five years later. Durham, NH: Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire.
- World Health Organization. (2004). Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2001/2002 survey. Copenhagen, Denmark.