Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The History of School Bullying

An Introduction: Bullying = Extreme Consequences,
No matter what the century

Kristina Calco was miserable in middle school; although she got good grades and was a talented artist, her peers rejected her.  They hurled insults at her and called her “ugly” and “nasty” on a daily basis.  She longed for a new beginning, and thought she might have a chance at happiness in high school when she made the JV cheerleading squad for ninth grade.  Her freshman year was no easier, though, and so she fantasized about her 16th birthday, when she hoped everything would finally be right with the world.  She wrote about life after the expected transition in her online journal:
“everything would be perfect....I would be gorgeous & have perfect hair & teeth & clothes & I'd have a boyfriend & I would have had my 1st kiss & I would be popular & have awesome shoes & be really thin & tall and all of the boys would wanna get with me & I'd be on Varsity Cheerleading & do Volleyball and have sweet abs & skinny thighs & fit into Abercrombie pants and be rich and ya know I'd be sooo happy & have a 4.0 still, and ya know if that doesn't happen I told myself I'd have to kill myself. I know how I'm gonna do it too...but nevermind for now...."  
As her self-imposed “deadline” neared, Kristina’s bullies continued to verbally abuse her; her depression deepened.  It seemed as though her goals were unattainable, and she didn’t ask for help. Twenty-two days before her birthday, she decided she could take it no longer.  Kristina spent the last hours of her life at a school dance and later talking to classmates on her computer via instant messenger.  Just after 2 am she signed offline and ended the torment forever.  Kristina committed suicide by hanging; she never made it to her sweet sixteen.

Unfortunately, stories like this one are becoming increasingly familiar.  Many adolescents are rejected by their peers on a daily basis.  They are physically and verbally abused, and they become hopelessly lonely, overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness.  Adults don’t appear to be able (or sometimes willing) to help and so these young people suffer in silence.  Some of them resort to violence against themselves or their peers.  In a recent interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, two bullied boys explain how they feel about their situation:
JOEY: You just think, I have to go face them again. I have to spend another eight hours in that prison. And no matter what you do, you can't escape.
JONATHAN: Death is the only escape. Because if you kill yourself, it's done. You don't have to do it anymore.
In May 2007, an article in the Psychiatric Times reported the risk of depression, suicidal ideation or suicide attempt is significantly higher for victims (and bullies) as compared to children not involved in the behavior, and risk is directly related to frequency of bullying behavior.  The article recommended that clinicians talk to young patients they are treating for depression about both in school and online bullying (Wagner, 2007).  Additionally, given that a U.S. Secret Service analysis of targeted school violence found that 71% of school shooters from 1974-2000 reported being chronically bullied (Espelage & Swearer, 2004), it is imperative that all adults who work with potential victims of bullying take action to improve their situation and potentially save lives.  It is also crucial that brave bystanders be “heroes” and stand up for children who are victimized by their peers.

Bullying is a worldwide problem among youth.  A United Nations’ survey of Young People in Context asked 50,000 students from 34 nations to answer two questions about the past few months on a five-point scale from “never” to “several times a week”.  The questions were: “How often have you been bullied?” and “How often have you taken part in bullying another student?”  The results showed wide variation among nations, but around 30% of children say they are bullies, victims, or both (Berger, 2007).  School bullying is prevalent in every school, and it is a top concern for 21st century students.  According to the 2001 U.S. Talking with Kids survey, 68% of 12-15 year olds think bullying is a “big problem” at school, one that outranks their concerns about discrimination, violence, pressure to have sex, and alcohol and drugs (McGrath, 2007).

Bullying is undoubtedly a hot topic in our culture and media today, but it is not a new phenomenon. Both the intensity of the behavior and its extreme negative consequences has been documented for generations. 

The first recorded suicide after bullying happened in Korea in 1452.  A young soldier had been exposed to “myunsinrae” for more than one year; he was isolated, had no one to talk to, was not invited to official events and then punished for not attending them, and was physically abused by being kicked or punched “accidentally” as his tormenters claimed “whoops there was something in my way but I could not see it” (Koo, 2007). 

The first report of a bullying victim turning violent and shooting his tormenter was also a soldier.  The story of John Flood was detailed in an article in The Times (London) in August of 1862.  Flood had been the victim of “long, malignant and systematic bullying”.  The author felt that “the exasperation which led to the crime was… an excitement of temper for which his tormenters and persecutors were ultimately responsible”.  Flood was initially sentenced to death for murder, but his life was spared by royal pardon after public outcry.  In a letter to the editor of The Times, the day after the initial story was printed, T.K. writes that Flood’s “previous character was irreproachable” and that “all who ever came in contact with the young man concur {he was of} kindly disposition”.  T.K. felt that Flood was provoked and says that he drew up something that he hoped would be “extensively signed throughout the county by influential persons”.  Sir George Grey eventually advised the Queen to change Flood’s sentence to penal servitude for life given that the 21 yr old had been “goaded into the act by continuing and irritating provocation from which he had no means of escape” (Cameron, 2008).

A Brief Look at School Bullying: From Schoolhouse to Cyberspace

Although there do not appear to be many official reports of bullying in the schooling context prior to the 20th century, the behavior seems to have existed for as long as there have been one-room schoolhouses.  Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered several bullying instances from growing up in the Midwest in the late 19th century, and so she included the character Nellie Olsen in her “Little House on the Prairie” series.  The books were later developed for television, and in this clip we see Nellie bully poor Anna (a girl who stutters) to tears, in front of a room of other girls during initiation into an after-school club.  Although this particular incident is fictional, it is easy to imagine it occurring in both the 19th and 21st centuries. 

Although the key features are the same, bullying has taken on a new dimension in the 21st century: it is no longer confined to the classroom and schoolyard.  For adolescents today, bullying and victimization does not end when the last school bell rings.  Young people can no longer seek refuge in their homes; they are connected to their peers 24 hours a day through text messaging, social networking websites and email. 

Digital communication is a new weapon for teens that perpetrate relational aggression, a subtype of bullying first recognized by Crick & Gropeter (1995).  If the “Little House” scenario with Anna happened today, she wouldn’t be able to escape her bullies by running out of the house; they could send her mean text messages reminding her of the incident, go online and send instant messages or mass emails to their other friends about it, or even secretly videotape her trying to read the “password” and then anonymously post it to a blog for the whole school (and world) to see instantly.  In this way, Anna’s pain is not limited to the one instance and small group of girls in attendance; it is magnified substantially, and the evidence lasts forever.  As others learn about the incident, 21st century Anna’s phone may suddenly stop receiving new texts, her facebook wall may lack new posts.  Kids she thought were her friends will ignore her and the social isolation could grow to be unbearable.  Cyber-bullying is a new phenomenon, and its one that adults who did not grow up in the digital age don’t know how to combat.  It has sparked much conversation and is just starting to be part of the research agenda.

Introducing the Study of School Bullying; First on the Agenda: Define the Behavior

Bullying behavior has been present in human culture for generations, but school bullying has only been systematically studied for a little over three decades. One of the biggest hurdles for the formalized study of school bullying was the initial lack of consensus on the definition of the behavior.  Dr. Dan Olweus, the Scandinavian father of bullying research, defines the behavior in this way: “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” (Olweus, 2001).  Olweus also emphasizes the bully’s intention to repeatedly cause harm or discomfort (Olweus, 1993).  Dr. Peter K Smith, a British researcher and international authority on school bullying added that it involves “a systematic abuse of power” (Smith & Sharp, 1994), and that the repeated intentional aggression is brought against an individual who cannot defend him or herself (Smith, 2004). 

Today, bullying is accepted as a sub-type of aggression that involves repetition and unequal power, and is not limited to physical actions.  The last part is particularly important.  Initially, most researchers focused their efforts on examining physical bullying (particularly among boys).  Dr. Nicki Crick, an American researcher at the University of Minnesota, was influential in changing that trend and defining relational aggression as a subtype of bullying particularly evident among girls (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995).

In conclusion, there are several subsets of direct and indirect (when a victim does not know who is responsible for the abuse) aggressive behavior recognized as bullying today: physical, verbal, relational (or social), and cyberbullying.  Bullying does not include fights between students of equal power, “rough and tumble” play between friends, or isolated incidents of school violence.  Although the definition has evolved over time, it is easy to remember the four “Ps”, which have persisted; bullying has always involved power, pain, persistence, and premeditation (Koo, 2007).

Motivation for studying this complex behavior – I never experienced the rain

I was inspired to study bullying by all of the media coverage it has received over the past six years of my post-high-school life.  Bullying is such a pervasive problem, yet somehow I missed it growing up.  When I hear the chorus of Barry Manilow’s “I Made it Through the Rain”, I can’t help but think that my whole life has been lived out in the sunshine.  He sings:
“I made it through the rain; I kept my world protected; I made it through the rain; I kept my point of view; I made it through the rain; And found myself respected; By the others who; Got rained on too; And made it through”
I had a sheltered primary school experience, and although I transferred to a large public school in eighth grade, bullying was never part of my life.  I never had trouble asserting my point of view, I always felt respected, and I loved school from my toddler days through high school graduation.  I know now that my experience is rare.  I am motivated to study bullying so that I may better understand this complex behavior and become part of its solution. 

I attended a private school from kindergarten through grade seven with only about ten students per class; understandably, I had considerable anxiety about going to a large public middle school for eighth grade.  I was used to a school climate where all of the students knew and accepted one another and I had never experienced the bullying or girl drama I read about in books.  During the summer before eighth grade, I was afraid that would all change when I became “a small fish in the big sea”.  I feared that I would have no friends, or that I would meet a big bully like Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies when I tried to walk back to the middle school from my high school math class. 

In the end, I did not need to be afraid.  My assigned lab partner for science was the most popular boy in the middle school and we became instant friends.  I also became the starting Varsity pitcher on the softball team; I fit in during high school math after all.  I played drums in the band and made friends in Key Club.  I never encountered a single bully.  During my five years in public school I floated from group to group.  Because I had many different kinds of friends, I always had someone to be with.  I had teammates, friends from classes, and friends from after school clubs.  Unlike many children, one clique never defined me.

Although bullying was on the periphery of my life, and didn’t shape my memories, media coverage of tragic suicides like Kristina Calco, Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince really affect me.  I have always been passionate about working with middle school girls and their social aggression and bullying seem to be on the rise.  I chose to study this behavior to learn more about the problem, which kinds of children are at risk, and what are the characteristics of successful interventions. 

In addition, I was particularly interested in exploring cyberbullying.  The first article about cyberbullying cited in the PsycInfo database is from 2006, but there have been 97 published in the last five years.  I graduated from high school in 2004 and digital harassment was not part of my experience.  Most of my friends and I shared computers with our families, and very few of us had our own cell phones.  I find it appalling how some children behave online and I think it is notable that schools are starting to be responsible for policing digital behavior.  I am interested in learning about interventions that teach children how to use technology respectfully.

For me, the fact that victims of bullying (in all of its many forms) feel like they don’t have anyone to turn to, or that adults in their lives do not take them seriously, is heartbreaking.  Unfortunately, it may be true: in a survey conducted in fall 2010, CNN found that 37% of kids are bullied, yet 65% of parents think it is either a minor problem or no problem at all (Doss & Moore, 2010).  This disconnect is particularly alarming for me.  When I am a school psychologist, I hope that children will approach me for any help with bullying. Although I don’t have any childhood experience to draw on, I don’t ever want to send the message that I can’t or won’t help.

A Rough Sketch of the Bullying Experience - You have to start somewhere

Bullying behavior was first characterized as part of the experience of children in an 1897 article entitled “Teasing and Bullying” published by Burk in the Pedagogical Seminary.  The article sought to expose “data” of tormenters and victims, and provided strikingly horrific examples of victimization among children.  The examples involved all of the four Ps.  Power was involved because all of the examples were of an older tormenter and a younger victim; both physical and psychological pain were clearly explained for the victim; persistence was evident because the bullies continued the behavior (becoming increasingly more delighted) until their victims cried or ran away; premeditation was involved because the tormentors always had a plan and intentional targets. 

In addition to describing behavior, Burk also tried to attempt delineating causes and cures for the tormenting, and so he asked teens why they bullied and what would make them stop.  The majority said they bullied or teased to test the temper, cry-point, or disposition of their victim.  The second most common response was that the victim was peculiar in some way and thus brought the bullying on himself or herself.  Many teens also said they bullied instinctually or impulsively.  They reported verbal bullying or severe teasing could best be stopped by “reasoning with the teaser, showing him harm and wrong he does and appealing to his sense of honor”.  They thought physical bullying should be cured by “reasoning” and “flogging” (Burk, 1897). 

The author of the study interestingly concludes that bullying behavior is instinctual and a result of evolution; some children are more predisposed to become bullies than others, and they can’t help their behavior.  He then calls for additional research by presenting two possible contradicting ideas for what to do about bullying behavior: 1) we must stop children from exercising these impulses so that they don’t become criminals later in life, and 2) we must permit bullying in childhood so that the natural negative impulses do not stay bottled up and later give rise to criminal outbreaks.  Unfortunately, this article seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the research community, as it has only been cited in seven articles written since 1975 (Social Science Citation Index).

The Pioneer – Scandinavia takes the lead

As mentioned previously, Dan Olweus is considered the founding father of systematic bullying research.  He first started to examine the phenomenon in the late 1960s and early 1970s when there was “a strong societal interest in bully/victim problems” but school officials did not get involved (Olweus, 1999).  Although he was the first to study this particular behavior, he was able to draw on existing aggression and school violence research. 

At first, bullying was approached as a subtype of proactive aggression (Schaber, 2006).  Olweus’ first book Aggression in schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys (1978) focused on this type of aggression and sparked additional interest in the behavior.  According to the Social Science Citation Index, this landmark book has been cited in 502 journal articles

In 1982, a newspaper in Norway reported three suicides of 10-14 year old boys “in all probability as a consequence of severe bullying by peers”.  By the fall of 1983, the Ministry of Education had commissioned Olweus to oversee a nationwide anti-bullying campaign (Olweus, 1999).  These were not the first published suicides related to bullying, but they were the first involving children. 

When Olweus began working on the Norwegian campaign, he was interested in addressing specific questions.  First, he sought to explore the nature and incidence of the bullying problem, and identify any differences in its presentation among different age or gender groups.  He wished to characterize bullies and victims so that they could be more easily identified, and he wished to learn students’ impressions of teacher and parent attitudes (Olweus, 1993). 

Olweus is post-positivist; his ontology is critical realist and his epistemology is modified objectivist (both of these will be addressed further in a later section).  Olweus’ methodology involves using multiple sources and measurements.   In his very first study conducted in Sweden in 1970, Olweus used a combination of self-reports, mother-reports, peer ratings, teacher nominations, official records on criminal offences, interviews asking about early child-rearing, and even hormonal and psycho-physiological data (Olweus, 1999).  For the nationwide study in Norway in 1983, he relied mostly on a bully/victim self-report questionnaire to be anonymously completed. 

Olweus’ questionnaire was meticulously planned out.  It provided the definition of bullying and then asked students about its incidence within a specific time period.  It also asked about perceived attitudes and reactions of peers, teachers and parents.  When examining the results from the questionnaire, Olweus looked for correlations with factors like population density, socioeconomic status, percentage of immigrants, school and class size and composition of staff (Olweus, 1999).

His work in Norway has had a substantial impact on the field.  First, he defined bullying as a behavior worthy of systematic study.  He noted an incidence of 15% of students involved in bullying “now and then” or more frequently, with the number of incidents decreasing with age.  He also found that only 35% of high school students talked to their parents about bullying, and that the majority of high school students thought teachers attempted to stop bullying only “once in awhile” or “almost never”.  With 85% of all schools in the country participating, he was able to expel certain myths, that it was not just a big city or large classroom-size problem. 

Olweus’ most notable contribution has been his multi-system prevention program that resulted in 50% reduction of bullying behavior.  Olweus advocated awareness and involvement on the part of adults, and he valued strategies targeting the school, class and individual.  For example, schools should implement the questionnaire and then have a conference day sharing the results, classes should have specific rules against bullying, and individuals involved in bullying (and their parents) should have to participate in serious talks about changing their behavior (Olweus, 1993 and Olweus, 1999). 

In the conclusion of the foreword to his 1993 book Bullying at School, What we know and what we can do, which has been cited 741 times in articles in the Social Science Citation Index, and translated into 15 languages, Olweus writes:
“We now have the knowledge - what is needed is the will to do something about a problem which causes so much pain and misery (and even in extreme cases, suicide) for too many of our young people”
Olweus inspired many people to have the will to make a difference and take up the cause for studying bullying behavior.  One of the most notable has been British researcher Peter K. Smith.

The “Protog√©” – Britain and Beyond

In a 2000 article published in The Psychologist, Smith writes that bullying was “in the air” in the late 1980s.  After discussing Olweus’ success in the Norwegian anti-bullying campaign with him, he piloted his colleague’s questionnaire in England, and found rates of bullying about double those of Scandinavia.  On September 28, 1989 The Guardian (London) newspaper ran a story entitled Britain is “bullying capital of Europe”.  Around that time, the first three books on bullying since Olweus’ first addressed the topic were published, and the Elton Report on discipline in schools came out, claiming:
“recent studies of bullying in schools suggest that the problem is widespread and tends to be ignored by teachers…Research suggests that bullying not only causes considerable suffering to individual pupils but also has a damaging effect on the school atmosphere” (Smith, 1999, p. 70).
The Department for Education (DFE) in London did not take action, but the Gulbenkian Foundation funded several initiatives including an extension of the ChildLine bullying phoneline, a free and confidential service for children to reach a counselor 24 hours a day.  They also funded survey work at Sheffield University that Smith directed (Smith, 1999).  Publicity from the survey work led to the DFE funding the Sheffield Anti-Bullying Project designed to evaluate the effectiveness of particular interventions. 

For the past 20 years, Smith has focused his research efforts on a few main questions.  First, he set out to learn if, in fact, Britain had the most bullying in Europe, and he spent some time studying the prevalence of bullying behavior in the UK.  Later, he examined the effectiveness of particular interventions such as the DFE’s Don’t Suffer in Silence pack beginning in 1994.  Other questions he has examined include the development of bullying in pre-schoolers and the effect of parent-child attachment, what determines resiliency to negative effects of bullying, and if children with disabilities are more at risk of being victims. 

Smith was one of several researchers about ten years ago who first questioned the traditional social-skills deficit model of bullying and advocated for the possibility of bullies actually having advanced Theory of Mind abilities.  He and his colleagues observed many adolescent bullies who seemed to be skilled social manipulators and thus they called for a change in conceptual understanding (Sutton, Smith and Swettenham, 1999).  Most recently Smith has continued to change with the times; he has also examined cyberbullying (Smith et al, 2008). 

Smith operates within a post-positivist paradigm like Olweus, and he shares his critical realist ontology, modified objectivist epistemology, and methodology advocating critical multiplism.  In terms of specific methods he has employed, Smith places more value on self-reports and peer nominations and ratings than teacher reports, especially when he is asking children to report indirect aggression (Smith, 2004).  Smith values empirical research that has social impact, because he sees bullying as an issue of human rights (The Psychologist, 2000).  He also values networking and cross-national collaboration. 

Smith has been involved with numerous international comparison efforts with the goal of making the research community understand that bullying is a human problem and there is a lot to be learned from work completed in other nations. 

In this vein, Smith, Cowie, Olafsson and Liefooghe (2002) completed a study asking eight and fourteen year old children in 14 nations to sort 25 stick-figure drawings of behavior that might or might not be bullying.  The figures depicted five factors: nonaggression, physical aggression, physical bullying, verbal (both direct and indirect), and social exclusion, and the children were asked to determine if “yes this is picture is an example of word X” or “no this is not an example of word X”.  Three to six words thought to equate to bullying were tested in each language in order to determine equivalents for the English word bullying, and to see which words loaded highest onto the five factors. 

The results from this study can inform future international projects; researchers can now be sure how translated questionnaires about given behaviors will be interpreted by children who speak different languages. 

Peter K. Smith has impacted the field because he has advocated for international collaboration and because his work within England (with the Sheffield project and others) has been successful.  He has demonstrated, like Olweus, that whole-school policies are key for keeping victimization rates down, and he has noted the importance of taking the particular school environment into account when designing an intervention (Smith & Ananiadou, 2003).  In addition, he was willing to challenge the accepted social-skills deficit model characterizing bullies and argue for advanced Theory of Mind abilities. It was for this reason, that the field redefined the notion that bullies all use proactive aggression.  They recognized it could also be reactive, relational or overt depending on social goals (Schaber, 2006).  One of the researchers most influential in the new study of relational aggression has been Nicki Crick.

The Female Bullying Expert - Uncovering the truth about girls’ aggression

In 1995, Crick and Grotpeter introduced the term “relational aggression” in a now famous article that has been cited 902 times in the Social Science Citation Index. Relational aggression can be defined as behaviors that intentionally manipulate relationships in order to harm or damage peers’ relationships with others (Schaber, 2006). 

The 1995 study had four goals: to develop a reliable measure of relational aggression, to assess gender differences in relational aggression, to assess the degree to which relational aggression is distinct from overt aggression, and to assess whether relational aggression is related to social-psychological maladjustment (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). 

The researchers used peer nomination (Social Experiences Questionnaire, SEQ) and several self-report instruments to assess social-psychological maladjustment with 491 third through sixth graders.  In the SEQ, they asked children to nominate three of their classmates who exhibited behaviors classified as pro-social behavior (five items), overt aggression (three items), relational aggression (five items) and isolation (two items). 

Crick & Grotpeter’s findings show that relational aggression is in fact distinct from overt aggression, and more characteristic of girls.  They also confirmed that relationally aggressive children experience social problems, feel unhappy and distressed about their relationships, and may be rejected or regarded as “controversial” (highly liked by some and disliked by others) by their peers. 

After examining relational aggression within the larger peer group, Crick began to ask questions about aggression within dyadic friendships.  She found that girls perceive relational aggression to be more hurtful and distressing than boys, and that 70% of girls in one study experienced maltreatment by their mutual best friend (Crick & Nelson, 2002).  Other questions she has investigated include the role of relational aggression in romantic relationships, the development of relational aggression in early childhood and the impact of siblings, and the long and short-term effects of relational aggression on social-psychological adjustment. 

As most of Crick’s questions highlight the particular experiences of females, she seems to be influenced by the critical theorist paradigm.  For her ontology, she wishes to transform the world by eliminating the false consciousness that girls are much less aggressive than boys, and illuminating the fact that girls are just aggressive, but in a different way.  Her methodology, however, is clearly experimental and influenced by the post-positivist paradigm.  She seems to take great care in determining the reliability and validity of measures that she uses, and she frequently uses multiple methods (such as self-report and observations).  Most of the methods Crick uses do not directly involve the experimenter; it is unclear if she would consider her epistemology to be subjectivist.  Because she is actively involved in the “critical community” and seems to carefully design her measures to eliminate potential bias, however, it is likely that she has a modified objectivist epistemology.             

On a morning talk show on Minnesota Public Radio, Crick told her audience that relational aggression starts among girls as young as pre-school, but that it is most frequent in adolescents.  She explained that young children often use direct ultimatums with their friends to assert control and get what they want (ie: “if you don’t give me your cookies, you can’t come to my birthday party”, or “if you tell, I won’t be your friend”).  She said the goals are the same for older girls, but they are much more indirect, and even use third parties as pawns (such as when a teenage girl flirts with her friend’s crush because she is angry with her). 

Crick answered questions from callers and elaborated on some of her values.  When asked, she stated that her dream is for the public to recognize that this behavior is harmful, and to empathize with victimized girls.  She expressed frustration that victims of physical aggression often have no trouble finding empathy with adults because they have visible signs of their maltreatment, but that victims of relational aggression may be told that “it’s all in their head”.  She also talked about the negative outcomes of relational aggression for victims and bullies (including social problems, unhealthy relationships, rejection, depressive feelings and academic problems. 

Crick explained that she wishes to use empirically based intervention programs to help girls engaging in these behaviors at high levels.  She ended by saying noting that although she has no scientific evidence, she believes anecdotally that the increasing levels of relational aggression on reality television shows and sitcoms like Desperate Housewives send young girls the absolute wrong message and contribute to the high occurrence of relational aggression in schools.

Nicki Crick impacted the field because she enlightened researchers to the fact that girls had been largely ignored in bullying research.  Although not all studies have corroborated her findings that girls experience more relational aggression than boys, her work was influential in starting a dialog.  In addition, her SEQ peer nomination measure has been used extensively as has the SEQ-self-report developed for a 1996 study.  Even though Crick did not include measures of nonverbal aggression (such as exclusion), her questionnaire was so well done that researchers later added items rather than creating a new measure.  Shaber (2006) was the first to adapt Crick’s SEQ into a peer-report rather than a peer-nomination measure.  She also included the nonverbal items, and it proved to be both reliable and sensitive to change over time. 

Varied Paradigms and OEMs

Essentially all of the major research examining bullying has focused on four main questions: How prevalent is school bullying in different contexts?  How can bullies and victims be characterized?  What are the short and long-term effects of bullying behavior?  Which interventions are most successful?  As scientists worldwide have grappled with these questions over the last thirty years, they have mostly operated within a post-positivist paradigm, although there have been a few more recently who are taking up the cause of a particular group involved in bullying behavior within the critical theory paradigm, and those who are interested in case studies and individual experience that use the lens of a constructivist paradigm.


During the brief history of the formalized study of school bullying (see timeline below), the ontology of the behavior has been mostly critical realist although there have also been a few with a relativist ontology.  There have not been any distinct paradigm shifts, but rather concurrent research by academics with differing ontological views. For the purposes of this discussion, I will frame ontology as the understanding of the answers to the four main research questions surrounding school bullying that are listed in the paragraph above.  

Critical realists hold that reality is certainly out there, but that an understanding of the natural world will always be imperfect and incomplete, due to sensory imperfections and failures in reason (Guba, 1990). Those researchers with a critical realist ontology likely feel that they do a good job of estimating the incidence of school bullying (through a variety of methods, discussed later), but that the true prevalence of the behavior can never be perfectly known.  Those with a relativist ontology would be less interested in answering this first question in terms of the general population.  They would prefer to examine the bullying realities of several children within a particular group of a particular class in a particular school.  They may aim to find general consensus among these children and then help them individually in a way that is unique to their circumstances. 

For the second question, about characterizing those involved in bullying behavior, those with a critical realist ontology think that they have established a good working definition of which kinds of children become bullies and victims, and what the risk factors are for developing tendencies toward each. Olweus first described the typical (male) bully as having “an aggressive reaction pattern combined with physical strength” that was likely caused by a need for power and control, a poor home life, and the tangible benefits of their behavior (if they coerced their victims to provide them with money or other things of value) (Olweus, 1993).  Being a critical realist, Olweus would contend that there could always be children who display the behavior yet do not fit the norm.  In addition, there could also be a new yet undiscovered factor contributing to the behavior that is not part of current understanding.  This must have been the case because today, according to Barbara Coloroso, “bullies come in all different sizes and shapes: some are big, some are small; some bright; some attractive and some not so attractive; some popular and some absolutely disliked by almost everybody” (Coloroso, 2003 cited in McGrath, 2007). 

As for victims, many early U.S. researchers who studied peer rejection and “unpopularity” thought that all victims were aggressive, or brought the bullying treatment on themselves in some way (Coie, Dodge & Kupersmidt, 1990).  They had to amend their understanding in 1989, when Olweus went to the SRCD conference in Kansas City and told academics that there were many aggressive children who were quite popular, and that they needed to stop ignoring what he called the “passive victims”.  He urged a “reorientation” of American research efforts given the new characterization of victims (Olweus, 2001). 

Critical realists don’t think we will ever be able to create a characterization that fits all bullies or all victims, but they do believe it’s worth striving for the creation of as complete profiles as possible.  Relativists would agree that we cannot create an accurate portrait of all bullies or victims, but they would not think it is worth attempting since bullies and victims are such heterogeneous groups.  A relativist may try to find general consensus among the individual realities of “white female bullies in suburban New England upper-SES private middle schools.” but they would still focus on the individual characteristics of each member of the group.

The third research question addresses the effects of bullying behavior on all those involved.  Those with relativist ontology think that the reality of being victimized is different for every child depending on a variety of factors.  For that reason, they think it is only possible to predict the range of effects bullying could have.  In other words, you could not say that all children like John (an 11 year old Asian-American male living in San Francisco) will be resilient and all children like Jane (a 15 year old African-American female living in Brooklyn) will become violent, because there is no way to match every risk factor such as family background, particular school experience, or individual personality. 

Those with a critical realist ontology focus on measuring and compiling the varied negative effects bullying can have on victims, bullies and even by-standers that we are aware of.  This could be helpful in making adults more aware of which children could possibly be experiencing bullying and not telling anyone.  Critical realists know they cannot predict all consequences (or know for sure which children will become school shooters or victims of suicide), but they do have empirical data showing that aggressive children are much more likely to have criminal records as adults than non-aggressive children (Harachi et al., 1999).  They are also beginning to be able to approximate factors contributing to resiliency against these negative effects (such as having friends capable of fulfilling a protective function), and they continue to work towards objectively understanding “true reality”.

The fourth major research question involves program evaluation and planning, and addresses which intervention programs have been or are likely to be successful.  Since relativists discount the possibility (or relevance) of one true reality and believe that each individuals’ interpretation of reality is valid for them according to their culture, time and place, they may think that interventions need to be different for each individual school, classroom and child. Because each person’s experiences are unique and cannot be generalized, interventions should take those differences into account. 

Critical realists are interested in using results from past interventions to make improvements on new plans, and they are likely to support programs with empirically proven success.  They are aware that they cannot be sure if a given intervention is the best available, and so they will continue to re-work programs and evaluate them in different ways in order to have the biggest impact on changing students’ behaviors.  A prime example of this is that Olweus’ Bullying Prevention Program has been revised several times since he first used it on Norway’s nationwide bullying efforts in 1983.  Today, it is considered one of only eleven model blueprint programs for the successful prevention of violence in the United States.


In terms of epistemology, researchers studying school bullying have vacillated between modified objectivist and subjectivist stances.  The post-positivist researchers hold a modified objectivist epistemology because they understand the importance of avoiding bias, but they feel that it is impossible to engage in science without permitting interaction between the inquirer and the inquired into.  Modified objectivism involves scientists trying to be as neutral as possible and aware of their predispositions.

Those with a modified objectivist epistemology value collaboration and input from the “critical community” since they understand the “knower” can only know for sure in a given context.  Thus, the community of scientists works together to build and reveal truth.  A good example of this is the Smith et al. (2002) study examining foreign language equivalents for the English word bullying discussed previously.  The researchers took into account a great deal of existing work on the topic available from the critical community, and then worked together, and closely with their study participants, especially during pilot phases of the experiment.  Crucially, they remained as neutral as possible throughout.

Both constructivists and critical theorists hold a subjectivist or interactive epistemology.  They believe the inquirer and the inquired into are fused, and that the acts of the inquirer (including choice of problem, design strategy, setting, etc) are closely related to their individual values.  For example, critical theorists may try to help the particular group they are working with understand how disadvantaged (the researcher thinks) they are so that their understanding of the world is transformed and their individual reality is changed.  By acknowledging their presence in the research process, and accounting for it in the interpretation of research findings, those with a subjectivist epistemology believe they develop a more accurate understanding of results (Guba, 1990).

For example, when Neil Duncan used documentary analysis to study girls’ relationships for his article “It’s important to be nice but it’s nicer to be important: Girls, popularity and sexual competition”, he approached it subjectively, noting his presence in the research process  (Duncan, 2004).  Because he was male, and unknown to the girls, he knew that value differences would affect the structure and interpretation of the focus group interviews.  Rather than ignore that fact, he embraced it.  Duncan made sure a familiar female teacher was present and tried to empower the girls to be honest and think critically about their responses.  For his part, he was also careful in his coding and was sure to ask the girls to clarify their responses when necessary.  Because he was present throughout the conversations, and even listened to the girls’ reasoning when they sorted descriptive cards into characteristic of “popular”, “unpopular” and “neutral” girls in their school, he was able to understand the results more accurately.


There have been a wide variety of methods employed in the systematic study of bullying research.  The majority (post-positivist) of researchers use a modified experimental methodology.  They understand that their judgment is fallible and thus they use as many sources as possible to explain the behavior.  Part of their critical multiplism means addressing concerns of reliability and validity of methods. 

For this reason, Espelage & Swearer (2004) recommend that research be conducted in multiple settings (home, school, community and laboratory), with multiple informants (observers, peers, teachers, parents, self), and using multiple methods (observations, questionnaires, interviews, lab tasks, standardized tests, and records).  The most common methods employed in bullying research are self-report, peer nomination and peer-report.  For the self-report items children are usually asked how often they themselves engage in particular behaviors.  They may also be asked to write about any bullying behavior in a journal at a specified time each day.  For the peer nomination, children are asked which three classmates are most/least likely to exhibit a certain behavior.  Peer- report is common in longitudinal studies when researchers prefer to have data on each child.  For this method, children rate how likely (or how often) each of their classmates behave in a certain way. 

Most bullying research is conducted in naturalistic settings although sometimes researchers trying to answer the characterization question make observations in contrived laboratory “play groups”.  In 1983, for example, Coie & Kupersmidt studied small groups of 4th grade boys who did not know each other and had previously been classified as either “popular”, “average” or “rejected” in their peer group at school (Coie, Dodge & Kupersmidt, 1990).  They found that before long, each child in the new group assumed the same status as in their former peer group.  This led to the initial notion that it was something about the victim that caused the rejection or bullying behavior, and that “unpopular” and “rejected” children should be required to participate in social skills training (Asher, Parkhurst, Hymel & Williams, 1990).

The few critical theorists who have studied bullying behavior employ an interesting methodology known as “Action Research”.  They use individual and focus group interviews and other informal measurements to collectively “transform” reality and eliminate “false consciousness”.  Gabarino & deLara used this methodology to inform their book and words can hurt forever (2002).  They looked at the problems and questions of school bullying from the perspective of the participants in the system they were evaluating, and they considered those student and teacher participants to be their research partners. 

Some of their conclusions include that children think school safety is “an illusion”, that social rejection is a form of “emotional cancer” and thus children will do anything to be accepted, and that children are insecure and take verbal bullying to heart rather than realizing they are a poor reflection on the bully.  They recommend have students help inform school anti-bullying policies, and that all such policies include assertiveness training (Garbarino & deLara, 2002).

Constructivist methodology is much less common in bullying research, possibly because it is difficult to capture the behavior in naturalistic settings.  The methods can include case study and grounded theory (Young, 2006).  Constructivists believe that the mind is transformed through the process of understanding one’s own constructions (hermeneutic) and comparing and contrasting them with those of others (dialectic) to produce one or a few constructions on which there is much consensus (Guba, 1990).  A small study (N=21) conducted in Sweden in 2010 used this methodology.  Individual qualitative interviews were conducted and the data was analyzed by coding, constant comparison, memoing and memo sorting.  Through this process a grounded theory of victimizing was constructed (Thornberg, 2010).  The construct that arose from the data included both external victimizing (stigmatized as different and excluded socially) and internal victimizing (sense of not fitting in, self-protecting, self-doubting, self-blaming, and resignation).

Bullying in the 21st Century – Contemporary Culture’s Call to Action

This past spring, MA Senator Robert A. O'Leary introduced a new anti-bullying law with this statement: 
"Bullying is not new. Bullying has been with us from time immemorial. But what has changed is that it appears to be more pervasive, more destructive" (Finucane, 2010). 
Bullying has, in fact, existed for centuries, and has always involved power, pain, persistence and premeditation.  With the shift in historical context to include digital technology, the serious nature and harmful effects of bullying remain the same, but the frequency of abuse and intensity of effects have increased.  The number of victims involved may have also increased as a result of this new type of bullying behavior. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls electronic aggression an “emerging health problem”, and in a podcast, reports research that 64% of teens who are bullied online are not bullied in school.  Digital aggression/cyberbullying is indeed a pervasive problem.  According to a study by the MTV Associated Press, half of all 14-24 year olds have been subjected to some kind of digital abuse.  Children today live in a much different world than even a few years ago, and they need to be supported by their peers to remain emotionally, psychologically and physically whole. 
Many would point to the Columbine high school massacre of April 20th, 1999, as a breaking point in the perception of school safety for many American children.  On that day, two teenage boys who had been relentlessly bullied brought 50 bombs to school, and then went on a shooting spree wounding twenty-three, fatally shooting thirteen, and taking their own lives.  Children, parents and school officials around the country were shocked, and no one could deny the need for more pro-social and accepting school environments.

The issue of acceptance vs. rejection is at the core of bullying (Gabarino & deLara, 2002).  Jodee Blanco transferred schools several times in an attempt to escape her bullies.  She writes in her autobiography Please Stop Laughing at Me that she often prayed: “Dear God, I’ll do anything. Please let the kids at [X new school] like me.  Please, don’t let me be lonely anymore” (Blanco, 2003).  All she wanted for years was for just one friend to stick up for her.  At one point when she was 12, she succeeded at having a “secret” friend who did not actively engage in her abuse, and was nice to her when they were not in public, but even that couldn’t last.  Like all bullied children, Blanco experienced shame, low self-esteem, depression, somatic and psychosomatic symptoms, and poor academic performance as a result of her life-long victimization by peers. 

Bullying is a problem that everyone needs to address.  School violence and suicide should be unacceptable; there should be a safe escape for children like Kristina Calco who feel ugly, for those like little Anna who suffer a disability, for those like Megan Meier who are harassed online and have false rumors spread about them, for those like Phoebe Prince who are beautiful and called sluts, for those like Jodee Blanco who are bullied because they refuse to pick on someone else, and for all those whose stories don’t make the front page news. 

In a video on his website, Olweus states his belief that safety at school is a fundamental human right.  He then describes his Bullying Prevention Program, and explains that it involves action at four levels, namely community, school, class, and individual.  The program has been evaluated with over 40,000 children over the past 20 years, and consistently demonstrates a 30-50% reduction in bullying behaviors.  It has also been shown to improve school climate and reduce other negative behaviors such as vandalism, truancy and substance abuse (Olweus video).

Olweus’ program is not the only successful one of its kind, but it is a great example of the systems-wide approach necessary to combat this complex problem.  Intervention at the community level must involve parents and other stakeholders.  At the school level, a survey should be conducted and the results should be shared at a conference day.  A clear plan should also be in place so that all staff handle bullying incidents in the same way.  For example, McGrath (2007) advocates always using the same four questions to establish the facts, impact, context and next appropriate action.  At the class level, a set of rules should be in place and teachers should be actively praising children for compliance and enforcing sanctions for noncompliance (Olweus, 1993).  Finally, measures at the individual level should be very serious and target helping both the victim and the bully.

Recently, students at Anthony Wayne High School, in Ohio made a documentary about their experiences in a “challenge day” program to combat bullying.  Programs like this at the school class and individual level that make children aware of the emotional abuse they are causing one another are a great first step.  Interventions targeting the entire community must also be involved in future efforts.

A survey of 213 National Association of School Psychologists, however, reported that most school interventions take place only at the individual student level, and that interventions involving a system-wide approach are the least common (Sherer & Nickerson, 2010).  School districts around the country should remedy this problem and begin systems-wide approaches for bullying prevention. 

Bullying in the 21st century is an extremely complex problem that will not disappear quietly; it will take a concerted effort to bring about change.  Fortunately, the behavior has entered the national spotlight and more people join the ranks to become part of the solution daily.  In May 2010 the governor of Massachusetts signed a law requiring schools to institute an anti-bullying curriculum, investigate acts of bullying and report the most serious incidents to police.  In August, the Department of Education held the first national summit on bullying (Reported in Doss & Moore, 2010).  During October, People Magazine published a special issue on deadly bullying, CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosted a range of experts in a week-long special entitled “Bullying, No Escape”, and Cartoon Network launched their “Stop Bullying, Speak Up” prevention initiative (Varney, 2010).  President Obama’s Secretary of Education also sent a letter to schools all over the country directing them to clearly and significantly address the issues of bullying and student harassment.  Finally, just this month, New Jersey passed an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.

My Personal Paradigm and Ideas for Future Research

In the introduction to The Nature of School Bullying, An International Perspective, Smith writes:
“Research on its own may just gather dust on library shelves; media interest on its own may just generate temporary concerns lacking a knowledge base for action.  But an encouraging phenomenon for us as researchers, has been how at times this combination of research and concerned publicity (even if at times sensationalized) can lead to resources being devoted to tackle the problem seriously”
It is my sincere hope that the recent media hype turns into research dollars for those most equipped to study the complex facets of bullying in the 21st century. 

Of all the researchers I have read about, I am most inspired by Peter K. Smith.  My personal paradigm would share his critical realist ontology and experimental methodology emphasizing multiple methods that are backed by high validity and reliability.  For epistemology, I recognize the importance of interaction between the knower and the known and the need to be particularly aware of bias.  To me, it seems important that unlike critical theorists, post-positivists design their theories after data rather than searching for data that eliminates a perceived “false consciousness”.  Finally, I concur with Smith that this is a human problem deserving cross-national study.  I have been impressed with his ability to involve the critical community at large and I hope to model his approach in my future research.

If I were ever given the opportunity to study this topic, I would have a hard time knowing where to begin. Two areas that have stood out, to me, as important next steps, is the need for research into bullying training programs for teachers and research into international interventions which are successful for combating social aggression.

I am interested in designing interventions for teachers because I think they can oftentimes be out of touch with the current research, but they have a huge influence on students.  Jodee Blanco writes about how her teachers encouraged her to “ignore” the bullying or “learn to stand up for herself” (Blanco, 2007).  Kevin Jennings, Asst Deputy to the Secretary for Education told Anderson Cooper he believed a lot of teachers think bullying is just something every child goes through, and that all will survive (Doss & Moore, 2010).  Given the recent acts of violence and suicide associated with bullying, this advice does not seem to be beneficial.  There is a dire need for interventions targeting continuing education for teachers. 

Another important next step in this dialog is evaluating systems-wide interventions targeting more indirect, social types of bullying behavior.  Most international intervention efforts have not been shown to decrease bullying behaviors in girls as much as they have in boys (Smith & Ananiadou, 2003).  Similar to Schaber (2006) who aimed to utilize a whole-class (Kids Supporting Kids) intervention to reduce social aggression for girls as well as boys in fourth grade, I would like to examine a whole-school model with 11-14 year olds.  Schaber (2006) found that the fourth grade boys rated their peers’ socially aggressive behaviors, as significantly less after intervention while girls’ scores did not change significantly.  It is important to know how to combat this “modern” form of bullying in girls cross-nationally.

In order for a meaningful change to be made in the attitude and awareness of bullying, researchers must continue to engage in national dialog.  The lack of empirically validated programs is hindering progress in schools across the country.  Furthermore, the current clash between popular understanding and scientific research is blatant (Berger, 2007).  Children’s books advocating ineffective ways to deal with bullying are sold daily; parents go to self-help websites that may not give them the best advice.  Without the continual study of current literature, media, and social trends, school psychologists will fall quickly behind in the battle to understand and overcome modern bullying.  

Our nation has started a large movement that is very vocal about the causes and harms of bullying, it is imperative that these continue.  The public is ready to combat the problem but research needs to guide the solution. Changing a behavior pattern is a long gradual process, guided by intense effort and careful evaluation (Berger, 2007).  As a future school psychologist, I hope to take part in this dialog, and help inform the solution for creating a safer and more positive school environment where every child feels respected.

In celebration of Anti-Bullying Week this month, Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School students wore pink.
(Photo by Todd Vandonk)


1452 – First documented suicide from bullying in Korea

1608 – Punishment policy at the O-Yomei school for children of the royal family involves ijime.  The child being punished is ignored by his teacher and peers so he feels “ashamed and lonely”.

1862 – London Times reports how systematic bullying of a soldier lead to him shooting and killing his biggest tormenter.  Rather than being condemned to death, the victim turned murderer was granted a pardon and sentenced to penal servitude for life.

1897 – First journal article describing bullying behavior among children published by Burk in the Pedagogical Seminary.

1973 – Olweus writes up first systematic peer harassment research – Official beginning of school bullying research

1983 – Large scale Norwegian Anti-Bullying Campaign begins

1987 – American National School Safety Center holds first “Schoolyard Bullying Practicum Conference” to examine strategies to handle the perceived escalating problem following the bullying-related suicide of a 12 yr old in MO.

1989 – Three major books on the topic of bullying are published and the Elton Report comes out in the UK

1991 – The DFE Sheffield Anti-Bullying Project, modeled after the Norwegian campaign, begins in the UK

1994 – The first ever anti-bullying legislation is passed in Sweden.  It states that a child has the right to feel safe in school and be spared the oppression and repeated humiliation of bullying, and that it is the responsibility of the school principal to develop an intervention program against bullying. (Olweus, 2001 para 10)

1995 – Crick & Grotpeter introduce “relational aggression” as a type of bullying especially prevalent among girls

1996 – GENaustin (Girls Empowerment Network) is created to foster healthy self-esteem in middle-school girls in Austin, TX

1998 - First large-scale study on bullying in the US: 15,686 6th-10th graders completed surveys and 29.9% reported moderate to frequent involvement in bullying

1999 – Columbine High School massacre sparks national conversation on effects of chronic bullying

2004 – Jaana Juvonen says anti-bullying programs don’t work because they target the wrong kids; increasingly more bullies are popular, self-confident, “cool” kids.  Serendipitously, the movie Mean Girls comes out and grosses $129 million worldwide.

2005 – TX Bullying Prevention Act is passed.  It requires school districts to revise or create policies to prevent bullying, harassment and abuse at schools, at school events and in school vehicles.

2008 – One of the first cyberbullying laws is passed in California; Assembly Bill 86 2008 gives school administrators the authority to discipline students for bullying others offline or online.

2010 – President Obama says: "We've got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up.  It's not."  His Department of Education sent a letter to schools, colleges and universities throughout the country directing them to clearly and significantly address the issues of bullying and student harassment

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