Bullies Prey on the Weak, but Both Suffer
School Bullies May Be Psychologically Stronger Than the Bullied
Dec. 8, 2003 -- Schoolyard bullies may be mentally stronger
than their prey, but both groups suffer from serious psychological problems
that may put them at risk.
A new study shows nearly a quarter of urban sixth graders were
involved in bullying either as perpetrators, victims, or both, and these
students had more school problems and difficulties getting along with their
For example, even though bullies are perceived as
"cool" among their classmates, they rarely enjoy their company.
"Specifically, bullies are psychologically stronger than
classmates not involved in bullying, and they enjoy high social status among
their classmates (although the classmates tend to avoid their company),"
write researcher Jaana Juvonen, PhD, of the University of California, Los
Angeles, and colleagues. "Victims, on the other hand, suffer not only
emotional distress but also social marginalization (ie, classmates avoid them,
and they have low social status)."
Researchers say the findings highlight the need to change
attitudes about bullying and make it "uncool."
The Bullies vs. the Bullied
The study, which appears in the December issue of
Pediatrics, involved 1,985 mostly black and Latino students who attended
11 middle schools in the Los Angeles area and included information on peer
reports of bullying as well as self-reports on bullying and victimization and
teacher-reported adjustment problems.
Researchers say it's the largest study on bullying and
victimization in a large group of ethnically diverse urban students.
The study showed that 22% of the students were involved in
bullying with 7% classified as bullies, 9% as victims, and 6% as both.
Researchers found that among those involved in bullying, the
bullies had the fewest adjustment problems. But those who both bully and are
bullied may suffer the most.
"They are by far the most socially ostracized by their
peers, most likely to display conduct problems, least engaged in school, and
they also report elevated high levels of depression and loneliness," write
Researchers say that prior studies had unexpectedly found that
bullies and their victims suffered from fairly similar psychological problems,
including depression, but they relied on self-reports of bullying. But because
this study also included other students' and teachers' reports of bullying
behavior, a clearer picture emerged.
Researchers say that although the two groups share some common
characteristics, such as being unengaged in school activities, they are still
very distinct and different intervention strategies are needed.
Bullies Are Just the Beginning
In an editorial that accompanies the study, Howard Spivak, MD,
of Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston, says bullies display higher
rates of conduct disorders but also experience high levels of social standing,
and they have higher rates of emotional distress and social isolation. These
short-term factors should be put into the context of the long-term consequences
of bullying behavior.
Research has shown that students who bully are more likely to
become involved in criminal behavior, and those who are bullied are at risk for
depression and low self-esteem as adults.
In addition, a significant number of the high-profile school
shootings over the past decade have involved individuals with histories of
bullying or being bullied.
Spivak says the most important issue in combating bullying is
to address the larger school environment that supports or condones bullying as
reflected by the high social status accorded bullies. In other words, make
"We need to identify ways to shift the social norms and
values in schools and communities to ones that promote healthy peer
interactions and reject bullying, intimidation, and other forms of physical and
verbal coercion as acceptable," writes Spivak.