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Bullies Prey on the Weak, but Both Suffer

School Bullies May Be Psychologically Stronger Than the Bullied

WebMD Health News

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 classmates.

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 the researchers.

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 bullying "uncool."

"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.

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