Science + Technology

Bullying Among Sixth Graders a Daily Occurrence, UCLA Study Finds

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Nearly half the sixth graders in two Los Angeles-area publicschools say they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period, UCLAresearchers report in the first study to examine daily school harassment andthe first to examine the effects of witnessing other students being bullied.

The UCLA researchers studied 192 students in two ethnicallydiverse, urban schools. In one school, 47 percent of the sixth graders reportedbeing bullied on at least one of these days; at the other school, 46 percentreported being bullied at least once. The study, published March 25 in theMarch/April issue of the journal Child Development, found that the most commontypes of harassment were name-calling and physical aggression such as kickingand shoving.

"Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confronton a daily basis at school; it's not just an issue for the few unfortunateones," said Jaana Juvonen,UCLA professor of psychology, chair of developmental psychology and co-authorof the study. "We knew a small group gets picked on regularly, but we weresurprised how many kids reported at least one incident. We didn't know how muchbullying we would find over a few random days."

Bullying includes name-calling, making fun of others,spreading nasty rumors and physical aggression. Verbal harassment was more thantwice as common as physical in the study. Bullying occurs in one form oranother across ethnic groups and income brackets, Juvonensaid.

"Our data show that children are emotionally affected on thedays they get picked on, regardless of whether it's 'harmless' name-calling orjoking around," Juvonen said. "The students who werebeat up and those who were called names were equally bothered. Kids reportedfeeling humiliated, anxious or disliking school on days when they reportedincidents, which shows there is no such thing as 'harmless' name-calling or an'innocent' punch."

Students filled out written surveys, describing any bullyingthat day that they experienced or observed.

The study was done at the end of each school day, saidAdrienne Nishina, postdoctoral scholar at UCLA'sGraduate School of Education & Information Studies, a graduate of the UCLAclinical psychology program and lead author of the study. While other bullyingstudies have asked questions like, "How frequently have you been picked on?"the UCLA study asked students what happened today, she said.

Sixty-six percent of students at one school, and 42 percentat the other, witnessed someone else getting bullied, Nishinaand Juvonen report in Child Development.

"A lot of kids are not only getting picked on, but alsowitnessing classmates getting picked on," Nishinasaid. Students felt more sympathy for the ones who were harassed verbally thanphysically, according to Nishina.

Students who reported getting picked on also reportedincreased humiliation and anger, while students who saw a classmate picked onreported increased anxiety and disliked school more. When students bothexperienced and observed bullying, witnessing others being harassed shieldedthe youth from feeling humiliated or angry, Nishinaand Juvonen found.

"When kids pay attention to their environment, witnessingbullying often makes them feel bad. Even incidents that adults may not considersevere can affect kids who see them happening to their peers." Juvonen said.

"What happens if school bullying keeps occurring on along-term basis? If kids continue to get harassed over time, they become morepsychologically vulnerable. Those who get repeatedly victimized are most atrisk for developing psychological problems."

In a second study, published in the current issue of theJournal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Nishina,Juvonen and UCLA developmental psychology graduatestudent Melissa Witkow report that that middle schoolstudents who are bullied in school are likely to feel depressed, lonely andmiserable, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to further bullyingincidents.

Harassment at school interferes with the ability to learn, Nishina said.

"This pattern of being bullied is associated with increasedrates of absenteeism from school, lower grades and feeling sick," Nishina said. "The more bullying they experience, the morethey dislike school and want to avoid school."

This second paper is part of a long-term study of more than1,900 sixth graders, and their teachers, in 11 Los Angeles-area public middleschools with predominantly minority and low‑income students. Each studentprovides confidential reports and their teachers rate students' behavior. Thislong-term study is funded federally by the National Science Foundation andprivately by the William T. Grant Foundation. Sandra Graham, UCLA professor ofeducation, and Juvonen are in the fifth year of thisresearch.

"Now we have evidence that the school environment,psychological health, physical health and school achievement are allinterrelated," Juvonen said.

Many children are reluctant to discuss bullying incidents,and may visit the school nurse instead, she said.

"They want to withdraw; they don't want to go back to class.Frequent headaches and stomachaches are potential signs of bullying," said Juvonen, who has served as a consultant to the effective"Cool Tools" safe school program at UCLA's Corinne A.Seeds University Elementary School, designed by Safe School Specialist Ava de la Sota.

Implications for school policy

The good news, Juvonen and Nishina said, is thatschools can take effective actions to reduce bullying, and can teach studentsstrategies for coping with and responding to bullying.

School policiesoften distinguish among different types of harassment, punishing physicalaggression and certain forms of name-calling, such as sexual harassment orracial slurs, while tolerating other insults, Juvonensaid. She advocates policies that targetall forms of harassment as inappropriate.

"It's unwise to expect kids to understand that they can'trefer to someone's body parts, but can otherwise put them down," Juvonen said. "Many classrooms have rules about sexualharassment, but not about other forms of verbal bullying. It's a bizarre andconfusing message to send to kids that certain insults are okay, and others arenot.

"Many schools have rules and interventions that targetphysical forms of aggression, but when there's name-calling, nothing happens.We find no support for the idea that verbal harassment is less hurtful incausing emotional distress than physical aggression," Nishinasaid.

Many middle school and high school teachers may notappreciate how important it is to intervene when they see a bullying incidentin the hallway or on the school playground, she said.

"It affects kids when teachers walk past a bullying incidentin the hallway," Juvonen said. Many teachers don'tthink they should intervene, but the message they're sending to the victim bywalking by is, 'I don't care.'"

What parents can do

Children who are embarrassed or humiliated about beingbullied in school are unlikely to discuss it with their parents or teacher, Juvonen and Nishina said.Instead, they are more likely to suffer in silence, withdraw and dislikeschool.

"It becomes a vicious cycle where it's hard to get out," Juvonen said.

Juvonen advises parents to talkwith their children about bullying before it ever happens, and to pay attentionto changes in their children's behavior.

Students who get bullied often have headaches, colds andother physical illnesses, as well as psychological problems.

"If your child doesn't want to go to school and iscomplaining about headaches, there may be other visits needed than to thedoctor's office," Nishina said. "Take their concernsseriously. Don't minimize your child's concerns."

In December 2003, Juvonen, Grahamand Mark Schuster, associate professor of pediatrics in UCLA's David GeffenSchool of Medicine, reported that bullies are often popular and viewed byclassmates as the "coolest" in their classes; they don't show signs ofdepression or social anxiety, and do not suffer from low self-esteem.

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