Nearly half the sixth graders in two Los Angeles-area public schools say they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period, UCLA researchers report in the first study to examine daily school harassment and the first to examine the effects of witnessing other students being bullied.
The UCLA researchers studied 192 students in two ethnically diverse, urban schools. In one school, 47 percent of the sixth graders reported being bullied on at least one of these days; at the other school, 46 percent reported being bullied at least once. The study, published March 25 in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development, found that the most common types of harassment were name-calling and physical aggression such as kicking and shoving.
“Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront on a daily basis at school; it’s not just an issue for the few unfortunate ones,” said Jaana Juvonen, UCLA professor of psychology, chair of developmental psychology and co-author of the study. “We knew a small group gets picked on regularly, but we were surprised how many kids reported at least one incident. We didn’t know how much bullying 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 than twice as common as physical in the study. Bullying occurs in one form or another across ethnic groups and income brackets, Juvonen said.
“Our data show that children are emotionally affected on the days they get picked on, regardless of whether it’s ‘harmless’ name-calling or joking around,” Juvonen said. “The students who were beat up and those who were called names were equally bothered. Kids reported feeling humiliated, anxious or disliking school on days when they reported incidents, which shows there is no such thing as ‘harmless’ name-calling or an ‘innocent’ punch.”
Students filled out written surveys, describing any bullying that day that they experienced or observed.
The study was done at the end of each school day, said Adrienne Nishina, postdoctoral scholar at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, a graduate of the UCLA clinical psychology program and lead author of the study. While other bullying studies 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 percent at the other, witnessed someone else getting bullied, Nishina and Juvonen report in Child Development.
“A lot of kids are not only getting picked on, but also witnessing classmates getting picked on,” Nishina said. Students felt more sympathy for the ones who were harassed verbally than physically, according to Nishina.
Students who reported getting picked on also reported increased humiliation and anger, while students who saw a classmate picked on reported increased anxiety and disliked school more. When students both experienced and observed bullying, witnessing others being harassed shielded the youth from feeling humiliated or angry, Nishina and Juvonen found.
“When kids pay attention to their environment, witnessing bullying often makes them feel bad. Even incidents that adults may not consider severe can affect kids who see them happening to their peers.” Juvonen said.
“What happens if school bullying keeps occurring on a long-term basis? If kids continue to get harassed over time, they become more psychologically vulnerable. Those who get repeatedly victimized are most at risk for developing psychological problems.”
In a second study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Nishina, Juvonen and UCLA developmental psychology graduate student Melissa Witkow report that that middle school students who are bullied in school are likely to feel depressed, lonely and miserable, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to further bullying incidents.
Harassment at school interferes with the ability to learn, Nishina said.
“This pattern of being bullied is associated with increased rates of absenteeism from school, lower grades and feeling sick,” Nishina said. “The more bullying they experience, the more they dislike school and want to avoid school.”
This second paper is part of a long-term study of more than 1,900 sixth graders, and their teachers, in 11 Los Angeles-area public middle schools with predominantly minority and low‑income students. Each student provides confidential reports and their teachers rate students’ behavior. This long-term study is funded federally by the National Science Foundation and privately by the William T. Grant Foundation. Sandra Graham, UCLA professor of education, and Juvonen are in the fifth year of this research.
“Now we have evidence that the school environment, psychological health, physical health and school achievement are all interrelated,” 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 that schools can take effective actions to reduce bullying, and can teach students strategies for coping with and responding to bullying.
School policies often distinguish among different types of harassment, punishing physical aggression and certain forms of name-calling, such as sexual harassment or racial slurs, while tolerating other insults, Juvonen said. She advocates policies that target all forms of harassment as inappropriate.
“It’s unwise to expect kids to understand that they can’t refer to someone’s body parts, but can otherwise put them down,” Juvonen said. “Many classrooms have rules about sexual harassment, but not about other forms of verbal bullying. It’s a bizarre and confusing message to send to kids that certain insults are okay, and others are not.
“Many schools have rules and interventions that target physical forms of aggression, but when there’s name-calling, nothing happens. We find no support for the idea that verbal harassment is less hurtful in causing emotional distress than physical aggression,” Nishina said.
Many middle school and high school teachers may not appreciate how important it is to intervene when they see a bullying incident in the hallway or on the school playground, she said.
“It affects kids when teachers walk past a bullying incident in the hallway,” Juvonen said. Many teachers don’t think they should intervene, but the message they’re sending to the victim by walking by is, ‘I don’t care.’”
What parents can do
Children who are embarrassed or humiliated about being bullied 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 dislike school.
“It becomes a vicious cycle where it’s hard to get out,” Juvonen said.
Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children about bullying before it ever happens, and to pay attention to changes in their children’s behavior.
Students who get bullied often have headaches, colds and other physical illnesses, as well as psychological problems.
“If your child doesn’t want to go to school and is complaining about headaches, there may be other visits needed than to the doctor’s office,” Nishina said. “Take their concerns seriously. Don’t minimize your child’s concerns.”
In December 2003, Juvonen, Graham and Mark Schuster, associate professor of pediatrics in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, reported that bullies are often popular and viewed by classmates as the “coolest” in their classes; they don’t show signs of depression or social anxiety, and do not suffer from low self-esteem.