More than one in five 12-year-olds are repeatedly either bullies, victims or both, and bullies are often popular and viewed by classmates as the “coolest” in their classes, according to new UCLA research from the most comprehensive study on young adolescent bullying in an ethnically diverse, large urban setting.
Bullies, 7 percent of the students, are psychologically strong.
“Bullies are popular and respected: they are considered the ‘cool’ kids,” said Jaana Juvonen, UCLA professor of psychology, and lead author of ‘Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak and the Troubled,” published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics. “They don‘t show signs of depression or social anxiety and they don’t feel lonely.
“We hope that these findings help us dispel the myth that bullies suffer from low self‑esteem,” Juvonen said. “Our data indicate that bullies do not need ego boosters. Unfortunately, this myth is still guiding many programs conducted in schools. Instead, we should be concerned about the popularity of bullies and how to change the peer culture that encourages bullying.”
Depression, social anxiety and loneliness are common among victims of bullies, who are 9 percent of the students in the UCLA study.
“Young teens who are victims of bullying are often emotionally distressed and socially marginalized,” said Juvonen, who also works as a consultant to Los Angeles elementary schools on developing anti-bullying programs. “Many of the victims are disengaged in school.
“Victims are reluctant to talk about their plight,” she said. “They suffer is silence and often blame themselves. This is one of our challenges for intervention: We need to provide students with educational settings in which they feel comfortable talking about their plight. But we also need to give kids tools to effectively deal with bullying. One method of doing so involves engaging students to talk about strategies that might help them stop bullying and tactics that make them feel better after being bullied. Teachers can facilitate the generalization of these skills if they help students mediate incidents between students.”
One of the schools that Juvonen has worked with, UCLA’s Corinne Seeds University Elementary School, regards bullying incidents as “teachable moments” that allow students to develop not only behavioral skills, but also cognitive coping strategies that alleviate the pain associated with being bullied.
Students who witness bullying often encourage bullies by watching someone getting pushed around or called names or helping a classmate spread rumors about another student, Juvonen said. Bystanders rarely intervene with bullying. Juvonen regards this as one of the biggest challenges for effective anti-bullying intervention.
“Bully-victims,” the six percent of students who both bully and get bullied, are the most disturbed group of all, Juvonen and her colleagues found. They are by far the most unpopular students, least engaged in school, most disruptive in class and they also reported somewhat elevated levels of depression and loneliness, Juvonen said. Teachers ranked these “bully-victims” as having by far the most conduct problems.
The UCLA study shows that the bully-victim group has the worst of both worlds of bullies and victims, and a unique risk profile. “Their high levels of disruptive behavior, disengagement from school and social problems with their peers suggest they are a particularly high-risk group,” Juvonen said.
The study shows that compared with other students, all three groups show less interest in school and have difficulties getting along with classmates.
Sandra Graham, UCLA professor of education, and Juvonen are in the fourth year 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 on which classmates bully others and which are victims of bullying. They also report about their own feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. In addition, teachers rate students’ behavior. The research is funded federally by the National Science Foundation and privately by the William T. Grant Foundation.
Bullying includes physical aggression, verbal harassment and public humiliation. Bullying occurs across ethnic groups and income brackets, and the problems associated with bullying are similar across these groups, Juvonen said.
Boys are twice as likely to be bullies as girls, almost twice as likely to be victims of bullies, and more than three times as likely to be in both categories, report Juvonen, Graham and Mark Schuster, associate professor of pediatrics in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and a senior natural scientist and director of the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion.
“Both boys and girls can be mean and use a variety of tactics to intimidate or humiliate one another,” Juvonen said.
In the study, bullying is defined as “starting fights and pushing other kids around,” “putting down and making fun of others,” and “spreading nasty rumors about others.”
Bullying is a significant problem in schools and is associated with a range of problems, including poor mental health and violent behavior, Juvonen said. Other studies have shown that bullies are significantly more likely to engage in antisocial behavior later in life, particularly assaults and rapes, Juvonen said.
Additional research from Graham and Juvonen’s project, not yet published, shows that victims of bullying experience headaches, stomachaches and colds more often than students not involved in bullying, Juvonen said.
Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children about bullying before it ever happens.
“If you’ve never discussed this issue with your child, it might be difficult for your child to tell you about it,” she said. “The older children get, the harder it is for them to bring it up. Start by talking with your child about other kids in the school. ‘Do other kids in your school get picked on? Tell me what happens. How do you think these kids feel? What do you think should happen? Does anybody tell the teacher? Has it ever happened to you? What did you do then? Would you do the same thing if it happened again?’
“Find out from your child as much as you can and how your child is dealing with it. Role-playing different strategies, especially with young children, is very helpful. ‘What would you do or say? How would you say it?’ If your child is being bullied or is concerned about getting bullied, contact the school and talk with the teacher. You don’t want to contact the parents of the bully.”
As the study continues, Graham and her collaborators hope to learn whether the students who were bullies and victims in sixth grade remain so in high school, whether changes can be predicted and why changes occur.
“The transitions that come with moving into high school and moving into full adolescence make it particularly important to track these children’s development across time,” said National Science Foundation Program Officer Peg Barratt. “Part of what makes this work unique is the broader focus not only on bullies and victims, but on the impact of witnessing bullying.”
Juvonen speaks to teachers, administrators and parents at Los Angeles elementary schools, including UCLA’s Corinne Seeds University Elementary School, where she worked on developing the school’s anti-bullying program.