More than one in five 12-year-olds are repeatedly eitherbullies, victims or both, and bullies are often popular and viewed byclassmates as the "coolest" in their classes, according to new UCLA researchfrom the most comprehensive study on young adolescent bullying in an ethnicallydiverse, large urban setting.
Bullies, seven percent of the students, are psychologicallystrong.
"Bullies are popular and respected: they are considered the'cool' kids," said Jaana Juvonen, UCLA professor of psychology, and lead authorof "Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak and the Troubled,"published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics. "They don't showsigns of depression or social anxiety and they don't feel lonely.
"We hope that these findings help us dispel the myth thatbullies suffer from low self‑esteem," Juvonen said. "Our data indicatethat bullies do not need ego boosters. Unfortunately, this myth is stillguiding many programs conducted in schools. Instead, we should be concerned aboutthe popularity of bullies and how to change the peer culture that encouragesbullying."
Depression, social anxiety and loneliness are common amongvictims of bullies, who are nine percent of the students in the UCLA study.
"Young teens who are victims of bullying are oftenemotionally distressed and socially marginalized," said Juvonen, who also worksas a consultant to Los Angeles elementary schools on developing anti-bullyingprograms. "Many of the victims are disengaged in school.
"Victims are reluctant to talk about their plight," shesaid. They suffer is silence and often blame themselves. This is one of ourchallenges for intervention: We need to provide students with educationalsettings in which they feel comfortable talking about their plight. But we alsoneed to give kids tools to effectively deal with bullying. One method of doingso involves engaging students to talk about strategies that might help themstop bullying and tactics that make them feel better after being bullied.Teachers can facilitate the generalization of these skills if they helpstudents mediate incidents between students."
One of the schools that Juvonen has worked with, UCLA'sCorinne 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 withbeing bullied.
Students who witness bullying often encourage bullies bywatching someone getting pushed around or called names or helping a classmatespread rumors about another student, Juvonen said. Bystanders rarely intervenewith bullying. Juvonen regards this as one of the biggest challenges foreffective anti-bullying intervention.
"Bully-victims," the six percent of students who both bullyand get bullied, are the most disturbed group of all, Juvonen and hercolleagues found. They are by far the most unpopular students, least engaged inschool, most disruptive in class and they also reported somewhat elevated levelsof 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 theworst of both worlds of bullies and victims, and a unique risk profile. "Theirhigh levels of disruptive behavior, disengagement from school and socialproblems with their peers suggest they are a particularly high-risk group,"Juvonen said.
The study shows that compared with other students, all threegroups show less interest in school and have difficulties getting along withclassmates.
Sandra Graham, UCLA professor of education, and Juvonen arein the fourth year of a long-term study of more than 1,900 sixth graders, andtheir teachers, in 11 Los Angeles-area public middle schools with predominantlyminority and low-income students. Each student provides confidential reports onwhich classmates bully others and which are victims of bullying. They alsoreport about their own feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Inaddition, teachers rate students' behavior. The research is funded federally bythe National Science Foundation and privately by the William T. GrantFoundation.
Bullying includes physical aggression, verbal harassment andpublic 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, almosttwice as likely to be victims of bullies, and more than three times as likelyto be in both categories, report Juvonen, Graham and Mark Schuster, associateprofessor of pediatrics in UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine and a senior natural scientist and director of the UCLA/RAND Center forAdolescent Health Promotion.
"Both boys and girls can be mean and use a variety oftactics to intimidate or humiliate one another," Juvonen said.
In the study, bullying is defined as "starting fights andpushing other kids around," "putting down and making fun of others," and "spreadingnasty rumors about others."
Bullying is a significant problem in schools and isassociated with a range of problems, including poor mental health and violentbehavior, Juvonen said. Other studies have shown that bullies are significantlymore likely to engage in antisocial behavior later in life, particularlyassaults and rapes, Juvonen said.
Additional research from Graham and Juvonen's project, notyet published, shows that victims of bullying experience headaches, stomachaches and colds more often than students not involved in bullying, Juvonensaid.
Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children aboutbullying before it ever happens.
"If you've never discussed this issue with your child, itmight be difficult for your child to tell you about it," she said. "The olderchildren get, the harder it is for them to bring it up. Start by talking withyour child about other kids in the school. 'Do other kids in your school getpicked on? Tell me what happens. How do you think these kids feel? What do youthink should happen? Does anybody tell the teacher? Has it ever happened toyou? 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 yourchild is dealing with it. Role-playing different strategies, especially withyoung children, is very helpful. 'What would you do or say? How would you sayit?' 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 theparents of the bully."
As the study continues, Graham and her collaborators hope tolearn whether the students who were bullies and victims in sixth grade remainso in high school, whether changes can be predicted and why changes occur.
"Thetransitions that come with moving into high school and moving into fulladolescence make it particularly important to track these children'sdevelopment across time," said National Science Foundation Program Officer PegBarratt. "Part of what makes this work unique is the broader focus not only onbullies and victims, but on the impact of witnessing bullying."
Juvonen speaks to teachers, administrators and parents atLos Angeles elementary schools, including UCLA's Corinne Seeds UniversityElementary School, where she worked on developing the school's anti-bullyingprogram.