Bullying is widespread in American schools, with more than 16 percent of U.S. school children saying they had been bullied by other students during the current term, according to a survey funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
The study appears in the April 25, 2001, Journal of the American Medical Association. Overall, 10 percent of children said they had been bullied by other students, but had not bullied others. Another 6 percent said that they had both been bullied themselves and had bullied other children. Another 13 percent of students said they had bullied other students, but had not been bullied themselves.
"Being bullied is not just an unpleasant rite of passage through childhood," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. "It's a public health problem that merits attention. People who were bullied as children are more likely to suffer from depression and low self esteem, well into adulthood, and the bullies themselves are more likely to engage in criminal behavior later in life."
The NICHD researchers surveyed 15,686 students in grades six-through-10, in public, parochial, and other private schools throughout the U.S. The nationally representative survey was part of the U.S. contribution to the World Health Organization's Health Behavior in School Children survey, an international effort in which many countries surveyed school-age children on a broad spectrum of health-related behaviors.
For this study, researchers defined bullying as a type of behavior intended to harm or disturb the victim, explained the study's first author, Tonja R. Nansel, Ph.D. This behavior occurs repeatedly over time and involves an imbalance of power, with the more powerful person or group attacking the less powerful one, Dr. Nansel added. Bullying may be physical, involving hitting or otherwise attacking the other person; verbal, involving name-calling or threats; or psychological, involving spreading rumors or excluding a person.
The children were asked to complete a questionnaire during a class period that asked how often they either bullied other students, or were the target of bullying behavior. A total of 10.6 percent of the children replied that they had "sometimes" bullied other children, a response category defined as "moderate" bullying. An additional 8.8 percent said they had bullied others once a week or more, defined as "frequent "bullying. Similarly, 8.5 percent said they had been targets of moderate bullying, and 8.4 percent said they were bullied frequently.
Out of all the students, 13 percent said they had engaged in moderate or frequent bullying of others, while10.6 percent said they had been bullied either moderately or frequently. Some students-6.3 percent-had both bullied others and been bullied themselves. In all, 29 percent of the students who responded to the survey had been involved in some aspect of bullying, either as a bully, as the target of bullying, or both.
Bullying occurred most frequently in sixth through eighth grade, with little variation between urban, suburban, town, and rural areas; suburban youth were 2-3 percent less likely to bully others. Males were both more likely to bully others and more likely to be victims of bullying than were females. In addition, males were more likely to say they had been bullied physically (being hit, slapped, or pushed), while females more frequently said they were bullied verbally and psychologically (through sexual comments or rumors).
Regarding verbal bullying, bullies were less likely to make derogatory statements about other students' religion or race. "There seem to be stronger social norms against making these kinds of statements than against belittling someone about their appearance or behavior," Dr. Nansel said.
Both bullies and those on the receiving end of bullying were more likely to have difficulty adjusting to their environment both socially and psychologically. Students who were bullied reported having greater difficulty making friends and poorer relationships with their classmates. They were also much more likely than other students to report feelings of loneliness.
"It's likely that kids who are socially isolated and have trouble making friends are more likely to be targets of bullying," Dr. Nansel said. "In turn, other kids may avoid children who are bullied, for fear of being bullied themselves."
The study authors also reported that bullies were more likely to be involved in other problem behaviors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and to do more poorly academically. However, youth who were both bullies and recipients of bullying tended to fare the most poorly of all, experiencing social isolation, as well as doing poorly in school and engaging in problem behaviors, like smoking and drinking.
"Unfortunately, we don't know much about this group," Dr. Nansel said. "We need to learn more about them to provide them with the help they need." She added that it is not known whether these children are first bullied by others and then imitate the bullying behavior they experienced, or if they are bullies who were later retaliated against.
The study's authors concluded that the prevalence of bullying in U.S. schools suggests a need for more research to understand, and devise ways to intervene against, bullying. The authors noted that researchers in Norway and England have shown that school intervention programs can be successful. These programs focused on increasing awareness of bullying, increasing teacher and parent supervision, establishing clear rules prohibiting bullying, and providing support and protection for those bullied.
The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health, the biomedical research arm of the federal government. The Institute sponsors research on development before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web site, http://www.nichd.nih.gov, or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail NICHDInformationResourceCenter@mail.nih.gov.