School Climate & Safety

Two Studies Highlight Links Between Violence, Bullying by Students

By Debra Viadero — May 14, 2003 6 min read
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Two large studies appear to strengthen the case that bullying and other forms of unkindness that children and teenagers inflict on one another can lead to incidences of violence later on.

An abstract of Ms. Nansel’s article, “Relationships Between Bullying and Violence Among U.S. Youth,” is available from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The full article is available for purchase.

Information on obtaining articles from Child Development is available on the Web from the Society for Research in Child Development.

Researchers said their reports, both of which appeared this spring in peer-reviewed journals, add to a small number of studies pointing in the same direction. They suggest that educators— and other adults who work with young people—should take bullying as more serious than a relatively harmless rite of passage.

“It’s very important for the safety of youth that bullying be addressed as an implied part of the mission of school—where it’s something that’s not tolerated, not cool, and not acceptable behavior,” said Tonja R. Nansel, an investigator with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Ms. Nansel is the lead researcher on what is considered to be the first nationally representative study to look at bullying in early adolescence. Published last month in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the study is based on a survey of 15,683 U.S. students in grades 6-10. Students answered the questions on bullying and violence in 1998, as part of the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-Aged Children study.

Ms. Nansel and her colleagues took a first pass at analyzing the survey data in 2001 and found that bullying is fairly common among young people, with nearly a third of the students reporting that they had been bullies, victims, or both in the 30 days before they were surveyed. (“Survey of Students Documents the Extent of Bullying,” May 2, 2003.)

In their new study, however, the researchers look below the surface to see how bullying affects children’s overall social and emotional development—and whether it might indeed lead to violent behaviors.

Armed for Action

Research on the link between violence and bullying has been growing since the mid-1990s, following a string of high- profile shootings in middle and high schools across the nation. A study completed two years ago by the U.S. Secret Service, for example, suggests that bullying was a factor in two-thirds of those episodes. (“Tormentors,” Jan. 15, 2003.)

What Ms. Nansel and her colleagues found was that students involved in bullying—regardless of whether they were the targets or the tormentors—also were more likely to say they had carried a weapon, taken part in four or more fights a year, or been injured in a fight. The findings were as true for girls, the authors added, as they were for boys.

Students who said they had been bullied in school on a weekly basis were 1.5 times more likely than those who were never involved in bullying to have carried a weapon and 1.6 times more likely to bring one to school. This group was also 1.7 times more likely to have been involved in four or more fights a year and 1.3 times as likely to have gotten hurt as a result.

Predictably, the odds were highest for the bullies themselves. Self- reported bullies were 2.6 times more likely than teenagers who never bullied to resort to carrying weapons and 3.2 times more likely to do it in school. Bullies were also 3.1 times and 2.2 times more likely, respectively, to fight often or to have been injured in a fight.

What’s more, the researchers said, the correlation seemed to increase as students’ bullying experiences grew in frequency. Students who had been bullied or had bullied others only once or twice, for instance, were less likely to tote weapons or fight than students who experienced or perpetrated bullying weekly.

Though bullying occurs less often outside of school, the study suggests that such incidences might merit added concern. Among students who had been bullied in school on a weekly basis, for example, 36.4 percent reported having carried weapons. That percentage rose to 71.1 percent, however, when the weekly bullying sessions took place away from school.

“If it’s happening away from school where you don’t have as much supervision, I would suggest it’s a much riskier behavior,” Ms. Nansel said. “Parents and community leaders all need to be concerned about the safety of youth and about youth being raised in a way that they are expected to treat others with respect.”

The other study, which was the subject of an article last month in the journal Child Development, took a longer view of violence and its possible roots in early childhood. For that study, researchers tracked a total of 844 elementary school children in three states over five years beginning in the late 1980s.

Digging for Roots

Their aim was to uncover some clues as to what comes first— behaving aggressively or getting rejected by one’s peers. The answer they got was slightly more complex than the question: In general, they found, children who were actively rejected and excluded by their classmates at the beginning of elementary school also tended to be rated as more aggressive by their teachers a few years later.

At the same time, however, that link was strongest for the small group of children who started out their school careers fighting and lashing out at classmates.

“We think social rejection by a peer group is a very powerful stressor in children’s lives—more so than we thought before,” said Kenneth A. Dodge, the study’s lead author. “How children respond to that depends partly on their temperament.”

“We’re seeing some vicious cycles that can lead to further rejection and we’re suggesting this may be a path to real deviance in adolescence,” added Mr. Dodge, who is also a public- policy professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the director of the university’s center for child and family policy.

As part of the study, the researchers also tried to identify some of the psychological mechanisms that seemed to perpetuate the cycles they described. They showed older children videotaped scenarios in which a child was rebuffed by other children, but the actions could be interpreted in different ways. Then they asked the children to imagine that they were the child who had been turned away and to decide whether the other children in the video had been “mean.”

The researchers found that the students who had experienced rejection tended to view the vignettes more negatively and to propose more counterproductive solutions to solving social problems, such as hitting or becoming more belligerent.

“If a child is coming to school every day and hearing kids say mean things behind his back, it follows that the child might be hyperattentive to those kinds of cues,” said Mr. Dodge. “Certainly, we can create environments in schools that do not support rejecting peers.”

The growth in studies probing for links between violence and bullying and harassment, however, worries some researchers.

“They’re pathologizing the problem,” said Nan D. Stein, a senior research scientist at Wellesley College’s center for research on women in Wellesley, Mass. “A lot of what we call bullying is reframing what we used to call harassment.”

While federal laws and laws in many states give individuals who suffer from harassment some legal recourse, she said, many of the newer anti-bullying laws that state legislatures have passed offer weaker protections for victims—and fewer liability concerns for school administrators.

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