For both bullies and their victims, victimization plays a role

May 11, 2012

Bullying’s causes are rarely simple. Rather, bullying—for bullies, victims, and those who are both bullies and victims—is often associated with exposures to other forms of victimization, like child abuse or sexual victimization.

Often, in fact, those doing the bullying are victims themselves, said Melissa Holt, assistant professor in the Boston University School of Education, who spoke about bullying at Harvard School of Public Health May 3, 2012.

Recent statistics point to the high prevalence of bullying, Holt said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 20% of high school students reported being bullied on school property in 2009. In a 2001 study of 6th through 10th graders across the country, one in three youths said they were involved in some form of bullying.

Recent tragedies have increased public awareness of bullying. High-profile teen suicides attributed to bullying include those of Hadley, Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince and Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. A new documentary called Bully has also generated buzz about the topic.

Understanding bully-victims

Holt said studies have shown that bullies tend to be antisocial, do poorly in school, use alcohol and tobacco, and go on to criminal activity in adulthood. Victims of bullies are often depressed, anxious, have low self-esteem, think about suicide, and deal with high levels of distress when they become adults. Bully-victims—teens who are victimized themselves, then go on to victimize others—are often depressed, disengaged from school, and have problems with self-control.

Statistics suggest that bullies were often mistreated or bullied themselves, or witnessed others being victimized, prior to engaging in bullying. In a 2007 study of fifth graders conducted by Holt and colleagues David Finkelhor and Glenda Kaufman Kantor, bully-victims reported more victimization experiences than other groups—either victims or bullies alone. Eight-four percent of bully-victims reported being victims of a crime; 44% reported being maltreated as a child; 32% said they’d been sexually victimized; and 60% reported having witnessed someone else being victimized. Interestingly, victims and bully-victims reported similar amounts of psychological distress.

“Perhaps for the bully-victim in particular, some of what we’re seeing in terms of their psychological functioning might be attributable to other sorts of victimization they’re experiencing,” Holt said. “We need to consider this prior range of exposures that kids might have if we want to understand how bullying is affecting them.”

Cyberbullying adds another level of distress to the overall problem of bullying, Holt said. A 2005 Dane County, Wisconsin assessment by Dorothy Espalage and Brian Koenig of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found links between cyberbullying and higher-than-average rates of physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and dating violence.

Bullying is also associated with higher-than-typical amounts of sexual risk-taking and casual sex, Holt said.

Base strategies on evidence

With disturbing bullying incidents increasingly in the news, schools and communities are often under intense pressure to institute prevention programs. But the rush to do so may not necessarily produce the best strategies, Holt said. Instead, she said it’s important to take the time to analyze why and how the bullying occurred, take fully into account the experiences associated both with perpetration and victimization, and test prevention strategies.

Basing anti-bullying strategies on solid evidence is crucial, she said—both to better identify those at greatest risk and to develop effective methods of curbing bullying.

Karen Feldscher