Bullying is a distinctive pattern of repeatedly and deliberately harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully. The deliberate targeting of those of lesser power is what distinguishes bullying from garden-variety aggression.
Bullying can involve verbal attacks (name-calling and making fun of others) as well as physical ones, threats of harm, other forms of intimidation, and deliberate exclusion from activities. Studies indicate that bullying peaks around ages 11 to 13 and decreases as children grow older. Overt physical aggression such as kicking, hitting, and shoving is most common among younger children; relational aggression—damaging or manipulating the relationships of others, such as spreading rumors, and social exclusion—is more common as children mature.
Most bullying occurs in and around school and on playgrounds, although the internet lends itself to particularly distressing forms of bullying. Approximately 20 percent of students report being bullied at school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Boys and girls are equally likely to be bullied.
People bully because it can be an effective way of getting what they want, at least in the short term, and because they lack the social skills to do so without harming others. Bullying also is a way of establishing social dominance, although over time, as children’s behavioral repertoires generally broaden, it becomes an increasingly dysfunctional way.
Bullies are made, not born, and it happens at an early age; if the normal aggression of 2-year-olds is not handled with consistency, children fail to acquire internal restraints against such behavior. Bullying remains a very durable behavioral style, largely because bullies get what they want—at least at first.
Research finds that bullies have a distinct psychological makeup. They lack prosocial behavior, are untroubled by anxiety, and do not understand others' feelings. They exhibit a distinctive cognitive feature, a kind of paranoia: They misread the intentions of others, often imputing hostility in neutral situations. Others may not like them, but they typically see themselves quite positively. Those who chronically bully tend to have strained relationships with parents and peers.
Girls are just as likely as boys to be bullies, but they are far less likely to engage in overt aggression. Instead, they tend to hurt others by damaging or manipulating their relationships. They may spread false rumors about someone, tell others to stop liking someone in order to get even with him or her, engage in social exclusion, threaten to withdraw friendship to get their way, or give someone the silent treatment.
Bullies couldn't exist without victims, and they don’t pick on just anyone. Research shows that those singled out for bullying lack assertiveness even in nonthreatening situations and radiate fear long before they ever encounter a bully. These are children who don’t stand up for themselves.
Up to about age 7, bullies pick on almost anyone. After that, they single out kids to prey on. engaging in a "shopping process" to determine which other children would make suitably submissive victims. Bullies like victims who become visibly upset when they are picked on and who do not have friends or allies. Researchers find that those chosen as victims evince insecurity and apprehension.
Studies of children show that victims easily acquiesce to bullies’ demands, handing over bikes, toys, and other playthings. They cry and assume a defensive posture; their highly visible displays of pain and suffering are rewarding to bullies and serve as an important signal of the bully’s dominance. Children who become victims offer no deterrent to aggression, which can make them disliked even by their non-bullying peers.
Bullying causes a great deal of misery to others, and its effects on victims can last for decades, perhaps even a lifetime. The pain of bullying may be felt most acutely around adolescence, a developmental stage where sensitivity to rejection heightens greatly. Victimization is a common source of school avoidance, leads to feelings of shame and self-worthlessness, and may lead to chronic depression and anxiety.
Bullying carries the implicit message that aggression and violence are acceptable solutions to problems when they are not. Cooperation and the peaceful resolution of differences support an increasingly interconnected world. Bullying not only harms its victims but it harms the perpetrators themselves. Most bullies have a downwardly spiraling course through life, as their aggressive behavior interferes with learning, holding a job, and establishing and maintaining intimate relationships.
Some bullies do leave the behavior behind. But many do not; aggression is a very stable social interaction style. Many who were bullies as children turn into antisocial adults, who are far more likely than nonaggressive kids to commit crimes, batter their wives, abuse their children—and produce another generation of bullies.
Bullies frequently carry out their aggression before an audience of peers, and the presence of an audience can boost a bully’s sense of power. But bystanders seldom stop the aggression; they may in fact enjoy the spectacle. Even if they don’t approve of the situation, they may dislike the victim or fear retaliation by the bully.
Bullying causes a great deal of emotional harm to individuals, and being a victim of bullying is a major reason why many young people drop out of school. Bullying also harms society at large by creating a source of aggression and violence; those who bully are at increased risk of engaging in criminal behavior as adults.
As the social life of young people has moved onto the internet, so has bullying, with electronic bullying becoming a significant new problem in the past decade. Whereas bullying was once largely confined to school, the ubiquity of handheld devices affords bullies constant access to their prey. Cyber harassment can be especially disturbing because it can often be carried out anonymously; victims may have no idea who the perpetrators are.
The anonymity of cyberbullying removes many restraints on meanness and amplifies the ferocity of aggression. It’s easier to inflict pain and suffering on others when you don’t have to look them in the eye. Constantly evolving digital technologies enable new ways of spreading false information about targets.
Both direct harassment and relational aggression thrive on the internet. Cyberbullies can spread false rumors with viral speed on social media. They can falsely impersonate someone and conduct all manner of mischief in someone else’s name. Sexual harassment and cyberstalking particularly target women. And long after the active bullying has stopped, malicious information can linger on the internet and continue to harm.
Cyberbullying is particularly unsettling and extremely difficult to combat because victims often do not know who is behind it. Further there is no opportunity for bystanders to witness incidents and to potentially intervene. But perhaps most distressing of all, it can be inescapable and relentless, affording victims no safe haven.
The best defense against bullying is being socially skilled—teaching all children social skills and allowing them to develop confidence in their own abilities. As social engineers for young children, parents are especially important in bully-proofing their children: They can regularly inquire about social challenges their children face and role-play possible solutions. The second-best defense against bullying is to walk away and not fight back.
Studies show that the most effective way of stopping a bully is to activate bystanders; after all, bystanders reward bullies with attention. Since most children are witnesses to bullying at some point, teaching all children that they have an important role to play in stopping bullying is essential. A bully may make an effort to retaliate against one person who speaks up but is not likely to target several.
During the past decade or so, schools have widely adopted anti-bullying programs. The report card on their effectiveness, however, is mixed. Experts explain that schools are where most bullying takes place but they are not where attitudes about power and aggression, skills of emotion regulation, or social skills—the key influences on bullying—are learned.
Children are deeply ashamed of being bullied and may not let anyone know when they are being victimized. Therefore parents have an obligation to know something about their children’s general competence with peers and how peers treat them—by asking teachers during school conferences and by gently asking their children about their social life. Teaching children to fight back is not effective; helping them gain social skills is.