Bully Pulpit

Bullying is an everyday phenomenon in schools, yet it is widely misunderstood. Here are some things you probably don't know about it.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published May 6, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

  1. Bullying is not garden-variety aggression: It is a deliberate and repeated attempt to cause harm to others of lesser power.
  2. At age 8, children start to understand who has power and status and where they stand in the social network—and start experimenting with power.
  3. Bullies engage in a "shopping process" to seek out children who are younger, smaller, or weaker. Children who become victims are often submissive even before they're picked on.
  4. Studies show that harshly punitive home environments can breed children who are at risk of becoming aggressive, emotionally dysregulated victims.
  5. Many studies show that bullies lack prosocial behavior, are untroubled by anxiety, and do not understand others' feelings. They typically see themselves quite positively.
  6. Children who chronically bully have strained relationships and a lot of conflict with parents and peers, finds Debra Pepler, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. They have low trust in people.
  7. Bullies get what they want in the short term but may suffer in the long term, as aggression lowers their social desirability and they increasingly associate with other deviant kids. "Aggression is a marker for just about every negative outcome there is," says David Schwartz, associate professor of psychology at USC.
  8. A number of studies show that victimized children often suffer mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety, that endure through adulthood.
  9. Bullies can be popular because they are socially dominant, but their peers really don't like them, Schwartz has found; he calls it "the high price of high status."
  10. "Victimization is not about the child, it is about what the peer group is doing," Schwartz says. "The only promising interventions are based on activating the bystanders," he says—so that, at least, they do not reward bullies with attention.

7 Bully Myths

Myth: Bullies seek power because they feel powerless.

Bullies use aggression in a calculated, dominating way to get what they want, and often it works. Many children experiment with power tactics early on but give them up in adolescence.

Myth: Children who become bullies were themselves previously abused.

Long-term studies of very young children who experienced abuse in preschool show that they become victims—not bullies—who have little control over their emotions.

Myth: Bullying is a problem for schools to solve.

"It's a societal problem. School is where it happens, because that's where children gather," says Pepler. "Adults set the tone that shapes behavior for the children." notes Schwartz, "There is no research showing which school variables predict who gets bullied or not."

Myth: The best way to manage a bully is to fight back.

Physical confrontation is the weaker position and encourages bullies to continue. Social assertiveness is better. Walking away is best of all.

Myth: Bullies outgrow bullying.

Some do; multiple factors influence development. But many who bully carry their social interaction patterns into adulthood, Pepler has found. They are at high risk of dating aggression and are highly likely to sexually harass peers. Aggression is one of the most stable behavior patterns.

Myth: Cyberbullying is an entirely new phenomenon.

Cyberbullying is a spillover of local peer-group dynamics. The same kids who get bullied at school get bullied on the internet. "Instead of wedgies it's text messages," Schwartz says.

Myth: Everyone is at risk of cyberbullying.

Kids most at risk are those who use the internet as their primary way of communicating; they may rely on it because they are isolated and lonely.