Discuss the Nature, Causes and Consequences of Bullying in Schools

Aggression is an intentional behaviour that causes or threatens to harm another or others and its’ key element is intent. There are numerous different theories of aggression, which include developmental continuity (Loeber & Loeber, 1998), the theory applied by Lorenz (1969) which states that aggression is instinctive, the discharge model by Paul Kenyon and one of the most widely known, the Social Learning Theory of Albert Bandura (1973). All of the above theories can be applied to aggression and they contribute different concepts and intervention philosophies. ‘A student is being bullied or victimised when he or she is exposed repeatedly over time to negative action on the part of one or more other students.’ (Olweus, D., 1993, pg. 9). It is necessary to distinguish between direct and indirect bullying. Direct bullying is when a person more or less opens attack on another child. Indirect is when a child will deliberately isolate or exclude another child from areas such as social groups or games. As indirect bullying is less visible due to it being less physical, it is very important that it is not ignored. One half of all violence against teenagers occurs in schools (NIDR, 1999, as cited in Weinhold & Weinhold, 2000) and it is thought that 80 to 90 percent of adolescents report some form of victimisation from a bully at school (Espelage, 1999, as cited in Weinhold & Weinhold, 2000).

For a child to bully another, four criteria must be fulfilled. The child must have the intention to harm the victim. The behaviour can take place in physical (hitting, kicking) psychological (social exclusion, isolation) or verbal (name calling, threatening) forms. It must be a repeated action occurring over time. Much conflict between children is normal and is essential to their development of their coping strategies and learning experiences. It must also involve a real or perceived imbalance of power (physical or psychological) between the victim and the bully.

To understand bullying more extensively in our schools, we should know what actually characterises a typical bully and victim. An obvious feature of bullies is their aggression towards other peers. They generally have a more positive attitude to the use of violence in solving conflicts, are impulsive and have a strong need for dominance or control. Throughout the work Olweus has completed in relation to bullying in schools, he has placed a large emphasis on the attribute that male bullies are always more physically stronger than their victims. Olweus tested bullies throughout his studies by use of stress hormones and/or personality measurements. He found no evidence to support the idea that insecurity and anxiety are a shared trait between the bullies in our society, despite the common notion. He made a distinction between different types of bullies, passive, henchmen and followers. Passive bullies are usually a group of mixed individuals such as insecure and anxious students (Olweus, D., 1993). Generally, there are three motives of bullies. Overall, they can be described as having an aggressive reaction pattern. Firstly, they usually have a strong need for power, and enjoy being in control of their peers. Next, they have usually developed a degree of hostility towards their environment, which often stems from their upbringing. This hostility may make them ‘derive satisfaction from inflicting injury and suffering upon other individuals’ (Olweus, D., 1993, pg. 35). Finally, there is normally a benefit component toward their behaviour such as taking things of value from their victims like money, cigarettes or beer. Bandura (1973, as cited in Olweus, D., 1993) also gives the suggestion that their aggressive behaviour is rewarded with prestige from their peers. As bullying can be seen in an anti-social and conduct disorder fashion then one may also predict that students who are aggressive bullies have an increased risk of engaging in criminal behaviour and alcohol or drug abuse. In follow up studies performed by Olweus, results indicate that 30-40% of individuals who were characterised as bullies had three or more convictions by the age of 24 compared to 10% of that in the control group.

To characterise the opposite, a clear picture has emerged from much of the research taken place and can be applied to boys and girls. Typical victims are anxious, insecure, cautious and sensitive. Again there are different types of victims, either passive/submissive or provocative. Essentially, it is thought that the passive victim ‘signals to others that they are insecure and worthless individuals who will not retaliate if they are attacked or insulted’ (Olweus, 1993, pg. 32). It is also thought that this is combined with a low level of physical strength of the victim. Interviews with parents of children who are branded by these traits show that they were much the same at a younger age, having difficulty asserting themselves. If repeated persecution comes from their peers, this must inevitably increase their anxiety and lead to a much more negative evaluation of their personal attributes, which has been shown to be a major consequence of being a bully victim. The provocative victim is more active, assertive and confident than other victims, is physically stronger and easily provoked (Tattum & Lane, 1989). Many of these students have problems in concentration and because of this, may cause some irritation to those around them. There is also some research indicating that victims often have a much closer relationship with their parents, in particular boys with their mothers. This may be both a cause and consequence of the bullying, as this relationship can be often perceived as overprotection from the child’s peers and his mother not giving enough freedom for the child to deal effectively with his own problems. A consequence to many victims is seen from a follow-up Swedish study (Olweus, 1993). There were two samples of boys, those who had been victimised by peers at school and those who had not. It showed that the former victims had developed normally in most ways by the age of 23. However, they were more likely to have a higher level of depression and lower self-esteem than those who were never bullied before.

Many people assume that bullying is a bigger problem for inner city schools than those in the countryside. This assumption has been proved to be inaccurate (Olweus, D., 1993). Results from the Norwegian study showed that students in Oslo and Bergen who were bullied or who bullied others were much the same, if not lower, than their counterparts in country areas. Parents and teachers placed a greater emphasis on talking to students about bullying in larger areas, which could account for the discrepancy. However, Hawkins & Catalano (1992) reported that urban neighbourhoods do experience more violence both in and out of schools. Another view is the size of the school or class, which makes bullying more rampant. Results from Olweus’ Norwegian study again give clear results. ‘There were no positive association between the level of bully/victim problems and school or average class size’ (pg. 24). Therefore, if neither the class size or school location are directly related, then other factors must be researched. One of these factors, which are important, is the amount or level of supervision during lunch or beaks. Again Olweus’ study showed that the greater amount of supervision per student decreased the amount of bully/victim problems. However, Weinhold & Weinhold (2000) showed that 69% of students believe bullying is not effectively dealt with in schools and that a prevailing attitude of teachers is that if a child is being bullied then they probably deserve the consequences (1997, as cited in www.balarad.net).

Much media coverage has placed an emphasis on the assumption that bullying may be a consequence of academic or activity competition between students. Results from a study in 1978 and supported again in 1983 show that there was little to suggest that this hypothesis was tenable. However, the study did find that the grades of bullies and of victims seemed to be less than average and was more pronounced in secondary or junior high school than lower classes. This could be due to the fact that many victims tend to take days off school for fear of what might happen to them.

To help reduce the amount of bullying in our schools, it is important to look at the kind of environment and conditions that children are brought up in. It is thought that there are four factors based around this assumption. The attitude that the primary caretaker has of the child is of importance. ‘A negative basic attitude… increases the risk that the boy will later become aggressive and hostile toward others’ (1993, pg. 39). The next important factor is the amount of aggression that the child is usually allowed to displace. The more tolerant the parent, it is thought that the more aggressive the child will become. A third factor is the amount of ‘power-assertive’ control parent’s use on their children. Finally the temperament of the child also plays a major role in his aggressive pattern. It is thought that the more active a temperament, then the more aggressive the child will be when they become older. Emery (1982) gives some indication that when parental conflicts are held in private, the less negative effects on the child (as cited in Olweus, D., 1993). A study Farrington (1995) shows that in middle childhood low attention, attainment and hyperactivity were found to predispose peer rejection, conduct problems and delinquency (as cited in Messar & Millar, 1999, pg. 355). Quoted in Pitts & Smith (1995, pg. 9), it is thought that boys are more likely to be bullied than girls in secondary schools, but in primary schools, there were double the amount of female victims than of males. One must remember that unfortunately, bullying by girls is more difficult to see as they use less visible means of harassment like spreading rumours and manipulating friendships related to the victim.

Some other consequences of bullying and victimisation include social adjustment difficulties such as poor friendship patterns, limited success in intimate relationships and deprived educational achievement lasting through adolescence and into adulthood. Tattum (1993) proposed a ‘cycle of violence model which involves the development from childhood bullying through to juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behaviour and later abusive behaviour in families’ (as cited in Messar & Millar, 1999, pg. 357). Tattum (1993) and Farrington (1992) suggest that male bullies tend to have children who bully in school also (as cited in Messar & Millar, 1999). This is suggesting a point I made earlier, in that one must look at the situation the child is being raised in. If the child learns that power and control over other individuals is successful, then they will apply the same techniques in their own lives, they are learning from their parents.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder involves re-experiencing old trauma, persistent avoidance of triggering situations and a ‘numbing’ effect on general responsiveness and increased vigilance. Weinhold & Weinhold (2000) show that most conflict situations involve stimulus conditions that remind those involved of previously unresolved traumas. In these trauma situations people generally show symptoms of PTSD. Another consequence of exposure to violence is its’ desensitisation effect. If people are in a constant state of hyper arousal they also have adrenal hormones in their bloodstream they and are likely to fight, flee or freeze if the current conflict shows any resemblances of previous traumas. It is thought that when bullies pick on others they act under this adrenal stress reactions and that PTSD is a major factor of the general violence. Developmental trauma’s are thought to have effects such as developmental delays, attachment disorders, impulsivity, ADHD and cognitive impairment, all of which are related to bullying or violence.

After a long neglect towards the topic, apart from studies by Olweus, the last five years have shown a large amount of interest and, thus, more research has been carried out in the area of bullying. One such study is by Peter Smith and Sara Levan in 1995. They outline the reasons for the steady decrease in bullying from age eight to sixteen onwards. The first is that younger children have older children in the school to take advantage of them. However, if this were the true case then the prevalence of bullying would show a massive increase when students enter secondary school and they are the youngest again. Nevertheless, this is not the case. Younger children have not yet been socialised into understanding that you should not bully others. This is thought to only be a ‘minor factor as the incidence of reported bullying others (as opposed to being bullied) only decreases modestly with age if at all’ (pg. 491). A third explanation is that younger children have yet to acquire the social skills and assertiveness to deal efficiently with being bullied. The last explanation is that younger children have a much stronger definition of bullying than older children do. They account one-off acts of aggression or conflict as bullying, unlike older children who do understand the concept of the repetitiveness towards bullying. Madsen & Smith (1993) showed that five year olds use more adjectives and direct examples than older groups and seldom mentioned the idea of unprovoked and repeated attacks (as cited in Smith & Levan, 1995). This study also showed that younger children rate direct bullying as much more serious than indirect.

Another reason as given to the explanation of bullying is parental neglect and emotional abandonment. Magid (1989) stated that abused and neglected children would grow to be violence seeking adults if there is no intervention given by the age of sixteen. The major goals of intervention programmes are ‘to reduce… bully/victim problems in and out of the school setting and to prevent the development of new problems’ (Olweus, D., 1993, pg. 65). Generally the intervention programmes are very detailed, thus, Olweus gives an overview of a core programme. It requires the awareness and involvement of both the parents and the teachers. The measures implemented at school levels should include a questionnaire survey, a school conference day and enhanced supervision during lunchtime and regular parent-teacher meetings. There should be ‘class rules’ against bullying and class meetings. On an individual level, there should be serious talks with both bullies and victims and parents of children who are involved in any way should also be involved in these talks. This approach is what is known as the ‘whole school policy approach to bullying’. Olweus suggests that each school should have a program of the like, if not only to counteract problems of bullying but to actually prevent them from developing into more serious problems. Bullying is the most common versions of conflicts in our society and our culture is beginning to be driven by this violence.

A study quoted in Glover, Cartright & Gleeson (1998, pg. 27) show that the factors, which cause people to victimise and discriminate against others, may never be rationally explained. Many of the responses given by the students were a validation but the real cause seemed to have been a reaction to past events.


Glover, D., Cartwright, N. & Gleeson, D. 1998. Towards bully-free Schools: Interventions in Action. Buckingham: Open University Press

Messar, D. & Millar, S. 1999. Exploring Developmental Psychology: From Infancy to Adolescence. London: Arnold.

Olweus, D. 1993. Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pitts, J. & Smith, P. 1995. Preventing School Bullying. Police Research Group: Crime Detection and Prevention Series, 63.

Tattum, D. & Lane, D. 1992. Bullying in Schools. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.