by Francine Dube, National Post, December 11, 2003
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popular and their classmates think they're cool, according to
new research from UCLA, which points to the need for a new
approach to addressing the problem in schools.
"Many of the existing programs in schools still operate under
the assumption that kids bully their peers because they feel bad
about themselves," said Jaana Juvonen, PhD, UCLA professor of
psychology and the lead researcher on the study. "Our findings
show quite the contrary. Bullies do not need ego boosters."
Especially when being popular and cool are the best ego boosters
of all for teenagers, according to Dr. Juvonen. What's needed
instead is to address the problem of bullying with more
comprehensive school programs that target not only bullies but
the bystanders to bullying.
"They may not instigate the mean act initially, but they take
part in it one way or another," said Dr. Juvonen of the
bystanders. "Often it takes very little, it takes something like
just smiling or going along with the agenda -- that is very
encouraging to the bully."
Bullying has become an increasingly hot topic in schools, as the
connection between bullying and explosions of violence,
including deadly violence, grows more clear. The Columbine
killers claimed they were bullied. The 14-year-old student in
Taber, Alta., who killed one classmate and wounded another in
1999 had endured severe bullying.
Canadian research has found as many as one in four students
report being bullied, and in recent years in Canada at least two
students, one in B.C. and one in Nova Scotia, committed suicide
after enduring relentless bullying.
The UCLA study looked at 1,985 mostly Latino and black sixth
graders from 11 schools in predominantly low socioeconomic
status urban communities in Los Angeles. The mean age of
students was 11.5 years. The data was collected over the fall of
2000 and 2001.
Students were asked to list up to four classmates from a class
roster who fit descriptions of bullies and up to four who fit
the descriptions of victims.
The descriptions of bullies included "starts fights and pushes
other kids around, puts down and makes fun of others," and
"spreads nasty rumours about others." Students were also asked
to nominate the "coolest" kids in their class and kids they did
not like to hang out with.
Teachers who had daily contact with students were asked to rate
students on behaviour, ranging from "sad, worries, cries a lot"
to "starts fights, argues, gets in trouble."
Twenty-two percent of the student sample was classified as
involved in bullying -- 7% as perpetrators, 9% as victims and 6%
as both victim and bully. The bullies were psychologically
strongest and enjoyed high social standing among their
classmates, according to the study. Victims were emotionally
distressed and socially marginalized by their classmates -- they
reported the highest levels of depression, social anxiety and
Students being bullied were also harder for teachers to
identify, according to Dr. Juvonen. The disruptive behaviour of
bullies is easily noticed, and must be addressed by teachers,
leaving them with little time to notice the more subtle signs of
psychological distress among victims.
Boys were twice as likely as girls to be classified as bullies
(10% vs. 5%) and almost twice as likely to be classified as
victims (12% vs. 7%). Asians were least likely to be classified
Although bullies were regarded as the highest and victims as the
lowest in social status, classmates avoided both bullies and
victims, according to the research, indicating that the social
prestige of bullies is motivated in part by fear.
Dr. Debra Pepler, PhD, a York University psychology professor
who received $600,000 in federal funding to develop a nationwide
program to fight bullying, agrees that schools need
comprehensive programs to stop bullying, including addressing
children who witness bullying.
Observational studies have found that children who watch
bullying spend most of their time watching the bully, not the
child being harmed. In effect, they support the bullying.
"It has to do with the status and dominance in the group," says
Dr. Pepler. "Children want to be on the side of status. They
don't want to be the next victim. I also think it's engaging,
it's very arousing. Children become very excited. The more
children who are in the audience, the longer it continues."
When a child intervenes to stop the bullying, the bullying stops
within 10 seconds 57% of the time, says Dr. Pepler. "There's
tremendous potential to engage children in addressing these
Dr. Juvonen agrees. She says children need to be taught to help
the child being bullied. If schools are the primary place for
socialization of future citizens, they shouldn't be places where
no one has the courage to stand up for anyone else, she says.
She suggests parents talk with their children about bullying
before it happens. "If you've never discussed this issue with
your child, it might be difficult for your child to tell you
about it. The older children get, the harder it is for them to
bring it up. Start by talking with your child about other kids
in the school. 'Do other kids in your school get picked on? Tell
me what happens. How do you think these kids feel? What do you
think should happen?' "
She also recommends role-playing, especially with younger
children. She says if your child is being bullied, don't contact
the parents of the other child, contact the school and talk with
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