Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bullying: When does it Stop?

Daniel J. Flannery, Jane Timmons-Mitchell

Bullying, or the ongoing and frequent misuse of power in a peer relationship, often in school, occurs throughout the world. Population base-rates are estimated to vary, averaging about 1/3 of pupils worldwide. Bullying can be thought of as being physical, psychological (including cyberbullying) or sexual, with overlap among the categories. Both boys and girls experience bullying at about the same rate, but the type of bullying and how it is experienced varies between boys and girls.

The harmful effects of ongoing bullying are well known and include: becoming a bully, suffering from increased health and mental health difficulties, attaining less education, and having decreased overall quality of life compared with those who are not bullied. One interesting study asked adults to reflect on their bullying experiences in school.  Surprisingly, adults who had been bullied as teens reported effects that continued to worsen over the years compared with students who did not report being bullied.  Depression and thoughts of suicide were common among the adults bullied as teens. Of course, the experience of being bullied is not prescriptive: many students learn coping strategies that lead them to resilience, but many do not.

A recurrent question arises: if bullying interferes so fundamentally with the ability to get along with others, why do people engage in it? We have learned from evolutionary biology that people overvalue information that signals danger. In fact, it takes about six positive messages to counteract one negative  one. Young people especially, whose brains are still developing, tend to overstate personal sleights made to them and undervalue the statements and behavior they make toward others. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the response of a youth who has been caught in the act of denigrating another: it often takes several attempts to point out that what he or she has done is wrong, since the first impulse is to point to the behavior of the person to whom they have directed the infringement. Every parent and teacher can relate to this conversation and its inevitable response: “He started it.”

Programs to decrease bullying take many forms. School-based programs aim to address students, teachers, and school climate, to name a few. Some programs are based on expanding technology, which is ecologically valid for teens, the age group most affected by bullying. Laws have been enacted to prohibit bullying; however, much of the time, bullying is either not reported or not addressed effectively by those to whom it is reported. And, unfortunately, some adults encourage responses that will predictably exacerbate bullying: beat him up to teach him a lesson, go after her in cyberspace to show her not to mess with you.

The ultimate solution to bullying lies in a fundamental change in human behavior.

The ultimate solution to bullying lies in a fundamental change in human behavior. If we change the norms in all social settings, including schools, to promote positive social development to the exclusion of bullying interactions, bullying can be eradicated. Unfortunately, the counter message, that it is easy to get attention by disrupting and picking on others, coupled with the sense that one is entitled to respond to perceived indignities, suggests that we are far from making this Utopian dream a reality.

In the meantime, we would do well to model for our children interactions that are characterized by respect, humility and empathy. Teens can be taught to put themselves in the shoes of the other person and make decisions based on that new perspective. Efforts worldwide have used this technique to encourage more effective relating among young people living in high conflict areas. These lessons have power and help to build a more tolerant future.

Bullying is an important public health problem. Everyone who interacts with youth, including other youth, parents, teachers, coaches, school counselors, health and mental health professionals (nurses, pediatricians, emergency personnel, social workers, pediatricians and psychiatrists) has a responsibility to pay attention and take it seriously when we see it.

Jane Timmons-Mitchell, Ph.D. and Daniel J. Flannery, Ph.D.


Read more about: The Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression


In honour of Anti Bullying Week 2018 we are offering free access to chapters from The Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression for a limited time:

10. The Neurobiology of Bullying Victimization

30. School Violence

38. The New Frontier: Leveraging Innovative Technologies to Prevent Bullying

Visit www.cambridge.org/antibullyingweek2018 to find out more.

About The Authors

Daniel J. Flannery

Daniel J. Flannery is the Dr Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor and Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University...

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Jane Timmons-Mitchell

Jane Timmons-Mitchell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Associate, Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University’s social work school, t...

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