Peer victimization, also known as bullying, comprises commonly recurring, unsolicited, hostile behavior among school-aged children involving a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying that takes place in educational settings is a relevant and critical global issue, and while it affects all children regardless of culture, ethnicity, gender, or race, some groups may experience various disparities and increased exposure to bullying. Parents, educational institutions, and government entities alike have recognized the harmful, long-term effects of bullying in all its forms. Although the scenarios and unique circumstances of affected students may vary, it is possible for institutions to take a number of general actions to prevent or deal with bullying.
Definition of Bullying
In the 1980s, prominent researchers on the topic of bullying in education developed a definition that scholars have since generally recognized. According to this definition, “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students” (Olweus & Limber, 2010, p. 124). These “negative actions” can vary significantly, ranging from physical contact to verbal abuse or emotional exclusion.
However, the key characteristics of bullying are that the behavior is intentional, repeated, and negative towards the victims who are the target of the bullying and who are also commonly helpless to defend themselves. Aggressive actions and even harm are likely to be an ongoing occurrence in an interpersonal relationship that suffers from a lack of “actual or perceived balance of power or strength” (Olweus & Limber, 2010, p. 125).
These traits are essential to defining the elements of bullying in the social behavior of children. Consistent and repeated negative behavior leads to bullying interactions and patterns, which this paper seeks to address.
Today’s educational institutions and entities actively recognize bullying as a behavior pattern that has severe implications but can also be prevented. The debate amongst educational scholars has focused on the impact of the school environment on bullying, including whether certain policies foster or buffer such behaviors amongst youth. Research has examined various factors ranging from budgets to class sizes and demographic distributions. Over the course of identifying the psychology and patterns behind bullying, scholars have studied broader constructs such as school policy, instructor attitudes, and peer interaction as indicators of potentially problematic behaviors (Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt & Hymel, 2010).
Developing technological capabilities and widening the availability of internet access have lent themselves to the rise of cyberbullying. The number of adolescents actively using internet-based services continues to rapidly increase; an estimated 66% of teens have access to the internet from the privacy of their bedrooms (Tokunaga, 2010). Cyberbullying is a general term that describes bullying behaviors, such as online harassment, that take place in the digital realm. This virtual form of bullying, which offers the possibility of anonymity, is unique in the protection it may potentially provide the bully. Furthermore, unlike the physical spheres of traditional bullying, cyberspace lacks the strict supervision of parents and teachers that may be present to some extent in real-world peer interactions.
Although popular media and tragic incidents have exposed the dangers and various issues related to adolescent interaction with the World Wide Web, the popularity of this technological communication medium continues to grow without adequate safety measures in place. Students face cyberstalking and public abuse that exerts negative psychological effects on their mental health (Tokunaga, 2010).
The discussion of cyberbullying is becoming ever more relevant as a significant portion of peer social interaction is transitioning online, hosted by various social media platforms. Schools lack online authority over children, highlighting the importance of anti-bullying strategies that will encourage positive behavior and establish social foundations in lieu of disciplinary punishment that cannot be enforced outside school hours.
Example of Bullying
Those affected by bullying are usually members of a group that is marginalized by some unique characteristic that makes them stand out. This will be analyzed more deeply later in the report, but it is vital to describe an example of the bullying process in a commonly affected group. As bullying is generating headlines with anecdotal evidence of extreme abuse and subsequent consequences, the negative impact on self-worth is growing, a reflection of humiliating experiences and students feeling unsafe.
One marginalized group, highly vulnerable to bullying, includes students with learning disabilities and autism, who have particular needs that peers, teachers, and communities should consider. Statistics indicate that 63% of victimized students are identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and are bullied more often than students with other disabilities (Espelage & Swearer, 2008).
The nature of ASD creates social difficulties for students, hindering their understanding of the emotions, intentions, social cues, and nonliteral speech of their peers. Researchers are unclear as to whether ASD students perceive bullying as others do. Nevertheless, observation dictates that ASD students do experience higher rates of this negative behavior. Their difficulties in social interaction and communication may also hinder youth with ASD from reporting incidents.
In addition, issues affecting abstract thought and generalization can cause ASD students to inadequately relate the victimization experience to concrete examples. For this population, bullying can take unconventional forms including a less direct form than that typically established among developing adolescents (Zweers, Scholte & Didden, 2017).
However, ASD can also exert a positive role in a bullying situation. Male students with ASD are more likely than regular children to avoid bullying or interfere when witnessing such behavior towards others. This is likely due to the values instilled by special education that explicitly support prosocial behavior. However, assuming the role of defender or outsider may alternatively result from role distributions based on social difficulties. ASD students who adopt these roles may struggle with understanding how to act in bullying situations. Furthermore, ASD students requiring special education tend to be victimized more commonly than those in regular classrooms.
Emotional dysregulation and a lack of social understanding by ASD adolescents can act as a catalyst for misinterpreting the behavior cues of their normally developing counterparts (Zweers et al., 2017). This creates the paradox that ASD students are more likely to stand out and be subject to bullying if they are in special education, yet despite the heterogeneity of unique needs and difficulties that the students demonstrate, special education provides necessary vital support.
Effects of Victimisation
Bullying can have a range of consequences for both the victim and the bully. This negative interaction with peers leads to both short- and long-term effects. A large body of research has demonstrated that both the perpetrator and the victim suffer from adjustment difficulties affecting academic or professional success and the ability to form healthy social relationships as well as leading to psychological issues.
Findings showed that bullies exhibited aggressive behaviors, tendencies towards violence, hyperactivity, and externalization, many of which characteristics lead to delinquency in later years. Meanwhile, those experiencing victimization displayed instances of illness, truancy, school avoidance, fear, and anxiety as well as suicidal tendencies in the short term. In the long term, these students demonstrated low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety that affected academic performance and quality of life. Both groups showed suicidal ideation, worrisome for parents and educators (Swearer et al., 2010).
It should be noted that although evidence supports these findings, the nature of some of the connections between the act of bullying, victimization, and psychosocial consequences are unclear as to whether they are causative, correlated, or reflective aspects of bullying.
Psycho-Social Foundations of Bullying
Bullying occurs within complex frameworks of social relationships that are affected by individual, environmental, and comparative defining traits. Each can be influenced by economic, cultural, and political factors. Settings that demonstrate increased risks of school bullying often share similar characteristics. In terms of institutional parameters, findings have been inconsistent in determining how class and school size, sociodemographic distribution, and social inequality may correlate to bullying rates.
Moreover, various perspectives view these social characteristics in differing ways. For example, while income inequality was shown to result in instances of bullying in one study, poverty levels represented by average familial income was not found to be directly associated with peer victimization (Azeredo, Rinaldi, de Moraes, Levy & Menezes, 2015). Therefore, it can be argued that the socioeconomic foundations for bullying are based not on the possession of certain characteristics but rather on a significant difference between population groups present within an institutional setting.
Morality and human understanding of social relationships are based on social, cultural, and collective perceptions constructed as a result of individual interpretation and interactions with peers. Shared social expectations inherently guide behavior and actions.
Childhood sociology maintains that children construct and actively participate in unique peer cultures that appropriate information and social norms from adults and reconstruct them within the context of their own reality and interaction. The identity that each person forms are part of a social process, not a fixed aspect, which is built through interpersonal interactions. Most commonly, individuals visualize themselves from the perspective of others and evaluate potential reactions to any actions (Thornberg & Jungert, 2013).
Therefore, social constructs and categories are formed as part of a collective process, creating each person’s unique identity. Since research indicates that bullying affects victims that share a common characteristic of odd social constructs and identities – ‘not fitting in’ – how this characteristic correlates with peer victimization should be examined in terms of how socially constructed differences are used to justify bullying.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in peer victimization situations, bullies often regard their actions as ordinary and rational, claiming that they are targeting the victim as a violator of socially acceptable norms. This sort of decision-making and peer interaction can be identified as stigma and labeling, defining an individual based on a characteristic while producing a perspective guided by social opinion. Therefore, a label that identifies someone as ‘abnormal’ essentially stigmatizes the individual as a violator of the socially accepted standards of a social or cultural group.
Stigma serves as the primary consequence of labeling, affecting the social relationships of the victim, and constructing the individual’s social identity at school (Thornberg & Jungert, 2013). This phenomenon provides power and support for the bully, allowing atrocious actions to become more socially acceptable as the initial labeling of the victim is psychologically seen as the result of a transgression. The bully dominates the social identity of the victim, and the latter’s negative reputation is spread within peer circles. Even those not actively participating in bullying will tend to avoid socializing with victims. Meanwhile, stigmatized individuals are trapped in a vicious cycle that makes it all but impossible to improve their social situation.
The conflict inherent to bullying is that victimization is both a consequence of adjustment difficulties as well as their cause. Researchers have generally accepted this fact and have traced the direction of effect through longitudinal studies.
For example, students with low self-esteem are at an increased risk for bullying, but the victimization itself impacts self-esteem levels for the remainder of the academic year and the likelihood of maladjustment in consequent semesters (Fox & Boulton, 2006). Similar trends impact ASD students who experience bullying. Their psychological and educational differences place them at risk of bullying, but they can also experience significant setbacks as a result of aggressive behaviors.
An additional psychosocial explanation for bullying behaviors may be related to familial relationships. Although no direct correlation has been identified, participants in bullying may become juvenile offenders. Steinberg, Blatt-Eisengart, and Cauffman (2006) attempted to draw a relationship between patterns of relations with parents and the consequent characterization of social competence and adjustment.
The researchers’ results proved similar in both poor, minority groups and affluent, mostly white communities. Authoritative parental styles are associated with psychological maturity, academic competence, and the ability to maintain emotional stability, common to individuals who are less prone to problematic behaviors. Meanwhile, neglectful and indulgent parental styles have been shown to lead to troublesome behavior and immaturity (Steinberg et al., 2006). Although most students fall somewhere between the two extremes, this suggests that both parental influences and institutional strategies can be used to control bullying and promote competence and maturity.
Thus, the socio-ecological framework appears the most appropriate approach in identifying psycho-social foundations of bullying. Adolescent behavior is strongly influenced by individual characteristics that are constructed within the contexts of schools, communities, and institutions. Social influences affect behavioral development over the years as a number of systems such as families, peers, schools, culture, and communities establish pre-established beliefs, perceptions, and standards in the mind of a child.
While further research is necessary, the socio-ecological framework seems to offer the most holistic perspective on the issue. Behavioral change in children is based on situational process-oriented contexts (Swearer et al., 2010). Therefore, positive peer influences or supportive institutional climates can have a significantly beneficial impact on deterring bullying as well as employing adequate school strategies.
Schools that implement rules and regulations against bullying, adopt anti-bullying attitudes, and actively intervene against violence demonstrate lower rates of peer victimization. Commonly, anti-bullying efforts in educational institutions include comprehensive programs administered to the general school population. The primary objective of these is to spread awareness about the negative effects of bullying, identify bullying behaviors, and offer strategies for peers and instructors to prevent negative interactions (Azeredo et al., 2015).
Although such programs demonstrate improvements in bullying rates in general, the effectiveness of prevention efforts is not always successful or consistent. The following subsections will explore various approaches and strategies that schools can implement in pursuing anti-bullying efforts.
Recognizing and Addressing Gateway Behaviours
As discussed, bullying takes varied shapes and forms, many of which may not be evident or may not directly violate school policy. This is particularly true in the early stages of child development and evolving bullying situations, wherein these can be termed as ‘gateway behaviors’. In such cases, although school rules that prevent bullying are being obeyed, actions demonstrate tendencies of social maladjustment and repeated negativity or hostility. Often these behaviors, consisting of mean comments or teasing, are performed without fear of punishment. Formal discipline cannot be applied in such cases, nor would it be appropriate or realistic (Englander, 2017).
However, on a consistent basis, gateway behaviors can easily transition to violent bullying. It is the goal of educators and schools to respond to such behaviors in a manner that ensures civilized and socially acceptable interaction amongst peers.
It is important to offer guidance to students who are demonstrating gateway behaviors. This can be done both collectively through class discussions and individually in the form of a personalized approach. However, it is vital to avoid drawing attention to the target or the target’s feelings in the discussion as well as to prevent the bully from shifting any responsibility to the victim. Instead, the approach should focus on emphasizing how such actions are toxic to the school and the community environment.
The primary lesson should highlight the impacts of socially cruel behaviors on the climate and relationships within the school, thus negatively affecting bullies themselves. It is critical that a bully should gain an understanding of the reasons why society and schools prohibit peer victimization as the outcome for both individuals and the broader community can be consequential (Englander, 2017). Although the gateway behavior approach does not rule out formal discipline, it offers a chance for early recognition and rehabilitation, particularly in younger students that may not benefit from strict punishment at first offense.
Fostering Positive Social Relationships and Peer Support
Interactionism implies that people behave in terms of collective action, fitting personal behaviors to match those of others. Bullying is a phenomenon based largely on fitting in; victimized children will desperately attempt to become accepted members of society to avoid the general situation in which misfits (those who express or communicate sentiments different from the societal status quo) are faced with exclusion or violence (Thornberg & Jungert, 2013).
Based on the socio-ecological model for bullying, research suggests that positive social relationships can offer significant benefits in terms of preventing bullying. For example, families can play a role in providing emotional support and helping individuals develop coping skills. With adequate training, parents can address concerns about bullying with children, communicating the consequences of this behavior, and becoming actively involved in a child’s life (Bradshaw, 2015).
Meanwhile, schools can emphasize traditional methods of bullying prevention by introducing aspects such as Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which promote teaching emotional and social skills to students. Behaviors such as respect for others (particularly marginalized groups), empathy, cooperation, and coping are some of the many positive attitudes that can be taught to improve collective cohesiveness and harmony (Rigby, 2017).
The primary factors that put children at risk for bullying are maladjustment and poor social skills. Lack of social competency results in traits such as submissiveness and non-assertiveness. In combination, social risk factors such as lack of friendship or acceptance by peers act as potential catalysts for bullying. While research has not established a direct correlation between the number of friends and rates of bullying, the quality of friendships and social identity of peers have been identified as factors. Friends are able to provide an extensive range of social support behaviors that prevent bullying or provide comfort for the victim after it occurs. In bullying scenarios, friends have been observed to assume a defender’s role, using verbal and physical actions in an attempt to repel attack (Fox & Boulton, 2006).
Educational institutions have the ability to foster social groups – and potentially friendship – as a preventive measure for bullying. Both schools and parents can foster these friendships by offering group activities, play dates, participation in sports, and social interactions that will lead to cooperation. This strategy is particularly helpful in the early developmental years as primary school children are more open to social participation in activities necessary for forming close relationships (Bayer et al., 2018).
As a result, friendships formed in the early years are more likely to lead to healthy social relationships in the adolescent years when bullying becomes prevalent. Even when students are unable to maintain a friendship for an extended time, the experience of forming social relationships and cooperation will contribute to social adjustment and potentially lessen the risk of bullying.
School-wide anti-bullying programs have undergone a significant evolution as more information has become available regarding the psychology of bullying and decades of observation and experience have been systematically and competently integrated into school programs. The essential goals of an anti-bullying campaign are to increase awareness and prevent such behaviors through a combination of measures. These goals are best achieved by actively changing the school social environment, reducing opportunities for bullying, limiting the potential benefits of such behavior, and creating the sense of a tight-knit community for students and teachers.
One of the best-known approaches to school-wide bullying prevention is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), based on four essential principles that adults in schools and homes should demonstrate. These include showing warmth and interest, establishing strict limits to negative behaviors, using consistent and non-hostile methods of punishment, and maintaining the role of authority and positive role models (Olweus & Limber, 2010). These principles are effectively implemented within specific interventions targeted at all levels ranging from the community and the school to individuals.
At the school level, the OBPP establishes a Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee (BPCC) that implements staff training, evaluates levels of bullying in the institution, and develops tools to measure bullying rates and the effectiveness of interventions. The committee holds extensive authority, allowing the introduction of school policies, initiating staff meetings, and reforming the school’s supervisory and disciplinary systems.
They can also modify the curriculum and implement student-based programs that introduce anti-bullying initiatives. Furthermore, the committee can establish partnerships at the community level to ensure similar values are emphasized at after-school events as well as address individual student concerns and bullying situations (Olweus & Limber, 2010). As a program, the OBPP has been developed on the principle that bullying should not be a common experience for youth.
Research indicates that bullying decreases exponentially with comprehensive, school-wide efforts that target every aspect of the institution’s function while implementing anti-bullying measures. In order to reduce opportunities for bullying and increase rewards for building a strong community, significant effort is required on the part of staff and administrators. However, the cultural shift that emerges, as a result, provides long-term benefits for everyone (Olweus & Limber, 2010).
As discussed, bullying exerts prolonged social consequences for both bully and victim, impacting their well-being, health, and level of success. Therefore, favorable outcomes for school-wide programs can have a significant positive impact on society in terms of economic savings, public health, citizen satisfaction, and the general community consensus.
However, some comprehensive school-wide programs may suffer significant setbacks, failing to produce the desired effect. One limitation may be found in evidence-based support. Many interventions heavily rely on student questionnaires and self-reported measures that are potentially invalid and may represent unreliable indicators of bullying. The stigma surrounding bullying often leads to underreporting.
In addition, programs may not be developed properly under a focused and evidence-based theoretical framework to guide development, implementation, and evaluation. Another cause of failure is a lack of intervention aimed at the sociological and psychological causes of bullying, instead of introducing preventive or punitive measures. Finally, some programs are unable to reach students effectively, which can result from poor consideration of demographics, failing to incorporate radical factors such as race, disability, and sexual orientation into marginalized groups affected by bullying.
Also, programs aimed at the general population may fail to focus on the small group of students responsible for initiating bullying behaviors and who require prosocial behavior lessons (Swearer et al., 2010). These issues in school-wide programs should be considered and eliminated through a competent approach to program development. Comprehensive preparation and research can create a precedent to avoid such errors in the future.
School-wide programs should focus on influencing the school environment through a supportive response to victims. These children should be protected from harm at the same time the attempt is made to reduce the incidence of bullying. It is warranted to introduce secondary preventive efforts to increase competence and support from teachers and peers. As a result, victims will experience a favorable environment and be subject to less emotional distress (Juvonen, Schacter, Sainio & Salmivalli, 2016).
A primary objective of comprehensive programs, school administration, and government ministries should be to establish a safer learning environment for students, a vital characteristic for parents and students who see schooling as a necessary aspect of daily life and future development. Bullying poses a significant challenge to safety due to distorted social power dynamics. As a result, comprehensive school programs can address the issue through a multifaceted approach and reduce the occurrence of adverse incidents.
Public Health Approach
Research supports adopting the public health model as a recommended method to address bullying and behavioral issues amongst students. This three-tiered model is increasing in popularity in education, correctional facilities, and public health. In special education, the model is also known as the ‘response-to-intervention framework’. Following this approach, an intervention is introduced to the general population of a particular group or class.
If students do not respond to the tier 1 intervention, they progress to the next tier interventions, which are more intensive and targeted. While offering an entire range of psychological support, the process continues until symptoms or behavior patterns are resolved (Bradshaw, 2015). As mentioned, anti-bullying programs in schools that influence the educational environment, shift social norms, and introduce bystander pressure are universal in nature, aimed at the majority of students. Although potentially appropriate, this approach fails to target the participants in bullying, the perpetrator and the victim, individuals who may often be socially maladjusted or do not respond well to universal systems of support and intervention.
In a public health approach, next-tier intervention may introduce targeted means that focus on comprehensive social skills training, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution techniques. This is particularly beneficial for students at risk who may be involved in bullying. The final tier of intervention focuses on strong support programs and oversight for both bullies and victims who may demonstrate at-risk behavior for juvenile delinquency.
Such targeted interventions attempt to pinpoint mental and social health issues as part of preventive measures. If possible, the families of the children are involved, and a support system is created and tailored to the individual needs of students who exemplify negative bullying actions (Bradshaw, 2015). The three-tiered system should be developed into a coherent and intermittent framework that can be applied to various bullying situations and used to meet the correctional needs of youth that are not adequately responding to universal interventions.
School bullying is a systemic and relevant issue in modern-day education. This negative social phenomenon is growing and extending into new areas, such as cyberspace, and taking on new forms. Bullying can affect anyone, but certain groups, such as students with ASD, are marginalized and targeted due to their lack of social adaptivity. Psycho-social theories state that bullying is a complex issue, based on maladjustment and socio-ecological influences, and can be driven by a wide variety of factors.
Taking the available comprehensive research into account, schools should develop effective and multicomponent strategies to address bullying. Fostering positive social relationships and peer support through friendship can prevent incidents of bullying. Meanwhile, comprehensive programs and a public health approach are vital to introducing both institutional and individual-level interventions to deter peer victimization. In conclusion, the field requires extensive research on the long-term impacts of such strategies as well as their effectiveness on a large scale.
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