The Effects of Bullying Among School-Aged Youth

October 2013

Bullying is one of the most prevalent and widely discussed topics pertaining to school safety and security. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that 19.6% of students are bullied on school property and 14.8% of students are electronically bullied (cyberbullied). Bullying has been shown to have profound effects on youth which often continue into adulthood. Media discourse about the impact of bullying is anecdotal at best, and tends to focus on extreme cases where a student takes his or her life. However, there are many more cases of bullying that do not culminate in suicide. Research into the effects of bullying and causal relationships regarding bullying and its impact has been ongoing since the first systematic study of bullying accomplished in 1978 by Dan Olweus.

Bullying has been shown to have profound effects on youth which often continue into adulthood.

To assess the impact of bullying, it is essential to establish a good, base definition. Bullying is defined by the Texas Education Code, Chapter 37, as engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district and that has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or of damage to the student's property; or is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student. In addition, conduct must exploit an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and interferes with a student's education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.

Bullying can be undertaken in several different methods (e.g., face-to-face, group, or cyberbullying). The most readily recognized version of bullying is face-to-face bullying. During face-to-face bullying one student directly bullies another student. Group bullying occurs when multiple aggressors engage in bullying a student. These types of bullying can also be readily apparent to a trained observer. Cyberbullying is a recent development that has surfaced with the advancement of technological communication over the last decade. Cyberbullying occurs when a student is bullied through social media, text-message, or other means of technologically based communication. The prevalence of bullying varies between findings. Rigby (1996) found that one of every six students experience bullying at schools. In a national study, however, approximately 30% of 6th through 10th grade students reported being involved in bullying incidents (Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simmons-Morton, & Scheidt, 2001). These differences are most likely attributed to differences in operational definitions of what constitutes bullying. Regardless, bullying is a commonly occurring event that warrants continued research and discussion.

Bullying Victim Demographics

The following section expounds on the literature by identifying various types of bullying, as well as provides a complete cursory explanation of the emotional, social, and physical harm of bullying. Beyond discussing the harm caused by bullying, the following section also recommends actions that schools can take to help students impacted by bullying.

Typology of School Bullies

The literature describes bullying in different terms and classifications (see for example Garrity, Jens, Porter, Sager, & Short-Camilli, 2001; Pearce, 1991; Rigby, 1996). However, one of the more easily understood typologies classifies bullying into three distinct categories: a) physical, b) verbal, and c) relationship (Langevin, 2000). Physical bullying is based on anger and asserted through physical acts. These actions include hitting, shoving, and even kicking victims or damaging their property. Verbal bullying uses words to hurt and humiliate victims. This is accomplished through name-calling, insulting, or persistent and harsh verbal teasing. Lastly, relationship bullying occurs when rumors are spread about the victim. While relationship bullying is related to the verbal bullying, the distinct difference is relationship bullying intends to socially harm the victim through damaged relationships.

It should be noted that bullying can be subtle or overt and range from mild to severe. The classifications listed above may, and in most cases do, overlap.

Emotional Harm of Verbal Bullying

Depression, anxiety, bitterness, elevated levels of stress, as well as negative feelings of self-image and low self-esteem can all result from verbal bullying. Approximately 26% of frequently bullied girls report depression as opposed to 8% of non-bullied girls (the ratio for boys is 16% to 3%) (Kerlikowske, 2003). Victims of bullying are also found to have difficulty concentrating on school work and exhibit elevated levels of anxiety (Ballard, Tucky, & Remley, 1999).

Although the majority of research into the effects of bullying focuses on short-term implications (e.g., what happens while the students is in school), more recent studies into long-term emotional effects of bullying is being undertaken. For instance, a longitudinal study following 1,400 kids from childhood into adulthood has recently been completed (Copeland, Wolke, Angold, & Costello, 2013). This study found that adults who were both victims and aggressors of bullying exhibit signs of depression, anxiety, and self-esteem well into adulthood. These findings illustrate the lasting negative effects of being both a victim and aggressor of bullying.

Social Harm of Relationship Bullying

An important aspect of attending school is the proper development of social skills (e.g., building friendships, peer acceptance, public speaking skills). However, students who are victims of bullying encounter difficulty with social development. While all types of bullying can impact the social well-being of a victim, relationship bullying most readily fits within this set of harmful effects. Olwues (1993) found bullying victims often lack friends in the class and at school. Students exposed to long-term bullying perceive the school environment as unfriendly, frightening, and often experience a major part of their school career feeling anxiety and insecurity. The major dependence which bullying victims feel toward their families can also be explained by their feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.

Physical Harm of Bullying

Recall that physical bullying exerts power through force. This force can include hitting, pushing, tripping, slapping, spitting, or destroying a victim's possessions. This type of bully is generally committed by a male, who is physically more powerful than the victim. In fact, Bryne (1994) found victims of bullying tend to be physically smaller, more sensitive, unhappy, cautious, anxious, quiet and withdrawn when compared to non-victims. Physical bullying employs an imbalance of physical power to exploit the characteristics of the victim. The obvious physical harm exhibited by physical bullying is bruises, cuts, or other unexplained injuries or damaged possessions. However, the physical harm of bullying does not have to come solely from physical bullying. In fact, the elevated levels of anxiety, stress, and depression exhibited from the other forms of bullying can lead to physiological responses. A meta-analysis of bullying research found that victims of all types of bullying are more likely to exhibit bouts of headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, bedwetting, and sleeping problems (Gini & Pozzoli, 2009).

What Can Schools Do?

The prior discussion illustrates the various aspects of harm caused by bullying. However, the discussion of school response is important as well. Bullying can leave victims emotionally, socially, and physically harmed. Examples of these include depression, low self-esteem, high levels of stress, lack of social networks, high levels of anxiety, physical markings such as bruising or cuts, as well as headaches, dizziness, and sleeping problems. Schools can implement several effective practices to prevent bullying. The Texas School Safety Center has compiled ten cost effective strategies for bullying prevention in schools, which can be found in the bullying topic page.

Bullying can leave victims emotionally, socially, and physically harmed.

School personnel should strive to create a climate in which students feel comfortable about reporting instances of bullying to an adult, both as a victim and bystander. Teachers and administrators should educate students and their parents on what bullying is and how to report instances of bullying. The administration should also conduct an assessment of their district and/or campus to uncover the prevalence of bullying (e.g., conduct self-report surveys and student/parent focus groups). Furthermore, consensus should be reached as to what definition of bullying will be utilized and when educators should intervene. Clear and definitive definitions remove ambiguity from the process. Clear consequences for each level of bullying should be established and understood by staff, students, and parents. Additionally, continual assessment of the school's bully-prevention efforts should be conducted to understand if the efforts of the district are effective (Batsche & Knoff, 1994).

While prevention practices are helpful in reducing the occurrence of bullying, the school should also be prepared to assist students that have been victimized. In order to help students with emotional wounds, properly trained counselors should be on staff to assist. Group meetings and peer dynamic programs can assist victims of bullying with social needs. The group dynamic helps build social interactions in a safe, controlled environment for the students. Medical personnel can assist with physical wounds as needed. However, the school should be prepared to recommend professionals outside of the school should a student need additional medical or psychological treatment beyond the school's capabilities.

In order to address bullying, a whole school community approach is necessary. This includes administrators, educators, parents, and students working together to establish awareness about bullying and its impact, as well as implement effective bullying prevention strategies.


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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2013. Surveillance Summaries, 63(4).

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