Bullying at School: How Common Is It?

How Common is Bullying?

Bullying is an age-old problem.

Research in Australia by Dr Ken Rigby over a number of years where 38,000 students have been surveyed indicates that 15% of children say that they are bullied weekly.  Of these, 5% say that they are not really bothered by it at all, but 10% report feeling distressed, angry or sad as a result of the bullying.

A study in 1994 of 1,041 students from 4 Toronto area schools (Kindergarten to Year 8) showed that the proportion of children who reported being victimised more than once or twice over the school term was between 12-15%.

The proportion of students who reported having bullied others more than once or twice over the school term ranged from 7-9%.

Olweus in his extensive studies over the past 20 years in Norway, has found about 15%, or one in seven students, are involved in bullying/victim problems.  Of these, about 9% were victims, and 7% bullied others with some regularity.  In relation to very serious bully-victim problems, they found that slightly more than 3% of their sample were bullied once a week or more.

Studies from a number of countries (Australia, Norway, England, United States, Japan, Ireland, and the Netherlands) have shown consistent findings.

Does Bullying Vary with Age?

Olweus and his colleagues found that the percentage of students who report being victims decreases with age.

In their sample of over 83,000 students in Norway, who can they found that while 16 – 17% of students in Year two reported being bullied, by Year 9, the percentages decreased to 3% of girls and 6.5% of boys.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the bullied children in the lower grades reported being bullied by older children.

Are there Gender Differences in Bullying?

Olweus reported in 1993 that a study of students in Years 5 to 7 found that 60% of girls who were bullied were bullied only by boys, while another 15–20% were bullied by both boys and girls.  The great majority of boys who were bullied (80%) were bullied only by boys.  This shows that it is boys who are more likely to be perpetrators of “direct” bullying which involves direct physical or verbal attacks.

Olweus also included that girls are more likely to use indirect, subtle, social means to harass other girls.  This includes social exclusion from groups, manipulation of friendship relationships, spreading of rumours and gossip.

Overall, the patterns of bullying and victimisation are very different for boys and girls.  Boys are much more likely to report being bullies, and perpetrated in violent acts on others than are girls, at each age group.  Girls are somewhat less likely than boys to be the victims of bullying although the rates are not as discrepant as the bullying (perpetrator) rates.

Does Bullying Really Harm or Affect Children?

General consensus is that bullying is harmful to the health of children.  For example;

  • Olweus (1992) — frequent victimisation in Middle School was associated with low self-esteem and proneness to depression at age 23.
  • Kochenderfer & Ladd (1996) — a longitudinal study with primary school children showed victimisation by peers produced subsequent maladjustment in the children.
  • Egan & Perry (1998) — a longitudinal study with primary school children showed that although victimisation was experienced more by children with initial low self-esteem, victimisation by peers induced a further loss of self-esteem.
  • Rigby (1998) — a three-year longitudinal study with secondary school students in Australia showed a causal link between peer victimisation and low levels of well-being.

Victims of bullying may try to avoid school and to avoid social interaction in an effort to escape bullying.  Some victims of bullying are so distressed that they commit or attempt to commit suicide.  Several instances of suicide by boys who had been severely bullied occurred in Norway in the early 1980’s.  These tragic events mobilised that country to begin a nation-wide anti-bullying program.  Hence the major research program by Olweus and his colleagues.