Bullying : Current Data about Prevalence, Forms, and Dynamics


The first part of these notes highlights the relative frequency of episodes of bullying among children and young people (with reference to one recent survey indicating that exposure to bullying is particularly common among children with special educational  needs towards the severe end of the spectrum).
Typical coping strategies are described, along with the significance of whole school approaches to intervention or prevention (which includes the involvement of peers in the planning and implementation of actions).

There follows a description of a study exploring the stability and instability of friendship patterns among girls and the possible association with involvement in bullying either as perpetrator or victim; and the final section also concerns the significance of social identity, and interactions within and between groups, for the emergence of bullying behaviour.


M.J.Connor                                                                                                     July 2007


Nature and Incidence


To begin, it is logical to clarify terms and the following are two definitions of bullying which appear representative of the many definitions that have been produced. 

According to Olweus (1993), bullying is the repeated and ongoing negative action towards one or more students. 


These actions can be direct, as in verbal an physical assaults or in the use of facial or other gestures; and they can also be indirect as in exclusion from a group or refusal to comply with the individual’s wishes.


Meanwhile, Rigby (2002) describes bullying as occurring when the victim, typically viewed as having little power and of a non-retaliatory type, is sought out by another who is physically powerful and dominant.

In other words, bullying may be perceived as a series of acts of aggression towards by one individual towards another, and between whom there is a marked imbalance of power.  As set out by Espelage and Swearer (2003), it is difficult to generate a single and comprehensive definition for bullying and victimisation, but there is a general agreement that bullying includes ongoing physical and/or verbal aggression by one or more individuals who hope to attain dominance, status, or others’ possessions.  


As will be discussed in the following summaries, the implication that may be drawn from this kind of definition is that bullying among children and young people is largely a matter of a negative interaction usually involving two persons, the victim and the bully, albeit with other people in the role of onlookers and as implicit accomplices in allowing the actions to continue (as a preferred alternative to becoming victims themselves ?).

However, converging evidence indicates that bullying, especially among girls, can more frequently have its source in group behaviours and interactions; and the relational as opposed to physical form of bullying seen more commonly among girls reflects the instability of friendships and the anxiety and/or jealousy that may be evoked. Further, according to the survey of Espelage and Swearer (op.cit), the pattern of relational bullying is complex and it may be that the gender difference in this respect is decreasing.  


That bullying is still very much a significant and continuing issue for concern is illustrated by the findings of a survey completed by Mencap (2007).

This survey involved sampling the reported experience of a large number of children and young people with learning disabilities, and the collated data indicated that over 80% of the children had experience of being bullied and most of these children reported that they are not willing to leave their homes for fear of being bullied.

58% had been physically hurt by the bullying; and around a third of the sample described the continuation of bullying despite their reporting it to an adult (with only a slightly smaller percentage reporting that they had been subject to bullying for at least 3 years).

The bullies were said invariably to be other children.


The example was given of a boy with Down syndrome who had enjoyed going out and who had been keen to meet others and to initiate friendships, but whose experience of physical assaults and being the object of ridicule was such that he became very frightened of leaving the home and experienced nightmares, while becoming highly anxious on hearing children’s voices outside. 

With an increase in the intensity of the bullying, the family took the decision to move to a different area in order to avoid a situation where any target concerning independence was irrelevant as a result of the fear about going out of the house.       


The chief executive of Mencap emphasised the scale of bullying which can be a significant problem for any child; but, in the case of children with significant vulnerabilities, such as those with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, the concern includes the sharply reduced opportunities available to learn and to make friends and to play/socialise if they are not prepared to go out.  This kind of enforced social exclusion may become established as a continuing pattern for the long term, with the young people too frightened to re-visit the many places which have been the scene of bullying.


Returning to the theme of prevalence, one can quote the data, based upon a survey of American and international studies and cited by the National Middle Schools’ Association (2006), that between 9% and 15% of any student population are victims of bullying. 

The information gathered indicates also that most victims are identified as socially, physically, and socially weaker than their peers; and that, while the risk of bullying applies equally to boys and girls, boys appear more frequently to be the victims

(although one might speculate that this could be a function of the probability that bullying instigated or experienced by boys is overt and readily identifiable while bullying among girls can be more covert).

Reference is made to Olweus (op.cit) who reported that the victims of bullying often come to regard themselves as failures and develop feelings of shame and a negative self image; and to Shakeshaft et al (1997) who found that many adolescents regard teasing or name-calling or some pushing and shoving behaviour as no more than pranks, while most victims do not report episodes of bullying of whatever form.  


This survey of findings includes information about the kind of coping mechanisms that children and young people may adopt, such as avoidance of some public parts of the school and a tendency to remain in the school office or classroom or some tucked away corner of the playground in order to keep away from other students.

Passive victims are those who show introverted behaviours while “aggressive” victims are those who can cause irritation by their very active behaviour or lack of concentration and impulsiveness; and these latter victims may show a pattern of internalising their reactions to the bullying for a prolonged period until they reach some limit beyond which they resort to externalising or even violent behaviours, perhaps becoming bullies themselves, or demonstrating self destructive behaviours. 

A common tendency is for developing feelings of depression or insecurity, even a sense of isolation and hopelessness; and the implication conveyed by a number of studies (such as Bernard 2004) is for whole school policies and procedures which are publicised and readily recognised, and involve close monitoring of student interactions on the part of the staff and an openness in communication.


The conclusion by the NMSA concerns the significance of peers and peer support for reducing the incidence of bullying and empowering victims.  Reference is made to the value of opportunities for cooperative working and bonding among the children and young people, and for their involvement in planning and problem solving, as well as the ongoing teaching of social and life skills and an atmosphere of high expectations about mutual care and respect plus immediate reaction to reported incidents.


Girls and Bullying   


The issue of gender-related forms of bullying (which may or may not be as clearly differentiable as once thought) is the subject of the paper by Besag (2006).  Her particular interest was in determining whether a significant issue in bullying concerns instability within the friendship bonds of girls (in the age group 10 to 12 years). 


Besag introduces her study by citing the limited attention that has been directed to this theme, possibly because of the complexity of identifying and unravelling the patterns in question and the high demands upon research time and costs. Nevertheless, it is her contention that friendship patterns among girls are inconsistent and the source of anxieties and insecurities which can bring about significantly negative effects … with the implication of a need to examine the nature of friendships between individuals, that can be volatile, along with the interactions between groups (and how the individual influences, and is influenced by, these interactions).


Reference is made to the Clique Formation Hypothesis as discussed among others by Alder and Alder (1995) which emphasises the role of leaders of a group and the way in which these girls use their influence to resist any threat to their position from other girls.  Such threats may arise from existing members of the group, or from girls outside the group.  

There is a general recognition that, among girls of any age, friendships are often less stable than those among boys, and may be characterised by a focus upon one “best friend” which can be a powerful bond, but can also be fluid and fragile.  Changes in the pairing can occur frequently (and on the apparent basis of no more than a whim).

Conflicts may reflect the paradoxical combination of the closeness of the emotional bond and the volatile nature of the ongoing relationship.


Besag summarises existing evidence to the effect that these fluctuations appear to underlie the constant “low-level” bickering.  Girls who have previously been supportive friends may seek to exclude a targeted peer from the group and to make life difficult for her by name calling and by spreading gossip, even bombarding her with offensive text messages. It may be the previous best friend who is the principal instigator.


It is noted that these constant disputes among the girls can take up more teacher time and attention than the overtly aggressive but short-lived confrontations which are typical between boys, but  these disputes are often misperceived as mere squabbles and not recognised as having potentially serious outcomes.


Unlike the bullying that goes on between boys, the quarrels and conflicts among the girls are related to the friendship groups, so that victims cannot get away from the network of relationships within which the bullying occurs.  Further, there may be no clearly visible “incident” which can alert staff to the existence of ongoing problems; rather, the bullying takes the form of social exclusion or personal comments which bring about the negative impact as a result of their persistence and wearing away of  the victim’s self confidence.  The impact is psychological rather than physical, but the worry is that the damage is longer term, perhaps leading to high levels of distress which may be reflected in episodes of self harm (or, in extreme cases, to actual or contemplated suicide). 


The participants in Besag’s own study were girls in the last 16 months of their primary schooling. They were aged 10 and 11 years. 
Data about behaviour within friendship groups and about fluctuations within friendship bonds were gathered via questionnaires concerning social relationships, such as particular friendships or individuals with whom contacts were not welcomed.  These questionnaires were completed on several occasions over a 16 month period prior to the end of the primary school stage. 


In addition, semi-structured interviews were held with a view to gaining further perceptions from the girls concerning the nature of their friendships. 

Staff were interviewed with particular regard to the interactions among the girls during a residential trip, and they kept desk diaries of relevant events.

Video-recording of interactions among the girls attending a weekly activity club were made, resulting in 16 hours of material for analysis.


The general findings provided evidence of clear fluctuations in the friendship relationships among the girls.  Only one dyad maintained the relationship over the full 16 months, and only three continued for a year. 


A major source of disruption was the availability of a “second-choice” best friend for the girls in a dyad relationship.  This was unsettling, particularly where one partner was more insecure than the other and more anxious to guard the relationship. The second choice girls … those waiting in the wings … contributed to the suspicions that threatened the existing parings and often sought to trigger conflicts by, for example, repeating and enhancing negative comments in a  reflection of their jealousy of the close relationships of the other girls.


The video material was considered to be particularly illuminating in revealing unguarded behaviours among the girls when not under direct supervision and the verbal and non-verbal provocation that frequently occurred. 


Besag describes how the girls valued their friendships highly, with some of them having family backgrounds characterised by difficulties which they could discuss with their friends. Such sharing of concerns could be reassuring and could help in determining how best to cope; however, the sharing of sensitive information and anxieties in a context where friendship bonds could rapidly change was seen as increasing the atmosphere of wariness.


Meanwhile, not all the adults in the school, despite their highly caring and supportive attitudes, were able to appreciate these interactions.  This reflected the covert and subtle nature of the social interactions or subversive strategies. The power of the close friendships, and the lengths to which some girls would go to break into them, were underestimated. 


Most of the conflicts were observed to result from emotions concerning friendships triggered by jealousy or disappointment, or anxiety over the prospect of losing a close  friend to someone else; and further negative feelings could be aroused when the more precocious girls began to take a closer interest in the boys in the class. 

This pattern was regarded as an incipient form of adolescent female aggression which Campbell (2005) described as being based upon three areas of challenge …. access to desirable partners, sexual reputation, and jealousy/proprietariness concerning the attachment to partners.


Besag concludes by holding that these conflicts among girls should be considered as possible acts of actual bullying rather than petty quarrels.  Interventions or preventive strategies need to be based upon awareness of the nature of the friendship patterns and their formation.


In particular, those girls who could be regarded as bullies may have skills and powers that can be used for democratic rather than autocratic ends in respect of developing and implementing negotiation and mediation strategies.  Meanwhile, individuals may need support in developing coping and problem-solving skills, and the recommendation is for access to interventions which use Solution Focused practices or aspects of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.


Bullying, Groups, and Social Identity      


In the introduction to the work on group processes, Gini (2007) also recognises that definitions of bullying or research projects have tended to focus upon the individual characteristics of the bully and of the victim; but a shift has been noted towards a recognition that the persistence of bullying could be at least partly explained by group influences such as social contagion which includes the weakening of resistance to aggressive tendencies, the diffusion of responsibility, and wishing to avoid standing out from peers.


Through a review of (observational) studies, Gini is able to confirm the significance of “peer ecology” in bullying … in other words, the influence of the group and the group consensus upon the behaviour of an individual.   

However, it is noted that little empirical evidence has been produced concerning the attitudes or the dynamics that underlie these group actions and conflicts. 


This present study, therefore, set out to examine the influence of group status on the perceptions of pre-adolescent children concerning bullying and the attribution of blame.


The work of Nesdale and Scarlett (2004) is quoted as highlighting how the relatively high or low status of a group of boys affects an individual’s liking for, and willingness to be part of, a bully group; but Gini refers also to converging evidence for the involvement of girls in the roles of bully, victim, and onlooker. 
Accordingly, Gini’s study sought to extend understanding by assessing the behaviours of both girls and boys.


The general format of the study was based upon a perception of bullying as a social process (perhaps, the present writer – MJ – would say, analogous to the way in which involvement in delinquency may commonly be a shared and social phenomenon). The goal was to assess the effects of the nature of the participant group, involved in bullying, upon perceptions of this “in” group and upon perceptions of the other group.


The hypothesis was that participants would favour the “in” group over the opposite group and that this tendency could vary as a function of the bully or victim status.

If victim status could represent a threatening condition for the esteem of that group and the individual esteem of members, it was hypothesised that participants would seek to be more supportive, and demonstrate that supportiveness, when the group is victimised and, therefore, seen as being under some threat.   


Meanwhile, if children consider that bullying behaviour can increase the status of the group, one might expect that less blame would be attached to the group when it has an existing low status rather than low status, but more blame when it has high status and when bullying would be seen as less justifiable.


The final hypothesis was that boys would be more tolerant than girls of physical bullying and would seek to justify their “in”-group’s actions; while girls would be less likely to accept physical bullying in any situation even when the bully is a member of their “in” group.


The sample comprised 314 children, 146 boys and 168 girls, with a mean age of 13, attending mainstream schools.

Questionnaire booklets were used, with three sections.  The first sought basic demographic information; the second invited responses to a presented scenario; and the third concerned perceptions of group status and roles.


The scenario was about two groups of school pupils … representing the participants’ own class and one other same-age class. There was an emphasis upon the similarities between the participants and the represented peers in terms of their interests and activities, with the intention of encouraging the readers to identify with that group

(the “in” group).  The situation described was that all the pupils enjoyed sport but it was necessary to share the gym, and the two classes had not reached agreement about how to arrange this sharing, and an aggressive incident had taken place when both groups were in dispute about who had the right to use the gym.  Different versions of the story were used in order to manipulate two variables … high or low group status in respect of very good or mediocre ability in sport; and the group role (bullies or bullied).

Participants were invited to rate responsibility for the incident and the extent to which each class deserved to be punished for the incident.


The results were in accord with Social Identity Theory in demonstrating a clear group bias.  Participants tended to favour their own group by attributing more blame to the “out” group. Further, there was a higher preference towards the “in” group when it was the victimised group but, when this group was portrayed as the aggressors, the preference was lessened.


Social Identity Theory predicted this outcome since being victimised either individually or as part of a group involves a threat to identity and self esteem, and the expected reaction would be a strengthening of identification with the “in” group.

In other words, concerns about social identity can underlie group conflict in at least some situations.


It is recognised that alternative explanations could apply.  For example, one model concerning aggressor and victim perspectives holds that both persons will evaluate their actions (either in acting aggressively or in defending oneself with an identical type of behaviour) as more reasonable and appropriate.

However, this kind of approach and the former both conceive aggression as a form of social interaction where the quest is for both social identity and positive self image. 


The author then cites previous evidence that the bias in favour of the aggressive “in” group is greater when the group has high rather than low status.  However, these present findings indicated greater blame for the higher status “out” group.

In other words, group status seemed to influence the perceptions about both groups in the bullying incident independently of whether it was the bullying group or the victim group.  There is only partial support for the view that bullying may serve to increase social status of a group; and it was held, instead, that being a member of the low-status “in” group was the most threatening situation in terms of group and individual esteem. 


With regard to gender differences, there was support for existing findings that girls and not boys favoured the “out” group when it was the victimised group, thus showing a more negative attitude towards bullying (or, at least, physical bullying).  There is implicit support, too, for a greater probability of overt bullying among boys and a greater probability of relational and socio-emotional bullying among girls. 


The author acknowledged some limitations in this study, in terms, for example, of a focus solely upon this preadolescent age group, and of a lack of awareness of the actual experiences of bullying among the participants whether as victims, bullies, or bystanders.


Nevertheless, it was concluded that the study of group norms, and children’s attitudes towards inter-group behaviours, is significant for anyone seeking an understanding of the emergence of bullying.  


The implication is for widening the scope of (preventive) approaches to take account not only of the characteristics of the individuals involved, but also of their peer groups, and the school community as a whole.  The need is to counter the social reinforcement of, and peer support for, bullying behaviour, with the recommendation for work on positive group identification, cooperative activities, (peer) mediation, and “buddy” systems to reduce bullying and to foster pro-social behaviour. 


                                *          *          *          *          *          *


M.J.Connor                                                                                                     July 2007                    




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Bernard B.  2004   Resiliency : What We Have Learned.  San Francisco : WestEd


Besag V.  2006   Bullying among girls; friends or foes ?  School Psychology International  27(5)  535-551  


Campbell A.  2005   Presentation to the Association of Educational Psychologists’ Annual Conference.  Gateshead : November 2005


Espelage D. and Swearer S.  2003   Research on school bullying and victimisation.   School Psychology Review  32(3)  365-383


Gini G.  2007   Who is blameworthy ?   School Psychology International  28(1)  77-89


Mencap  2007   Survey on Bullying  (Published June 18th 2007)  www.mencap.org


National Middle Schools’ Association  (Lorimer M.)  2006   Research Summary : Bullying.  www.nmsa.org


Nesdale D. and Scarlett M.  2004   Effects of group and contextual factors on pre-adolescent children’s attitudes to school bullying.   International Journal of Developmental Psychology  28  428-434


Olweus D.  1993   Bullying at School.   Oxford : Blackwell Publishing


Rigby K.  2002   New Perspectives on Bullying.   London : Kingsley Publishing


Shakeshaft C., Mandel L., Johnson Y., Sawyer J., Hergenrother M. and Barber E.  1997   Boys call me cow.   Educational Leadership  55(2)  22-25     




This article is reproduced by kind permission of the author.

© Mike Connor 2007.

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