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Are you a bully, a victim or both? Pick one.

Are you a bully or a victim?

This simple question reflects a common knowledge understanding of bullying: are you good or bad? Do you hurt people or do they hurt you?

This question is the foundation of many commonly cited research studies on bullying, including one of which I felt compelled to look more closely at called “Prevalence of Bullying and Victimization Among Canadian Elementary and Middle School Children.

I wanted to take a good look at where this question comes from, explore if it is too simple and the impact that the simplicity of this question had on the study and on education at large.

When I consider this question– am I a bully or am I a victim– to me, it seemed a bit too simple to be a meaningful question. What does bullying mean? Is it common to only be a bully or to only be a victim? What’s the science behind this?

I began my quest for the truth with a quick Google of “Bullying Facts and Myths.”

Finding the Study
My quick Google search for the term “Bullying Facts and Myths” yields a PDF brochure on page 1 from Check it out here.

The brochure defines bullying in the following way:

“Bullying is a conscious, willful, deliberate, hostile and repeated behaviour by one or more people, which is intended to harm others. Bullying takes many forms, and can include many different behaviours, such as:

• physical violence and attacks

• verbal taunts, name-calling and put-downs

• threats and intimidation

• extortion or stealing of money and possessions

• exclusion from the peer group”

At first glance, to me, this seemed generalized and encompasses many different behaviors. How can a single word be effectively defined in so many unique ways?

Also, isn’t it challenging to quantitatively evaluate intention of an action? How can educators broadly and accurately assess the “willful, deliberate” intention “to harm others” versus acting impulsively?

Hoping for a more specific and satisfactory definition of bullying in the pamphlet, I keep reading:

“Bullying is the assertion of power through aggression. Its forms change with age: school playground bullying, sexual harassment. gang attacks, date violence, assault, marital violence, child abuse, workplace harassment and elder abuse (Pepler and Craig, 1997.)”

At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if any antisocial action could count as bullying. The brochure goes on to cite a book that confidently identifies the source of all of these varied bullying behaviors– including feeling no empathy.

“Bullying is not about anger. It is not a conflict to be resolved, it’s about contempt –a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior or undeserving of respect. Contempt comes with three apparent psychological advantages that allow kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion or shame. These are: a sense of entitlement, that they have the right to hurt or control others, an intolerance towards difference, and a freedom to exclude, bar, isolate and segregate others.” (Barbara Coloroso “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander)

Now I’m no scientist, but the emotions driving various behaviors at different ages seems very difficult to prove and measure. Don’t you think?

Concerned about the lack of concrete information, I started to dive into the other sources for the brochure.

Notes on the Study I Tore Apart
The most recent study cited in the brochure is Pepler et al., 1997. The study, entitled Prevalence of Bullying and Victimization Among Canadian Elementary and Middle School Children is cited 10 times. Questionnaires were distributed to ~5000 elementary and middle school children individually and in groups, depending on age and English competency.

Primarily, students were simply asked if they’d been bullied, victimized or both.

“Based on the responses to the questionnaires, three subgroups of children were identified: bullies, victims, and bully-victims. These groups were compared with the overall sample on a number of questionnaire items.

Children were classified as bullies if they responded “more than once or twice”, or more frequently, to the question “How often have you bullied since the beginning of the school year?”

Children were classified as victims if they responded “more than once or twice”, or more frequently, to the question “How often have you been bullied since the beginning of the school year?”

The third classification was for bully-victims which comprised of children who met the criteria for both bully and victim status.”

Contradiction Hidden within the Study Itself!
Only 2% of students reported that they were bully-victims. As almost an side note, the study includes a very interesting passage:

“…very few children (2%) reported that they had both bullied others and been bullied by their peers. This is inconsistent, however with our naturalistic observations of bullying on the playground. Forty-five percent of the children whom we observed bullying or being victimized, were observed in both roles (Craig & Pepler, 1997.)”

Doesn’t this disparity prove that the student self-reporting was too flawed to be trusted? Doesn’t it imply that the measure is flawed? A 43% difference is without question statistically significant.

The Danger of Simplicity
The danger of putting so much stock in self-reporting such a simple question– does a student believe themselves to be a victim, a bully, or both– is that it simplifies how educators categorize and view students. By putting students in one category forever, it becomes their identity and determines how educators interact with them. It allows antisocial behavior to be dealt with as though it has a simple, singular cause: that the child is a bully and that they need to be punished. This diagnosis does nothing to support the student, address the underlying cause of the behavior or solve the problem.

Conclusion: A More Complicated Perspective on Bullying
If we can’t even agree on what bullying is, it’s impossible to effectively measure. What’s more– I believe the complexities of human nature make this question– are you a bully or a victim– too simple to be effective. At different moments in our lives, we can all play the role of bully and we can all play the role of victim. Not only does the definition of terms changes based on perspective.

It’s up to educators to provide support for students to prevent bullying behaviors rather than continue the outdated tradition of simplifying away the complexities of their humanity for an list of easy to cite “facts” for publication.

Download the original brochure referenced in this article and the study referenced in this article in PDF form below.

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Using only the latest research on bullying and mental health, Kacy supports evidence based education practices for all educators, including school counselors, administrators, psychologists, teachers and school resource officers.

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