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Bully Facts: It’s Not Black and White

It’s easy to understand bullying as a simple problem of “bad” kids making life difficult for the “good” kids. This is a common way of thinking that dictates the approach to handling the issue. Counselors, school officials, and educators may be tempted to punish the bullies and support the victims, hoping to resolve the problem in this way. But this common sense approach does not account for the existence of bully-victims and other nuances that can appear in the complex situation of bullying.

Its form changes with the age of the ‘bully’: school playground bullying, sexual harassment, cyberstalking/cyberbullying, gang attacks, date violence, assault, marital violence, child abuse, workplace harassment and even elder abuse. Therefore, we deserve the most up to date information on major cornerstones for our culture– Bullying. The misinformation surrounding the notion of bully and victim along with outdated studies and practices needs to be addressed. Educators at all levels must re-evaluate common beliefs surrounding bullying.

“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)

There are no clear statistics on how many bully-victims there are. Bullying reporting statistics are out of date, vary widely, and often measure categories that offer no insight into the complex social issues behind the bullying incidents.

Examples of Out-of-Date Statistics          

  • 2% reported being both bullies and victims (Pepler et al., 1997)
  • Bully-victims are the most insecure, the least likeable, and the most unsuccessful in school – (Stephenson and Smith, 1989)
  • Bully-victims are often strong and easily provoked. – (Besag, 1989)
  • Bullies tend to be assertive and easily provoked. They are attracted to situations with aggressive content and have positive attitudes about aggression. -(Stephenson and Smith, 1989)
  • Boys who bully are physically stronger and have a need to dominate others. -(Olweus, 1987)
  • Girls who bully tend to be physically weaker than other girls in their class. -(Roland, 1989)
  • Bullies have little empathy for their victims and show little remorse about bullying. -(Olweus, 1987)
  • Boys are more likely than girls to be drawn into bullying episodes and actively participate. -(Craig and Pepler., 1997), (Salmivalli et al., 1996)

Bully-Victims, the Silent Majority

Bully-victims are children who do not fit comfortably into either category but instead might play the roles of bully and victim depending on the situation. Research on this group is still relatively scarce when compared to existing studies on bullying but there are important facts to consider.

A 2017 review of the state of knowledge on bullying reports that there are around 25% to 35% of youth who are involved in bullying in either or both roles. Between 9% and 25% report being bullied, 4-9% are identified as perpetrators

The bully-victim group appears at the intersection of these groups (Menesini & Salmivalli, 2017).

Some valuable data comes from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, however, which suggests that three quarters of teenagers who reported bullying others were also victims of bullying (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2019), challenging the assumption that this is a small group. In fact, bully-victims could be a majority. However, there is little current data on this group for the U.S.

It is possible that the bully-victim group is underreported due to the ways these behaviors are measured or that the individuals are classified only as pure bullies or pure victims, fitting the common sense approach.

Hiding in Plain Sight, Bully-Victims May Struggle More and Experience Worse Outcomes.

Data from the LSAC also gives insights into the unique challenges that bully-victims may face, which is especially important to understand if they represent a majority of youth involved in bullying.

They had the highest levels of self-harm (20%) and suicidal thoughts (20%), which were 2 and 4 times higher than the other groups respectively. 

The prevalence was higher among girls, rising to 35% and 26% for this group.

Bully-victims may experience the negative effects associated with both of these behaviors (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2019).

Bully-Victims Have a Higher Need For a Support Network.

For victimization, these may include worse school achievement, higher loneliness, poorer physical health, greater levels of anxiety and depression, while the effects for bullying are associated with later offending and psychotic symptoms, as well as adult adversity (Menesini & Salmivalli, 2017). 

Bully-victims have fewer friends than bullies or uninvolved youth (Kochel, Ladd, Bagwell & Yabko, 2015).

Those who bully and are victims are more likely to have more severe adjustment problems, having higher rates of attention problems, low self-esteem, conduct disorders, anxiety, and worse social skills that affect their relationships with peers and teachers (Shetgiri, 2013).

Overall, children do not fit neatly into two categories. Many are both bullies and victims, which suggests that traditional measures focused on punishing the aggressor may not be effective and better ways of offering support are needed. At the moment, there is little literature on children who have more nuanced and complex behaviors, as the trend has favored a more simplistic focus on good and bad that does not reflect reality.

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I am the co-creator of FightSong!. Currently I live in Las Vegas, although I'm always traveling to spread to message of FightSong! Mental Health Advocacy and supporting students and counselors is really important to me. After highschool and college I was diagnosed with a mental health disorder I had been struggling with my whole life. Through counseling and support from my family I am able to be the rockstar I am today.

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  1. Great post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this
    subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.

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