Bullying: What makes a child a bully or a victim?

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

A large longitudinal study of thousands of children explored the school, neighborhood and family factors that are associated with bullying.

Last week I was sadden by the story of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Springfield, Massachusetts, who committed suicide in his room after enduring months of anti-gay bullying at his school. Sadly this was not an isolated event. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among pre-adolescents and teens, and victims of bullying are at an increased risk for committing suicide. Unfortunately, our understanding of factors that predict bullying behavior is limited due to limitations of previous studies.

A review of Bowes L, Arseneault L, Maughan B, Taylor A, Caspi A, & Moffitt TE (2009). School, Neighborhood, and Family Factors Are Associated With Childrens Bullying Involvement: A Nationally Representative Longitudinal Study J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry.

In an effort to helps us better understand the risk factors that predict bullying, a team led by world-renown aggression researcher Dr. Terri Moffit of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London (Lucy Bowes was the lead author of this paper), conducted a large prospective longitudinal examination of the factors that predict bullying involvement. The study included 2,232 children participating in the British Environmental Risk Longitudinal Study. This study tracks the development of a large cohort of children born in the UK in 1994-1995. Data for this study were collected when the children were 5 and then when they were 7. The authors were primarily interested in examining the school, neighborhood, and family factors at age 5 predicted bullying involvement by age 7.

The Results:
– School size (total number of students) was associated with both being a victim and being a bully, but in opposite directions. Schools with large number of students increased the chances of a child being a victim of bullying. However, large number of students decreased the chances of becoming a bully. The authors argued that it was expected that school size would increase the risk for becoming a victim, but it was surprising that school size actually decreased the risk of becoming a bully. Why? They argue that this later paradoxical finding may be due to under-reporting of bullies at lager schools. For example, at large schools teachers may be less likely to report bullying behavior, so that parents of bullies would not know that their kids are bullies. In contrast, victims of bullies are more likely than perpetrators to report the problems to their parents (and sometimes they cant hide it due to physical evidence). So it may not be that large schools have more victims and less bullies, but that perpetrators are not easily identified at these schools.

– Being exposed to domestic violence was one of the stronger risk factors for becoming a bully. The risk for being a perpetrator increased by 50% for those children exposed to domestic violence. Exposure to domestic violence was not associated with becoming a victim of bullying.

– A history of child maltreatment resulted in a 100% increase in the risk of being a victim of bullying and 50% increase in the risk of become a perpetrator.

– Finally, children internalizing behavior problems (anxiety, depression) was associated with a 20% increase in the chances becoming a victim but a 20% decrease in the risk of becoming a perpetrator. This makes conceptual sense. Kids with high levels of internalizing symptoms are usually anxious and shy, which may make them more likely to be victims but less likely to be bullies. In contrast, externalizing symptoms at age 5 (aggression) was associated with a 120% increase in the chances of becoming a perpetrator.

What factors were not associated with bullying? Surprisingly a number of usual suspects did not seem to play a role in predicting either victims or perpetrators, such as neighborhood vandalism, SES, parental anti-social behaviors, and maternal warmth.

In summary, it appears that school size, exposure to domestic violence, and a history of maltreatment are the environmental factors more closely associated with bulling. This problem appears to be more prominent at larger schools, which has implications for education policy, in that larger schools should be particularly attentive to bullying cases and take a more proactive approach to prevent bullying. The study also confirmed that early signs of behavior problems may be a red flag that parents and teachers should take seriously.