The 10 faces of the modern school bully

in News

What image comes to mind when you hear the words ‘school bully’? Chances are, you imagine some huge, hulking kid pushing a smaller boy against a locker to steal his lunch money. But how accurate is this?

In fact, while some bullying involves physical aggression, bullying takes other forms too, and they can be just as upsetting for the person being victimised.

When a recent survey asked 25,126 young Australians about their experiences of bullying, less than a quarter of those who’d been bullied recently said it took the form of physical violence. Young people were more likely to describe:

  • verbal bullying, such as hurtful teasing and name calling
  • social bullying, such as cruel gossip and isolation
  • cyber bullying, such as sharing insulting messages or images of someone online.

If bullying comes in different shapes and sizes, so do the people who do it. We might assume bullying is done by a small number of ‘bad kids’, but the uncomfortable truth is this: many students bully others at some point, including students who are friendly and well-behaved at other times.

Students who bully others tend to fit into one or more of these categories:

  1. The student who’s in a troubled classroom

Students are more likely to bully others if they are in a classroom where:

  • bullying is common or tolerated
  • the culture is very hierarchical
  • teachers use bullying tactics themselves
  • teachers feel disengaged or powerless to stop bullying.

  1. The student who wants attention

In one recent survey, 8 out of 10 students agreed that bullying happened in front of other people most of the time. Some of the most common reasons children give for bullying others include ‘to get attention’ and ‘to make people laugh’. When bystanders react positively towards the bully, the bullying is likely to continue.

  1. The student who just wants to be like their friends

The wish for peer acceptance can be a strong motivator for bullying, especially among secondary students, who influence each other strongly and tend to mirror the levels of bullying they see their friends committing.

  1. The student who has not been taught empathy or responsibility

Some children who bully others have not yet developed the skills to empathise and connect positively with others. Children who bully others may also be morally disengaged from their actions: denying responsibility, blaming others, or ignoring the harm they cause.

  1. The student who’s reached a difficult age

There are points in students’ development when the risk of them bullying others is higher than usual. Historically, the risk of bullying perpetration has been highest for boys in years 5, 7 and 9, and for girls in years 8 and 9.

  1. The student who uses technology in the wrong ways

Warning signs that students may be using technology to bully others include:

  • they seem insensitive or callous towards others
  • they are excessively concerned with being popular or part of a particular social group
  • they show violence or other behavioural problems
  • they become withdrawn or isolated from family
  • they won’t tell or show you what they’re doing online
  • they use their devices at all hours and get unusually upset if they can’t
  • they laugh a lot while using their devices and won’t show you what’s funny
  • they use multiple accounts, or accounts which are not their own
  • they seem conceited about their technological skills.

  1. The student who has problems at home

Students are at higher than average risk of bullying others if they’re growing up in families where people are hostile, distant, abusive, neglectful, highly authoritarian or patriarchal.

One study found that children who bullied others were less likely than their peers to agree with these statements: ‘My family sympathises and understands when I feel sad’ and ‘Members of my family are encouraged to work together in dealing with family problems’.

  1. The student who’s marginalised and struggling

Some bullying is done by students who are living with poor mental health, trauma, learning difficulties, impulsive, anti-social or criminal behaviours, and/or rejection by their peers.

These children may have real problems managing their emotions or their encounters with other people, and they may feel lonely, frustrated or unwanted at school.

  1. The student who’s fixated on being popular

In contrast to the previous group, some students who bully others are popular, with strong social skills and manipulative behaviours. These students have been taught that being popular and powerful is very important – more important than having close friends and being genuinely liked.

  1. The student who has been bullied

One study of Australian teens found that the majority who admitted to bullying others also reported being bullied themselves. For students who’ve been victimised, bullying other people may make them feel safer or more powerful.

So-called ‘bully-victims’ are at higher risk than their peers of low self-esteem, poor mental health, and suicidal behaviours. Experts consider them an especially vulnerable group.

Where to now?

The more we learn about ‘what makes a bully’, the more we realise how important these things are for all students:

  • classroom cultures that are respectful and equitable
  • teachers who understand bullying and are confident to intervene
  • support for students affected by family violence, neglect, mental health problems, learning difficulties and/or disability
  • support for students to recover from bullying
  • adults who teach children to empathise with others, take responsibility for their actions and reject bullying – including when their friends do it
  • responsible use of devices
  • communities that value true friendship and care for others, more than popularity and power.

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