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:
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:
Students are more likely to bully others if they are in a classroom where:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warning signs that students may be using technology to bully others include:
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’.
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.
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.
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.
The more we learn about ‘what makes a bully’, the more we realise how important these things are for all students:
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