Unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power inequity. The behavior of bullying is often chronic and includes actions such as threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and purposefully excluding or isolating someone from a group. This aggressive behavior can have severe and long-lasting negative effects on the health and well-being of all participants, regardless of their role in the bullying context (see illustration). In other words, for both bullies and their victims, the consequences of bullying can be dire. See also: Aggression; Developmental psychology; Motivation; Personality theory; Psychology; Sociobiology
Demographics and consequences of bullying
In the United States, studies have shown that approximately 25% of students report having been bullied at school. Bullying is most commonly reported during mid-adolescence, at approximately 13–16 years of age, affecting both males and females; in addition, it appears that minorities and the disabled population appear at particular risk. Traditionally, bullying has been thought of as a behavioral pattern that was largely limited to the playground, locker room, or school cafeteria. However, as access to myriad social media outlets has grown, and the interconnectedness of modern society continues to evolve, it appears that bullying behaviors are becoming more pervasive and far-reaching. Not surprisingly, approximately 15% or more of school-aged students report having been bullied online.
Unfortunately, bullying behaviors are not limited to childhood or adolescence. Nearly three-quarters of adult workers in the United States report either observing or suffering from workplace bullying, with almost two-thirds of victims of bullying losing their jobs. In the professional setting, this translates into approximately 65 million workers involved in or aware of bullying culture at work.
Victims of bullying are at increased risk for a variety of negative consequences. These include (but are not limited to) anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and poor academic and work performance; in many cases, they also include self-harm and suicide. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people, and that bully victims are two to nine times as likely to attempt suicide as nonvictims. Alarmingly, these consequences appear to persist into adulthood. Research has shown that being the target of bullying in adolescence increases the risk for depression and violence later in life, and doubles the risk for suicidal behavior in adults. However, despite these alarming statistics, the majority of victims do not admit having been bullied. In some studies, up to 64% of bullied students failed to report being victims of bullying to parents or school leaders. Programming designed to prevent and respond effectively to bullying behavior is critical in the societal response to this growing problem. See also: Affective disorders; Depression; Emotion; Suicide
Approaches and interventions
To date, typical interventions aimed at the prevention of and response to bullying range from approaches that include broad dissemination of materials related to bullying, engagement of parents and students in more formal educational programs and curricula, online monitoring and restrictions, and workplace training, to more specific and targeted initiatives, such as legislative involvement, laws, and policies and procedures regarding the response to bullying behaviors.
Research in this area has shown that bully victims report social support from peers, parents, and school leaders as having the most positive impact. They also report that the most helpful things that others can do for them are (1) listen to their concerns, (2) follow up after initial conversations (“checking in”), and (3) encourage them to find other outlets for support. On the other hand, feeling that their concerns are being ignored, being told to “just walk away,” and simply having the situation not taken seriously were identified as the most damaging to and least supportive of victims. In some cases, formal counseling for both bully victims and perpetrators is prescribed, and this may include family counseling as well as school or workplace interventions. In general, it is the recommendation of the field to consistently assess and monitor bullying behaviors, engage people in preventative strategies, set clear rules, and educate people about bullying and its consequences in hopes of reducing the prevalence of bullying overall. However, despite the rapid growth in programming aimed at the prevention and treatment of bullying, the negative consequences of this social burden persist.
As mentioned previously, bullying increases the risk for many negative health behaviors, including substance abuse, depression, anxiety, violent behavior, and self-harm. Because bullying is so prevalent, interventions that are simple, accessible, and cost-effective are critical components necessary to the public health response to this social burden. Many studies have shown that exercise has a profoundly positive effect on mental health—regardless of age, fitness level, and gender. Exercise has been shown to improve self-esteem, reduce depression and anxiety, improve mood, and reduce substance abuse. In addition, it is well known that exercise can reduce and maintain body weight, an important consideration not to be overlooked because overweight children and adults are frequently targeted in bullying contexts. Intriguingly, bullied students who exercised four or more days per week were found to have a 23% reduction in the odds of attempting suicide as compared to bullied peers who did not exercise. These findings certainly support the continued development of overall wellness across the life span for both physical and mental health. See also: Public health
It is imperative to continue to identify and respond to bullying across the life span; this includes identification of new and cost-effective strategies that engage children and adults alike in the pursuit of social respect and equality. In particular, through education, peer training, and healthy lifestyle interventions, including exercise, it may be possible to turn the tide on this terrible epidemic, creating a culture of support in both school and workplace communities.