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What Do Kids Have to Say About Bullying?


By Susan P. Limber, PhD (Professor of Psychology, Clemson University)

In recent years, adults have had a lot to say about bullying.  Members of the press have produced thousands of news articles and reports about bullying.  Legislators in 49 states have written and rewritten laws requiring school districts to develop policies about bullying.  And researchers, like myself, have published hundreds of articles and books each year about the nature of bullying, its prevalence, the effects it has on kids and schools, and ways to best address it.

Talking about bullying is important.  For too many years, we adults were strangely silent about this issue.  But amidst all of the talk among adults, it’s important not to lose the voices of kids themselves.  What do they have to tell us about their experiences with bullying?  How do they feel about bullying? How do they react to it?  How do they see others responding to bullying?

Recently, in an effort to understand how boys and girls in elementary, middle, and high school grades experience and view bullying, my colleagues, Dan Olweus, Harlan Luxenberg, and I analyzed surveys from 20,000 3rd-12th graders from schools across the U.S. that had not yet implemented the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program [link to the full report].  Here’s some of what we found:

Bullying is serious.  This seems obvious, but responses to our survey were sobering regarding the numbers of kids who were involved in bullying, the duration of bullying that many had endured, and the fear it caused.

  1. One out of every five students said they were involved in bullying (as one who bullies, one who is bullied, or both) 2-3 times a month or more often.

  2. Among those who said they were bullied, one-quarter had been bullied for several years.  Although any amount of bullying is too much and may be extremely painful, one can only imagine that bullying that lasts several years is agonizing.

  3. Fourteen percent of students said they are often afraid of being bullied at school.  This fear undoubtedly makes it hard to focus on lessons and perform to the best of one’s abilities.

Adults hold some misconceptions about bullying.  

  1. The most common forms of bullying that students experienced weren’t cyberbullying or even physical bullying–they were verbal bullying, rumor-spreading, and, social exclusion.   Although some media accounts may lead us to believe that cyberbullying is an epidemic, students in our study confirm that electronic forms of bullying, however troubling, are not as common as other more “traditional” forms of bullying.

  2. Many adults believe that they are very much aware of bullying that goes on in their schools and communities, but fewer than one in six bullied students in our study had told an adult at school about being bullied, and a disturbing number—30% of bullied high school girls and 41% of bullied high school boys–had not told anyone about being bullied.

Most students feel sorry for bullied peers, but empathy often doesn’t translate to action.

  1. Nine out of 10 students reported that they felt sorry for kids their age who were bullied at school.

  2. Did they try to stop bullying?  Although 70% of elementary-aged students said they tried to help out if a peer was bullied, these numbers dropped quickly in middle school, where fewer than half reported trying to help.  School and community-based efforts to increase witnesses’ comfort level to support bullied students, report bullying to adults, and speak out against bullying are clearly needed.

Our findings, and those of others, show that bullying is still a major issue facing children and youth.  We need to take their views seriously as we work to reduce the impact of this public health problem.

Susan P. Limber, PhD

Professor Susan Limber’s research and writing have focused on legal and psychological issues related to youth violence, child protection, and children’s rights. She was the 1997 recipient of the Saleem Shah Award from the American Psychology-Law Society for early career excellence in law and policy. In 2000, she was named Researcher of the Year by the South Carolina Professional Society on Abuse of Children. Prof. Limber’s work on prevention of bullying has been recognized as exemplary by three federal agencies, and it has served as the basis for the federally funded design of a national public information campaign. In further recognition of this work, Prof. Limber received the APA’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psyschology in the Public Interest in 2004. Prof. Limber’s consultation on the media campaign also was recognized with a National Telly Award and an Award of Excellence from the National Association of Government Communicators. She is a past chair of the APA Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

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