Statement of the Problem
Bullying at school is a persistent problem that has been around for centuries, taking different shapes and forms. It is a wide range of systematic aggressive actions and behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal, that target a specific person with the purpose of diminishing their worth, undermining their social standing, and hurting them (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). As Wolke & Lereya (2015) explain, bullying has been found in all types of societies: from the modern hunter-gatherer to the most developed ones.
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Bullying is the most common type of abuse experienced by children and teenagers: its prevalence surpasses the rates of abuse by parents and other adults. Wolke & Lereya (2015) report that one in three children has been abused at least in their lives. 10-14% of children have been subject to chronic bullying lasting over six months.
These statistics imply that the problem is pervasive, which calls for more research and investigation. The question might arise as to exactly why bullying happens and whether mental disorders cause people to behave in ways that are harmful to others. Wolke and Lereya (2015) write that bullying might as well be emotional mechanism that helps the bully to improve their social standing by attacking someone who is not able to participate.
Bullies are aggressive and prosocial: they position themselves as powerful and at the same time integral to the group (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). Therefore, it is safe to assume that no social group is truly immune to bullying, which motivates the need to study the problem further.
Bullying has long been a cause for concern for parents and educators. Not only does it harm a victim at the moment of occurence, but it also has lingering effects that can decrease a person’s quality of life in the long run (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). Wolke and Lereya (2015) argue that the problem is that the majority of studies on bullying are cross-sectional and only use follow-ups after a short period of time. Thus, the knowledge gap remains: long term effects of bullying have yet to be pinpointed.
Bullying is an umbrella term for a multitude of harmful behaviors. Given how difficult it is sometimes to identify and detect bullying, it is only reasonable to discuss its various forms that entail both direct and indirect expression of aggression. Rosen, Deornellas, and Scott (2016) provide a comprehensive frame of reference covering the most common types of bullying:
- physical bullying occurs when individuals use physical actions to overpower, humiliate, and hurt another human being. Physical bullying involves but is not limited to kicking, punching, slapping, pinching, hitting, and other physical assaults. This type of bullying is probably the easiest to recognize, which makes a great number of people think that it is the only “real” form;
- verbal bullying refers to situations when perpetrators use words, statements, and name-calling to do harm. Even though verbal bullying does not cause physical injuries, it still leads to lingering negative effects in terms of mental health and emotional well-being (Rosen, Deornellas & Scott, 2016);
- relational aggression occurs in personal relationships with toxic dynamics. Bullying perpetrators use relational aggression by twisting social bonds in a way that hurts a victim’s status and standing. For instance, relational aggressors might encourage others to boycott a person and ostracize him or her completely from their social group;
- cyberbullying takes place online and includes aggressive actions such as posting images without a victim’s consent, leaving hurtful comments, and making insulting posts. Due to the new generation’s high engagement with social media, cyberbullying has increased in prevalence in the last few years. Wolke and Lereya (2015) report the prevalence of cyberbullying of estimatedly 4.5-5%. Cyberbullying is distinct from “traditional bullying” due to how fast information spreads on the web. Besides, the online world is characterized by the permanency of everything that is being posted;
- sexual bullying involves actions that target a person sexually. Sexual bullying may involve but is not limited to crude comments about a person’s sexuality or appearance, unwanted physical contact, and inappropriate propositions. At present, sexual bullying often overlaps with.
- prejudicial bullying means targeting individuals based on their personal characteristics such as gender, race, orientation, religious beliefs, and others. As the name suggests, in this case, bullies navigate the social scene using prejudice.
At present, there is an ample body of evidence suggesting that bullying victimization leads to poor outcomes in various areas of life. Firstly, bullying might prevent students from achieving their academic goals. As Al-Raqqad, Al-Bourini, Al Talahin, and Aranki (2017) explain, the victims of bullying have a higher likelihood of failing school due to the strain that the exposure puts on their cognitive faculties.
Engaging with new material requires focus and concentration that in the case of bullying, are often dissipated and insufficient. Apart from that, bullying is associated with decreased self-belief and self-confidence required for overcoming difficulties that are an inevitable part of the academic process (Al-Raqqad et al., 2017). In their study, Al-Raqqad et al. (2017) sought to find out the impact of bullying on students’ academic performance. They offered a total of 220 of middle school (sixth and seventh grades) students and teachers in Jordan two different questionnaires.
The students reported their experiences with bullying, with the results later being matched with their academic metrics. Teachers answered questions regarding their beliefs about the relationship between bullying and academic achievement. Data analysis has clearly shown a strong positive correlation between being the victim of bullying and performing poorly at school. Teachers have demonstrated sufficient knowledge about bullying and its impact on students’ academic achievement. It is worth noting that the prevalence of bullying did not vary significantly depending on the type of school – private or governmental (Al-Raqqad et al., 2017). The study confirms what other similar studies have reported: bullying is found in various communities and may impede students from being successful at school.
Now that it has been established that bullying generally leads to poorer outcomes for victims, the question whether the effects persist. Sigurdson, Undheim, Wallander, Lydersen, and Sund (2015) studied the long-term effects of being bullied in adolescence. Namely, Undheim et al. (2015) were particularly interested in psychopathology of bullying victims in regards to externalizing and internalizing symptoms. The researchers operationalized internalizing symptoms as mental issues that remain within an individual with some of the common forms being depression and anxiety.
Externalizing symptoms, on the other hand, reveal themselves through interaction with other people: being antisocial, violent, aggressive, and other forms of unhealthy interpersonal behavior (Undheim et al., 2015). Undheim et al. (2015) studied data on 2,846 individuals collected when they were adolescents (14-15 years old) and young adults (27 years old). The researchers employed a questionnaire on being bullied that included different kinds of bullying (physical assault, verbal insults, freezing one out of a peer group, and others) and Youth Self Report used for emotional, behavioral, and social assessment. Externalized and internalized symptoms were measured using ASR-Mental Health and Mood and Feeling questionnaires.
The data analysis has clearly demonstrated that those adults that were exposed to bullying in their younger years showed more pronounced broadband externalizing and internalizing problems as opposed to those who did not have such experience. Moreover, bullying victims had a hard time focusing in adulthood. The most concerning finding reported by Undheim et al. (2015) was that exposure to bullying does not only put a person at a higher risk at having mental health problems but it also accounts for a shift to the top range.
In other words, bullying victims are likely to not only be depressed but severely impaired by this mental condition (Undheim et al., 2015). Lastly, those who scored high on the bullying questionnaire showed significant social maladjustment in adulthood. Apparently, being subject to verbal and non-verbal violence prevented many of them from internalizing social norms, which created problems with social functioning later in life.
One may wonder as to exactly what leads to the problems with the adoption of social norms in bullying victims. The evidence gathered by Williford et al. (2016) might provide a plausible answer: the researchers have found that victimization leads to decreased levels of empathy. Williford et al. (2016) define empathy as the ability to comprehend another person’s emotional state and commiserate.
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The researchers state that empathy is an essential component in building sustainable bonds with other people and finessing one’s social behavior to keep it attuned to the norm. Overall, as Williford et al. (2016) suggest based on prior research, high level of empathy are associated with altruistic and prosocial behavioral patterns, which accounts for better social acceptance of an individual. According to Williford et al. (2016), there are two main types of empathy: cognitive and affective. The latter is the one that allows a person to vicariously sympathize with another human being while the former accounts for more logical understanding of a situation. While affective empathy is mostly genetically predisposed, the other type is learned and developed: it helps a person in skilled social negotiations (Williford et al., 2016).
The researchers recruited 674 primary school students for the first round of data collection; later checkpoints were during middle school. Williford et al. (2016) discovered that cognitive empathy decreases as bullying victimization increases, which is consistent with prior evidence. What is especially significant about the study is that it captured the dynamics of transitioning from elementary school to middle school.
As Williford et al. (2016) explain, by the time children start middle school, they have to learn negotiation strategies. If previously they were mostly focusing on themselves, the new psychosocial realities make them take others into account as well. Apparently, being bullied at a young age causes a significant disruption in how children navigate the social scene. Those who have been victimized are likely to lose the ability to adapt which pertains into middle school and even further.
Another possible outcome of bullying is substance abuse and bad habits: drinking alcohol, smoking, recreational drug use, and others. Kelly et al. (2015) argue that late childhood and adolescence are the stages of life characterized by increased vulnerability and susceptibility to risky behaviors. As Kelly et al. (2015) explain, during these years, children and teenagers undergo significant development changes: physical, psychological, social, and behavioral. Some of these changes are especially challenging and emotionally straining, and their successful management and adjustment requires an accepting and positive environment (Kelly et al., 2015).
Evidently, the latter is not always the case, which made Kelly et al. (2015) inquire whether bullying was a moderating factor in forming bad habits. The researchers recruited 2,608 Australian adolescents for an initial data collection and followed up two years later. The data analysis has shown a correlation between bullying and substance abuse. Interestingly enough, the most pronounced effect was observed in the group of so-called “bully-victims:” individuals who were both the victims and perpetrators of abuse. The study suggests that bullying during formative years might predispose a person for substance abuse later in life. One explanation that Kelly et al. (2015) provide based on the existing evidence is that smoking, alcohol, and drug use might provide a short-lived relief for emotional stress and deep-seated psychological issues.
Probably, the most tragic outcome for a bullying victim is committing suicide later in life. The logical question arises whether there is truly an association between the two phenomena when controlled for baseline psychopathology. Klomek, Sourander, and Elonheimo (2018) conducted a meta-analysis in search of relationships between exposure to bullying suicidality in adulthood. Suicidality was operationalized as including suicide, suicidal ideation, and suididal attempts (Klomek, Sourander & Elonheimo, 2018).
The studies were mostly revolving around the long-term effects on suicidality as the data was collected with quite a number of years in between. The researchers discovered conflicting evidence: some studies such as the one carried out by Takizawa and colleagues has shown a strong association between victimization and suicidality. Others, on the other hand, made distinctions: for instance, the British Birth Cohort study stated that the outcomes of bullying in regards to suicidality were quite different for women and men. Klomek, Sourander, and Elonheimo (2018) report that only frequent victimization was a predisposition for suicidality in females.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of the present study is to explore the effects of bullying in a particular age group, namely, elementary school students (age 7-11). The study will span over the next eight years of their lives to pinpoint the impact of interpersonal aggression in the long run. In alignment with the study purpose, the following research questions are to be answered:
- Does bullying victimization in elementary school impact academic achievement in middle school and high school?
- Does bullying victimization in elementary school correlate with deviant/ antisocial behavior in middle school and high school?
- Does bullying victimization in elementary school a risk factor for developing mental disorders such as anxiety and depression?
As seen from the list of questions, the study will build on the main findings described in the literature review and explore the impact of bullying from different perspectives. The null hypothesis for each of the questions outlined is the presence of a positive correlation between:
- bullying victimization and poor academic achievement;
- bullying victimization and deviant behavior;
- bullying victimization and higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Definition of Terms
Before moving forward with the present research proposal, it is essential to operationalize the key terms used in this paper, the main of which is bullying. Hymel and Swearer (2015) build on the research done by the pioneer psychologist Olweus who laid the foundation for the conceptualization and investigation of bullying in the 1970s-1980s. According to Olweus, bullying is a subcategory of interpersonal aggression whose key characteristics include intentionality, repetition, and an imbalance of power.
As highlighted by Hymel and Swearer (2015), the primary distinction between bullying and other forms of interpersonal aggression is in abuse of power as the underlying component and predisposition. However, Hymel and Swearer (2015) suggest that the given definition may not be exhaustive as recognized methods for bullying assessment do not always employ all the aforementioned characteristics. This means that the vagueness or non-applicability of the most common definition might blur the line between bullying and other forms of aggression.
Further analysis has shown that bullying may be operationalized in different ways depending on whose point of view is taken into account. Hymel and Swearer (2015) explain that recent literature has been mainly focusing on deriving the extended definition of bullying from the victims themselves. As the researchers point out, teachers’ and parents’ accounts are often suspect: they are limited in their knowledge as they are not immersed in the situation.
Hellström, Persson, and Hagquist (2015) researched children’s views on bullying and discovered that their definitions rarely overlapped with the traditional one. It became apparent that children did not tend to emphasize the repetition aspect: they suggested that even one incident can be considered bullying. For the study’s participants, the most significant criterion was the effect of bullying behaviors.
Younger children were more likely to mention the physical side of bullying while older children focused on the nature and consequences of verbal abuse (Hellström, Persson / Hagquist, 2015). Drawing on these two studies, the working definition for this study is as follows: “Bullying is a form of interpersonal aggression that may include physical and verbal abuse, that revolves around the abuse of power, and that causes short-term and long-term negative effects on a victim.”
The first assumption this study makes is the multidimensionality and complexity of bullying as a phenomenon. As seen from the working definition, bullying is not limited to repetitive behaviors. This is especially confirmed by actual victims’ accounts who state that even one incident of interpersonal aggression can do harm to another person’s physical and mental health. Therefore, to be categorized as a bullying victim, a participant will need to have at least one episode of being exposed to interpersonal aggression. The second assumption is the non-arguability of whether negative or neutral impact that bullying has on the explored outcomes (academic achievement, deviant behavior, mental health). The present study does not seek to study positive effects of bullying despite the presence of scarce evidence on the subject matter.
The present study will recruit elementary school students from grade one to grade four. The appropriate sampling is convenience sampling, which in the case of the proposed study, will mean contacting local schools and seeing whether they are interested in participating. It will be essential to gain informed consent from children’s parents since none of the participants will be a legal adult. The data collection will take place nine times: these will include the initial collection and subsequent annual follow-ups every year. The initial data collection will employ a bullying questionnaire adapted from previous research and expanded to include all types of bullying.
The wording of the questionnaire will be adapted in order to make it more comprehensible for elementary schoolers. The participants’ grades will be provided by their school teachers. Their behavior characteristics will not be self-reported: instead, researchers will ask teachers to fill in a questionnaire put together in accordance with the deviant behavior variety scale. Lastly, the participants’ mental health will be assessed using ASR-Mental Health and Mood and Feeling questionnaires as proposed by Undheim et al. (2015).
Data analysis and Results
The data analysis for the present study will employ simple linear regression for discovering the relationships between the following pairs of variables:
- bullying victimization and poor academic achievement;
- bullying victimization and deviant behavior;
- bullying victimization and higher rates of anxiety and depression.
To understand which factor is the most powerful, principal component analysis (PCA) will be applied. The academic performance will be operationalized as school grades; the grades in two groups – bullying victims and the rest – will be compared using ANOVA (analysis of variance). However, if the data will not be normally distributed, other statistical tests might be needed, for instance, Mann-Whitney U-test. The same statistical methods will help to compare the scores for the other tests – deviant behavior variety scale, ASR-mental health, and Mood and Feeling Questionnaires. It is expected that those who fell victim to bullying will demonstrate poorer academic performance and higher rates of depression, anxiety, and deviant behavior as opposed to those who did not have such experience.
If the findings of the study confirm the null hypothesis, they will contribute to the existing body of evidence on the negative impact of bullying. The implications for educators and parents will be that bullying needs to be stopped before escalation to more violent forms and serious traumatization of the victim. The findings of the study might prove to be useful in raising awareness of this problematic phenomenon and making an effort in eradicating it in school setting.
Another implication might be taken into consideration by school counselors and psychologists who often have to handle students with deviant behavior, poor academic achievement, and low motivation. Presumably, they could test the said students for history of bullying victimization and then address the past traumas to have and intervention and help them recover. If the findings of the study reject the null hypothesis, there are two ways to handle the results. Firstly, researchers might want to revise the study methods to make sure that they were robust. Secondly, if the latter does not apply, these unexpected findings might as well lay a foundation for a subsequent study in positive adjustment of former bullying victims.
For all its advantages, the present study is not likely to be devoid of a number of limitations. The first threat to validity might be sample size and representation of different genders, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. If the sample is too small and not representative of the aforementioned demographic cohorts, the results might as well not be exactly inferrable (Queirós, Faria & Almeida, 2017).
The second threat is the subjective perception of bullying: as Wolke and Lereya (2015) pointed out in their study, younger children tend to associate bullying with physical aggression. Therefore, some of them might underreport other kinds of bullying such as verbal aggression or relational aggression. The future research needs to tackle these issues and narrow down the scope to focus on some particular aspects of the subject matter. For instance, the researchers might want to explore the coping strategies mechanisms in bullying victims versus the rest of the population. Another plausible idea is to expand the number of explored effects and add some more such as the likelihood of substance abuse depending on the incidents of bullying in elementary school.
Bullying is a serious problem and a cause for concern for parents and educators. Bullying encompasses a wide range of behaviors that include verbal aggression, physical assault, prejudice, relational aggression, and some other types. The existing scientific evidence suggests that bullying leads to many negative outcomes for those affected: they tend to perform worse at school, have lower self-esteem, and be inclined to abuse substances.
The proposed study seeks to identify the long-term effects of bullying in elementary school. For this, elementary school children will be recruited and with the consent from their parents, fill in self-reports on bullying and mental health tests. Their behavior will be assessed by independent observers, and the grades will be provided by their school teachers. It is expected that bullying victims will demonstrate poorer academic performance and higher rates of depression, anxiety, and deviant/ antisocial behavior.
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Hellström, L., Persson, L., & Hagquist, C. (2015). Understanding and defining bullying–adolescents’ own views. Archives of public health, 73(1), 4.
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Williford, A., Boulton, A. J., Forrest-Bank, S. S., Bender, K. A., Dieterich, W. A., & Jenson, J. M. (2016). The effect of bullying and victimization on cognitive empathy development during the transition to middle school. In Child & Youth Care Forum (Vol. 45, No. 4, pp. 525-541). New York, NY: Springer US.
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