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Home > Research Articles > Bullying May Be Sign of Other Violent Behavior

Reuters Health

Monday, April 14, 2003

Bullying may be a part of many people's childhood experiences, but the practice is not normal and it is not harmless, according to a team of Bethesda, Maryland researchers.

In fact, being involved in bullying -- either as the bully or the target -- during the school years may be a sign that a child is more likely to carry a weapon or be involved in other more serious violent behaviors, study results released Monday show.

Although the Columbine school shootings and other similar incidents have raised questions about whether people who are bullied are more likely to engage in violent behavior, the researchers note, the present study suggests that violent behavior is likely to be more prevalent among the bullies themselves.

The researchers estimate that nearly three million students in the U.S. have been injured in a fight in the past year and 1.7 million students are frequent fighters. Further, an estimated 2.7 million students have carried a weapon during the past month, including nearly two million who carried the weapon to school.

"Bullying should not be considered 'normal' behavior among youth. It is socially abusive behavior, and is associated with involvement in other kinds of problem behavior," lead study author Dr. Tonja R. Nansel, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development told Reuters Health.

"Just as high blood pressure and high cholesterol serve as warning signs for heart disease, bullying others may indicate the presence of other problem behaviors," Nansel said.

The study's findings are based on a nationwide survey of nearly 16,000 public and private school students in grades 6 through 10. Students were identified as having been bullied if they reported that another student, or group of students, had done or said something unpleasant to them or if they were teased repeatedly.

Close to eight percent of boys and six percent of girls said they were sometimes bullied in school and five percent of boys and almost four percent of girls said they were sometimes bullied away from school. Nearly 12 percent of boys and seven percent of girls admitted to bullying others in school and seven percent of boys and about four percent of girls said they bullied others away from school.

Bullies were the most likely to report violence-related behaviors, such as participating in four or more fights during the past year, being treated by a doctor or nurse for fighting-related injuries during the past year and having carried a weapon during the past 30 days. Yet those who said they were the target of bullying were also more likely to report these violence-related behaviors than students who had never been bullied or acted as a bully.

"A child who is bullied is given the message that the world is not a safe place, and she or he cannot necessarily trust others," Nansel said. "This can lead to violence-related behaviors."

And the location of the bullying also seemed to influence whether students reported weapon carrying, the report indicates.

Students who said they were sometimes bullied in school were 50 percent more likely to report carrying a weapon and those who acted as bullies in school were nearly three times as likely as those who said they were never involved. Away from school, however, being bullied and bullying others was associated with a four- and six-fold increased risk of carrying weapons.

When the bullying occurs away from school grounds, "there is likely to be less adult supervision and protection for the child who is being bullied," Nansel said. "So the degree of threat to the child being bullied is higher, as is the possibility for escalation into violence."

Overall, up to 23 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls said they had carried a weapon in school, engaged in frequent physical fighting and had been injured in a physical fight, respectively, the report indicates.

Commenting on the study, Nancy Guerra, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside said she's "most concerned about the weapon carrying," considering schools' zero tolerance policies toward the practice.

She was also "struck" by the high prevalence of fighting and bullying.

However, Guerra pointed out that the relationship between bullying and fighting is unclear, since bullying may indeed predict fighting -- as the study suggests -- but the opposite may also be true.

"It's hard to make a distinction between bullying and fighting when in fact people usually don't start fights (or) get into fights unless they have some reasonable chance of winning."

As for the other violence-related behaviors studied -- being injured in a physical fight and weapon carrying -- Guerra says, "of course if you get into more fights, you're more likely to be injured." Further, while people who are frequent targets of bullies may indeed be likely to start carrying weapons; on the other hand, "you're more likely to bully someone if you have some kind of weapon," she said, noting that it is again unclear which behavior predicts the other.

Guerra said that the "really significant" finding is the fact that the behaviors are so prevalent.

"I'd be more concerned about that than 'bullying predicts serious violence,' because it's not a (long-term) study," she said.

The authors didn't distinguish between "serious" bullying and repeated teasing, which may have led to inflated rates of bullying, Guerra added, but our society's "high tolerance ... for just saying and doing nasty things" should be addressed."

"It's good that they bring attention to this because even if it doesn't cause serious school shootings, it is important to create a more civil society where people treat each other nicely."

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 2003;348-353.