Some Myths and Facts about Bullies and Victims

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

Based on what we see on television or read in the newspapers, many of us develop beliefs about bullies and victims. Sometimes those beliefs are more myth than fact. In this article I describe a few commonly held myths about bullies and victims. I label these beliefs as myths because researchers who study bullies and victims of many different ages and in many different contexts have not found them to be true.

Myth #1: Bullies are rejected by their peers and have no friends.

Many people believe that everybody dislikes the class bully. But in truth, the research shows that many bullies have high status in the classroom and lots of friends (1). Particularly during the middle school years, some bullies are actually quite popular among their classmates who perceive them as especially “cool” (2). As young teens try out their need to be more independent, it seems that bullies sometimes enjoy a new kind of notoriety. Many classmates admire their toughness and may even try to imitate them.

Myth #2: Bullies have low self-esteem.

Just as it has been incorrectly assumed that bullies are rejected by peers and have no friends, there is a general belief that such youth are low in self-esteem. That myth has its roots in the widely accepted view that people who bully others must act that way because they think poorly of themselves. Some readers may remember the self-esteem movement of the 1980s when many people argued that raising self-esteem was the key to improving the outcomes of children with academic and social problems (3). But there is not much evidence in peer research that bullies suffer from low self-esteem (4). To the contrary, many studies report that bullies perceive themselves in a positive light, perhaps sometimes displaying inflated self-views, and that high self-esteem can sometimes encourage bullies to rationalize their antisocial actions (5).

Myth #3: Being a victim builds character.

Another misconception is that bullying is a normal part of childhood and adolescence and that the experience of peer harassment builds character. In contrast to this view, research findings quite clearly show that bullying experiences increase the vulnerabilities of children. For example, we know that children who are passive and socially withdrawn are at heightened risk of getting bullied and that these children become even more withdrawn after incidents of harassment (6).

Myth #4: Many childhood victims of harassment become violent as teens.

The portrayal of victims lashing out at their tormentors has been reinforced by the media portrayals of school shooting incidents over the past few years (7). However, the truth is that most victims of bullying are more likely to suffer in silence than to retaliate. As indicated above, many victims experience psychological adjustment problems like depression and low self-esteem, which may make them inclined to turn inward rather than outward.

Myth #5: There is a victim personality.

Although certain personality characteristics (e.g., the tendency to be shy or withdrawn) indeed place children at higher risk for being bullied, there are also a host of situational factors (e.g., being a new student in school) and social risk factors (e.g., not having a friend) that increase the likelihood of a child being or continuing to get bullied. These situational factors explain why there are more temporary than chronic victims of bullying (8).

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