Shoving, Gossip, and Beyond: How Environment Shapes Bullies

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

We are all familiar with the stereotype of the common childhood bully: a large, brutish boy, shoving and ramming everything that gets in the way of him and the prompt acquisition of all the other kids’ lunch money. But what about the more subtle forms of aggression such as social exclusion or rumour spreading? Like physical aggression, social aggression can have devastating effects on the victims, including anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide.

Physical Aggression: Decreases With Age and "Unlearned" Over Time

Physical aggression (e.g., hitting, pushing, or grabbing others’ property) seems to be a rather natural behavior in toddlers, although children differ considerably with respect to the frequency and intensity with which such behavior is enacted. Over the course of early and middle childhood, most children learn to regulate their behavior and to use more socially acceptable strategies when dealing with their peers. Not all children learn to inhibit their physically aggressive behavior, however, and about 15% percent of children remain on a stable and high trajectory of physical aggression from infancy throughout the preschool years and beyond (1). Moreover, although most children seem to “unlearn” physical aggression in favor of more socially acceptable alternatives, these alternatives do not always include positive social behaviors such as negotiation or sharing. Indeed, at approximately four to five years of age some children begin to display socially aggressive behavior (2). The use of this type of social aggression then gradually increases with age and seems to reach a peak in adolescence (3). The nature of social aggression also becomes increasingly diverse as children mature, with aggressive acts such as public slander carried out via e-mail, text messages, or chat rooms (4).

Social Aggression: Increases With Age and Learned Over Time

The decrease in physical aggression and the increase in social aggression that researchers have documented from early childhood through mid-adolescence suggest that social aggression may be more of a learned behavior than physical aggression. Support for this notion comes from research on the relative influence of genetic factors versus environmental factors in terms of behavior. Findings from this type of research suggest that at least 50% of differences between individuals in physical aggression during childhood are attributable to genetic influences whereas the other 50% are due to environmental influences. In other words, physical aggression in children seems to be equal parts nature and nurture. Although social aggression appears to be influenced by the same genes that influence physical aggression, the overall effect of heredity on social aggression is relatively small (5). Instead, social aggression seems to be mostly shaped by a child’s environment. It is also important to note that the environmental influences that determine social aggression seem to be different from the environmental influences that determine physical aggression (5). Environmental Influences on Physical Aggression Explained What are the environmental influences that promote aggression? Research suggests that the family context in general, and parental behaviors in particular, are among the main environmental contributors to child physical aggression. Thus, a lack of parental monitoring, harsh disciplinary practices (e.g., hitting, shouting) toward the child, and a lack of warmth have been shown to foster physically aggressive behavior in the child, and these effects may be exacerbated in families living in already chaotic circumstances (6). Notably, these environmental influences are found even when accounting for genetic effects on physical aggression. Children who are exposed to a significantly stressful family environment at a young age are less likely to learn how to regulate their behavior and more likely to show continuously high levels of physical aggression.

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