Definitions/Characteristics of Bullying (page 2)
Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying
Bullying incidents tend to involve three different groups of students: Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders. While the young people within each of these groups share many similarities, each group can be further divided into subgroups of students with different personalities, motivations, and behaviors. It is important to understand the nature and range of the young people who fall into each of these three groups in order to effectively plan and deliver bullying prevention activities.
In a 1978 study, Olweus described three different types of bully: the aggressive bully, the passive bully, and the bully-victim. These characterizations still hold true today.
- Aggressive bullies are the most common type of bully. Young people who fall into this category tend to be physically strong, impulsive, hot-tempered, belligerent, fearless, coercive, confident, and lacking in empathy for their victims. They have an aggressive personality and are motivated by power and the desire to dominate others. They are also likely to make negative attributions, often seeing slights or hostility in those around them where neither actually exists. According to Olweus, the aggressive bully tends to be most popular in the early school years and then less so in the upper grades — perhaps because young children are more likely than older students to admire the macho image. As students get older, they become better able to think critically about peers and "leaders."
In contrast to the popular notion that bullies lack social skills, research has shown that bullies are actually quite adept at reading social cues and perspective-taking. Rather than using these skills prosocially, such as to empathize with others, they instead use them to identify and prey on peer vulnerabilities.
"All data point in the same direction … that bullies have no problem with self-esteem."
– Dan Olweus, 2002 OSDFS National Technical Assistance Meeting
- Passive bullies, unlike the ultra-confident aggressive bullies, tend to be insecure. They are also much less popular than the aggressive bullies and often have low-self esteem, few likable qualities, and unhappy home lives. Passive bullies also appear to have difficulties concentrating and focusing their attention at school, as well as violent outbursts or temper tantrums that lead to problems with their peers. Rather than initiating a bullying interaction, passive bullies tend to hang back until one is already under way — usually at the instigation of an aggressive bully. Once a bullying incident begins, passive bullies become enthusiastic participants. In fact, passive bullies are very quick to align themselves with and display intense loyalty to the more powerful aggressive bullies. Some researchers refer to this group as anxious bullies.
- Bully-victims represent a small percentage of bullies who have been seriously bullied themselves. Bully-victims are often physically weaker than those who bully them but are almost always physically stronger than their own victims. They possess some of the same characteristics as provocative victims (described below); they are easily aroused and sometimes provoke others who are clearly weaker than they are. Bully-victims are generally unpopular with their peers, and they are more likely than other types of bullies to be both anxious and depressed.
- Dieter Wolke, of the University of Hertfordshire, England, identified a fourth group of bullies: pure bullies. "It appears that pure bullies are healthy individuals, who enjoy school and use bullying to obtain dominance," says Wolke, who labels these children "cool operators." Pure bullies have not been victimized themselves, and they are rarely absent from school — presumably because they enjoy victimizing their peers.
Bullies do not randomly attack their peers; instead, they target a specific subgroup of students who are often victimized over the course of several years. Just like bullies, victims are a heterogeneous group. Olweus describes three types of victim: the passive victim, the provocative victim, and bully-victim (described above).
Passive victims do not directly provoke bullies and represent the largest group of victimized children. They are socially withdrawn, often seem anxious, depressed, and fearful, and have very poor self-concepts. When compared with their non-victimized peers, passive victims have fewer if any friends, are lonely and sad, and are more nervous about new situations. This cluster of symptoms makes them attractive targets for bullies who are unusually competent in detecting vulnerability. In the early grades, initial responses to bullying among passive victims include crying, withdrawal, and futile anger. In later grades, they tend to respond by trying to avoid and escape from bullying situations (e.g., being absent from school, running away from home).
While there is evidence that some of the characteristics of passive victims precede and contribute to their victimization experiences, it is also clear that many of their personal attributes also result from being bullied. According to Swearer and colleagues (2001): "The victims' behaviors and emotional states may make them vulnerable to bullying. The bullying behavior towards them may perpetuate their issues with low-self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, which may make them increasingly vulnerable to bullying."
Click here for some possible signs of victimization.
Other researchers have described some subgroups that may be present within the broad category of passive victims:
- Vicarious victims, or surrogate victims, either witness or hear about bullying incidents at school. They are victims of the school's climate of fear and worry about their own potential to become targets of bullying. As a result of this perceived vulnerability as well as concern about direct retribution from bullies, they choose not to help bullying victims or report bullying incidents even though they often feel sympathetic — which often leads to feelings of guilt (Besag, 1989).
- False victims represent a small group of students who complain frequently and without justification to their teachers about being bullied by their classmates. This behavior seems to be a bid for attention and sympathy from the teacher. This is problematic for two main reasons: 1) these children should learn that there are legitimate ways to get attention, and 2) teachers who may be unsympathetic about the problem of bullying could use this behavior as an excuse to ignore all complaints about bullying (Besag, 1989).
- Perpetual victims are those victims who are bullied all of their lives. While "perpetual" refers to the duration of bullying rather than a subgroup of victim, it is interesting to consider the possibility that some children may develop a victim mentality whereby the victim role becomes a permanent part of their psyches (Elliott, 1993).
- Provocative victims represent a small group of children who often behave in ways that arouse negative responses from those around them, such as anger, irritation, and exasperation. They possess a cluster of characteristics that are likely to disrupt a classroom and lead to social rejection by peers, including irritability, restlessness, off-task behavior, and hostility. Although they are a distinct subgroup, provocative victims often display characteristics of other groups of children as well — including pure bullies (i.e., they have elevated levels of dominant, aggressive, and antisocial behavior and low levels of tolerance for frustration) and passive victims (i.e., they are socially anxious, feel disliked by others, and have low self-esteem).
Nathan, aged 10, was described by his class teacher as a child who lived "on the edge of his nerves," never still, and with "his brain disconnected from his mouth." The latter trait made it likely that he would make loud remarks about other children's appearance or their work that would make them angry. He would then say to them, "What are you going to do about it then?" whereupon two or three of them might show him, violently. Nathan was described as the most unpopular child in the school, as the one "everybody loves to hate" (Randall, 1997, p. 94).
It is important to keep in mind that students who fall into this category may possess a disability of some sort (e.g., a learning disability, attention deficit disorder) that contributes to their provocative behavior. In addition to helping these young people deal with the consequences of their victimization, it would also be helpful to assess the potential causes of their challenging behavior. If a disability is present, then an accurate diagnosis followed by targeted services could go a long way toward preventing further victimization.
Click here for a list of significant identifying characteristics for victims as rated by experts.
Click here to review some of the short- and long-term consequences for victims.
Multiple factors contribute to a bully's selection of victim, including the complicated interplay of a bully's motivation, a victim's characteristics, and the specific circumstances of the bullying situation. For example, availability may be a key factor in victim selection if a bully simply wants to elevate his or her status with peers. However, if a bully is looking for some sort of tangible payoff, then he or she might choose a target who is known to have money and likely to be submissive. If a bully wants to display power, then he or she might target a provocative victim who is noted for fighting back ineffectively.