The most widely studied forms of bullying are physical, verbal, and relational (e.g., gossiping). These designations focus primarily on differences in the behavior of the perpetrator. Another way to define differences in forms of bullying is to highlight the reasons a target child might be chosen by a perpetrator. During the period of adolescence, such reasons might include the potential target child’s behaviors, gender, ethnicity, physical strength, and style of dress. Each of these potential reasons is observable, may make an adolescent stand out from his or her peers, and consequently put the adolescent at greater risk for being targeted.

One of these factors, ethnicity-based discrimination by peers, has been studied in school settings by researchers in the United States (1) and Europe (2). A student is said to experience discrimination if he or she perceives unfavorable treatment by other students because of his or her ethnicity. In multi-ethnic school settings, students from all ethnic groups reported ethnicity-based discrimination experiences such as name-calling and exclusion.

Prevalence of Ethnicity- and Gender-Based Peer Discrimination

With an ethnically diverse sample of about 1200 ninth grade students from Los Angeles (12% Asian, 18% Black, 47% Latino, 11% White, 12% other/multi-ethnic), we compared adolescents’ experiences of general peer victimization (defined as feelings of being “picked on) and ethnicity- and gender-based peer discrimination (defined as “being called insulting names,” “being threatened,” and “being excluded” by peers because of their gender or ethnicity).

  • When we examined the prevalence of both forms of peer discrimination among these students, we found that 25% of the adolescents reported at least one experience of gender-based discrimination by their peers in the previous six months. Fewer boys (19%) than girls (29%) reported gender-based discrimination
  • In addition, 41% percent of adolescents reported experiencing discrimination by peers based on their ethnicity. o Broken down by ethnic group, 54% of White, 53% of Asian, 36% of African American, and 34% of Latino students reported at least one ethnicity-based peer discrimination experience.
    • These values may be somewhat surprising because one might expect ethnic minority students would experience more discrimination by their peers. In fact, African American and Latino students are more likely to report discrimination by teachers and other adult authority figures (1).
    • The ethnic composition of the schools partially explains these differences. Verkuyten and Thijs reported that students in the numerical ethnic minority within their schools were those who reported more frequent peer discrimination experiences (2).
    • In our Los Angeles study, Latino students were most often in the numerical majority. This might explain why they were the ethnic group with the fewest number of students who experienced ethnicity-based peer discrimination in our study.
    • It’s also important to point out that discrimination can also happen within an ethnic group for reasons such as differences in immigration status (1).

The Overlap of Peer Victimization and Peer Discrimination

  • Students who reported experiencing either gender-based or ethnicity-based discrimination by peers also reported feeling more generally victimized (i.e., picked on for no specific reason) by their peers.
  • Of the students who reported experiencing at least one incident of ethnicity-based peer discrimination, 44% also reported experiencing gender-based peer discrimination.

The Consequences of Peer Discrimination

Just as general victimization predicts depression (3), we have found that students who experienced at least one incident of either gender-or ethnicity-based peer discrimination also reported more depressive symptoms than those who did not experience any discrimination. These findings demonstrate the significance of gender- and ethnicity-based discrimination to adolescents’ lives because even one experience impacts students’ psychological adjustment.

Conclusions for Parents, Teachers, and Researchers

Our work on peer discrimination illustrates that it is important to ask students about the reasons they think they are being targeted. We have only examined two potential reasons here, ethnicity and gender. We found that many students were victims of at least one form of peer discrimination and that those who experienced either form were more likely to experience depression. Uncovering the importance of these two factors is a first step. However, we believe that a broader range of perceived reasons for victimization should also be considered. Other important reasons might include a students’ sexual identity, the group of friends a student hangs around with, and the activities in which a student is involved. Knowing which factors make adolescents feel most vulnerable is essential for devising the most beneficial prevention and intervention strategies.


  1. Rosenbloom, S.R., & Way, N. (2004). Experiences of discrimination among African American, Asian American and Latino adolescents in an urban high school, Youth and Society, 35, 420-451.
  2. Verkuyten, M., & Thijs, J. (2002). Racist victimization among children in the Netherlands: The effect of ethnic group and school. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25, 310-331.
  3. Nylund, K. L., Bellmore, A., Nishina, A., & Graham, S. (2007). Subtypes, severity, and structural stability of peer victimization: What does latent class analysis say? Child Development, 78, 1706-1722.

Related Studies

Bellmore, A. D., Witkow, M. R., Graham, S., & Juvonen, J. (2004). Beyond the individual: The impact of ethnic context and classroom behavioral norms on victims’ adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 40, 1159-1172.

Bellmore, A. D., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2006). Reciprocal influences between victimization, perceived social preference, and self concept in adolescence. Self and Identity, 5, 209- 229.

Bellmore, A. D., Nishina, A., & Witkow, M. R., Graham, S., Juvonen, J. (2007). The influence of classroom ethnic composition on same- and other-ethnicity peer nominations in middle school. Social Development, 16 720-740.

Amy Bellmore is an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include the academic and psychological consequences of peer-victimization and the significance of ethnicity to students' peer relationships during adolescence. Email:

Ayako Tomonaga is a doctoral student of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interest is the impact of interpersonal negative events such as peer-victimization and peer-discrimination on children's psychosocial development. Email: