Half of Kids Are Bullied, Study Suggests

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The extent to which bullying played a role in last week’s horrific Minnesota school shooting that left 10 people dead may never be known.

Relatives told reporters that the troubled gunman was often teased by schoolmates, and pundits speculated that bullying may be the root cause of most episodes of school violence.

It is also more common than most people realize, according to new research from UCLA. Almost half of the sixth graders surveyed in a study reported being bullied at least once over a five-day period.

Children who were bullied were more likely to report depression and other emotional problems and physical symptoms such as frequent headaches and stomachaches, according to another report from the same research team.

Both studies were published in the March/April issue of the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

“Kids who were victimized reported feeling physically sick more,” Adrienne Nishina, PhD, tells WebMD. “There were more excused and unexcused school absences, suggesting that kids who get picked on may try to avoid school.”

Verbal, Physical Bullying Equally Harmful

Nishina says the findings dispel the common notion that bullying is a problem for only a small percentage of children. It is true, she says, that some children are picked on much more than others. But it is also clear that a large percentage of children are victimized.

One of the studies involved 192 sixth graders attending two ethnically diverse urban middle schools in Los Angeles. The students were surveyed at the end of the school day on five different occasions. In one school, 47 percent of the students reported being bullied on at least one of the days, and in the other school 46 percent reported being bullied at least once.

The most common types of bullying were name-calling and physical aggression such as kicking and shoving.

The children reported feeling equally bad, regardless of the type of victimization they experienced, Nishina says. Study co-author Jaana Juvonen, PhD, adds that the finding sends an important message to school policy makers.

“Many classrooms have rules about sexual harassment, but not about other forms of verbal bullying,” she notes. “It’s a bizarre and confusing message to send to kids that certain insults are OK, and others are not. [And] many schools have rules and interventions that target physical forms of aggression, but when there’s name calling nothing happens.”

The second study involved 1,900 primarily low-income sixth graders attending 11 Los Angeles public schools. Nishina, Juvonen, and colleague Melissa Witkow report that victims of bullying experienced more depression and physical illness and missed more school than kids who weren't bullied. Their school performance also tended to be poorer.

“The more bullying they experience, the more they dislike school and want to avoid school,” Nishina says.

Tips for Parents

The two new studies are not the first to show that bullying is a problem for a large percentage of children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that half of children are bullied and 10 percent are victims of bullying on a regular basis.

Children are often reluctant to tell their parents they are the victims of bullying. Sudden depression, a decline in school performance, or a reluctance to go to school may all be signs that a child is being bullied.

The AACAP recommendations for parents who know or suspect their child is being bullied include:

—Don’t encourage a bullying victim to fight back. Instead, suggest that he or she try walking away to avoid the bully, or that they seek help from an adult.

—Help your child practice what to say the next time he or she is bullied.

—Ask school administrators to find out about programs designed to combat bullying, such as peer mediation, conflict resolution, and anger management.

The UCLA researchers say schools should have comprehensive policies in place to address all forms of bullying. A zero-tolerance policy for bullies, they say, would help victimized children know that they are not alone.

“It affects kids when teachers walk past a bullying incident in the hallway,” Juvonen says. “Many teachers don’t think that they should intervene, but the message they’re sending to the victim by walking away is, ‘I don’t care.’”

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Nishina, A. and Juvonen, J. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, March/April, 2005; vol 34: pp 37-48. Adrianne Nishina, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, department of education, UCLA. Jaana Juvonen, PhD, professor of psychology, chairman of developmental psychology, UCLA. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.