Primary Sources: Is There More Than One Kind of Bullying?

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A young woman looks over her shoulder at other young women

Differentiating Youth Who Are Bullied From Other Victims of Peer-Aggression: The Importance of Differential Power and Repetition.” Michele L. Ybarra, Dorothy L. Espelage, and Kimberly J. Mitchell. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 55 (2014).

What It’s About: Ybarra, Espelage and Mitchell consulted two recent youth surveys in search of patterns related to bullying, defined here as "repeated aggression... by a perpetrator who has more power than the victim." Since this difference in power is often thought of as the defining aspect of bullying, the authors wanted to see if the degree of that difference had any affect on victims' experience. The Teen Health and Technology survey, from 2011, included responses from nearly 6,000 youth ages 13 to 18. The Growing Up With Media study, from 2008, included over 1,200 young people ages 10 to 15.

The authors were looking for connections between victims’ levels of trauma and two factors: the frequency of attacks and the perceived strength or physical power of bullies, compared to bullied youth. The authors also looked for distinctions between traditional and cyber-bullying, and “generalized peer aggression,” a broader term also known as Internet harassment. In short, the authors wanted to understand the nuances of different kinds of agression young people subject each other to, and how victims respond differently to each.

Why Read It: This paper provides an important reminder that “bullying” is not a monolithic concept--and it's not the only way young people get harassed by their peers. The frequency and venue of the harassment can have very different effects on young people’s mental health, and those effects require different responses.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: When counselors or case workers want to know whether young people have been victims of peer harassment, this study makes it clear that questions need to be more specific than “Have you been bullied?” The authors recommend asking questions about how victims view their bullies and how often bullying occurs.

The authors found that assessing the level of bullying was very important. In the Teen Health and Technology survey, 60 percent of respondents claimed to have been bullied. Of those young people, 42 percent were bullied by peers who they said were more powerful than them, and 30 percent said the bullying happened repeatedly. 

There was a definite correlation between power imbalance and repetition: 35 percent of youth with seemingly overpowering bullies reported at least weekly abuse, versus only 13 percent repetition among victims who said they felt as powerful as their bullies, physically or otherwise.

The Growing Up With Media study was less conclusive regarding the relationship between bullying and Internet harassment: While half of respondents said they had been bullied, only one-third reported online harassment, and only 16 percent reported experiencing both.

The authors say that young people who are bullied over and over may internalize bullying as simply a normal part of their lives, and that “the respondent’s perception ... influences the victim’s sense of control of the situation or their (in)ability to ‘fight back.’”

In other words, youth who feel they’ve been particularly targeted or physically outmatched and that they have no recourse are more likely to blame themselves for their trauma, which presents possible challenges to their mental health. Youth workers are encouraged to help these young victims either recognize their agency (i.e., realize that they aren't as powerless as they feel), or to come up with plans to offset the fact that they are less powerful than their bullies, such as using the buddy system with a friend who can help them stand up to aggressors.

Additional References: Learn more about bullying and online harassment, or ‘cyber-bullying,’ in NCFY’s research library.

NCFY has previously addressed ways in which youth-serving programs can address bullying. The federal government’s Community Action Toolkit (PDF) is a useful resource for addressing peer violence.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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