Anti-bullying collection

Can research help us prevent bullying?

In 1999, two students at Columbine High School in the US murdered 12 students and one teacher, and injured 24 people before committing suicide in what became one of several high-profile school massacres. There is evidence to suggest the two shooters had planned and executed the complex attack as a result of years of bullying; a year later, US Secret Service officials analyzed 37 similar premeditated school shootings and found that bullying "played a major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks."

A study by researchers at Yale University in the US suggests bullying victims are two to nine times more likely than non-bullied children to report suicidal thoughts – and the bullies also showed a higher incidence of these occurances.

Add to that the ubiquitous access to the internet, social media and group messaging services like WhatsApp, children and teenagers are in a vulnerable position. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates for boys aged 15 to 19 have increased more than 30 percent, and suicide rates for teenage girls are the highest they have been in 40 years. Some believe cyberbullying is at least partly to blame.

Despite this, bullying is common, both online and offline – according to international studies, anywhere between 9 and 54 percent of children are bullied. And it's not just children at risk; bullying happens at university and in the workplace too. Researchers around the world are working to understand the psychology of bullying and victimization, the risk factors and consequences, and to develop ways of preventing bullying. A recent Special Issue of the Journal of Adolescence explores many themes in bullying research.

This month, people across the US have worn blue shirts to highlight the importance of preventing bullying and cyberbullying, and to start National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.

To mark the month, we have collected some of the latest research from across Elsevier's psychology journals, which you can read free for six months.

Cyberbullying on the rise?

More and more children and teenagers have access to the internet and social media sites through mobile devices – an estimated 92 percent of adolescents go online every day. Although there are benefits, such as learning support, the negative effects like addiction and cyberbullying are becoming increasingly concerning. But what is the impact of online victimization compared to face-to-face bullying?

In her article in Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Dr. Michelle Wright describes two studies involving 462 adolescents that explored participants' reactions to hypothetical social situations that occurred face-to-face and online and their links with later aggression. She found that feelings of sadness and anger resulted more often from face-to-face victimization than cyber victimization, and that adolescents were more likely to blame themselves than the aggressors in face-to-face victimization, possibly because of the ambiguity in online interactions.

In many other studies, there has been an emphasis on cyberbullying, in some cases leading to "inconsistent findings and exaggerated claims about prevalence, development over time, and effects," according to a review in Current Opinion in Psychology. The authors say we need to agree on a definition of the phenomenon as a scientific concept in order to build a useful and coherent body of knowledge. They say: "We tentatively recommend that cyberbullying should be regarded as a subcategory or specific form of bullying, in line with other forms such as verbal, physical, and indirect/relational."

Sharing solutions

Research can also play a role in understanding how and why people defend the victims of bullying, to help develop ways of preventing it. Although schools consider defense important in reducing bullying, it does not happen frequently.

Writing in the Journal of School Psychology, researchers from the Netherlands and Finland described a study in which they explored the outcomes of defensive behavior to understand why children defend victims of bullying. In a study of 4209 students from 210 classes in 38 schools, they found that children who empathize emotionally with the victims (affective empathy) rather than consciously taking their perspective (cognitive empathy) were more likely to defend.

The team hypothesized that defenders would be more popular as a result, but that defenders who were also victims themselves would enjoy less popularity. Yet the results showed no difference, revealing that defending resulted in popularity regardless of the child.

Read the collection

Understanding the causes and consequences of bullying, and the reasons for defending victims, can help develop ways to prevent it. In this collection, we feature studies on a range of topics, including how to improve bullying research, experiences of bullying in different countries and the impact of bullying at work on the psychological contract.

You can read the collection free for six months: