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  • Maedica (Bucur)
  • v.8(2); 2013 Jun

Bullying among High School Students

Delia nursel tÜrkmen.

a Uludağ University, Medical Faculty, Department of Forensic Medicine, Council of Forensic Medicine, Bursa Morgue Department, Bursa, Turkey

Mihai Halis DOKGÖZ

Suzana semra akgÖz.

c Çanakkale 18 Mart University, Medical Faculty, Department of Biostatistics, Çanakkale, Turkey

Bogdan Nicolae Bülent EREN

d Council of Forensic Medicine of Turkey, Bursa Morgue Department, Bursa, Turkey

Horatiu Pınar VURAL

e Uludag University, Medical Faculty, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Bursa,Turkey

Horatiu Oğuz POLAT

f Case Western Reserve University, Mandel School of Social Studies Applied Unıt, Begun Violence Prevention and Research Center, Cleveland-Ohio, USA

Objective: The main aim of this research is to investigate the prevalence of bullying behaviour, its victims and the types of bullying and places of bullying among 14-17 year-old adolescents in a sample of school children in Bursa, Turkey.

Methodology: A cross-sectional survey questionnaire was conducted among class 1 and class 2 high school students for identification bullying.

Results: Majority (96.7%) of the students were involved in bullying behaviours as aggressors or victims. For a male student, the likelihood of being involved in violent behaviours was detected to be nearly 8.4 times higher when compared with a female student.

Conclusion: a multidisciplinary approach involving affected children, their parents, school personnel, media, non-govermental organizations, and security units is required to achieve an effective approach for the prevention of violence targeting children in schools as victims and/or perpetrators.


World Health Organization defines bullying as a threat or physical use of force, aiming at the individual, another person, a specific community or group which can result in injury, death, physical damage, some development disorders or deficiency. The concept of bullying at school is not new; however it has been increasing in recent years. There is a crucial increase in studies conducted and the number of news on bullying at school in mass media ( 1 - 3 ). Bullying in schools is an issue that continues to receive attention from researchers, educators, parents, and students. Despite the common assumption that bullying is a normal part of childhood and encompasses minor teasing and harassment ( 4 ), researchers increasingly find that bullying is a problem that can be detrimental to students' well-being ( 5 - 7 ). This report focuses not only on the prevalence of bullying, but also on those subsets of students who reported being the victims of direct, and indirect bullying, and both of them. Different types of bullying may affect different groups of students, occur in different types of schools, or affect student behavior in different ways. These distinctions allow readers to differentiate between students who were either physically (directly) or socially (indirectly) bullied, and also to identify those students who were bullied both physically and socially ( 4 ). Additional analysis describes the characteristics of students affected by these types of behavior and the characteristics of schools in which these behaviors occur. Because of prior research that suggests victims of bullying may resort to aggressive behaviors in response to being bullied, the extent to which reports of bullying are related to victim behaviors such as weapon carrying, physical fights, fear, and avoidance are explored. Finally, for educators, the academic success of students is of paramount importance. For this reason, self-reported academic performance of bullied students is also examined ( 5 , 8 ). The main aim of this research is to investigate the prevalence of bullying behaviour, its victims and the types of bullying and places of bullying among 14-17 year-old adolescents in a sample of school children in Bursa, Turkey. Bullying is a psychological and pedagogical problem connected with public health. It must be solved by various professionals immediately. ❑


A cross-sectional survey questionnaire was conducted among class 1 and class 2 high school students for identification bullying. Research was planned as sectional descriptive study. All class 1 and class 2 high school students from Bursa provincial center were included in the study. The questionnaire form was created by the experts after literature survey. The questionnaire form prepared consisted of 2 sections. The first section encompassed 7 items concerning sociodemographic characteristics of the family, and the second section had 37 items related to the determination of violence among peers. The questionnaire was administered to students in collaboration with school counselors. In guidance of school counselors, after a brief nondirective description, questionnaire was administered to students wishing to participate as volunteers in the study. Total 6127 students agreed to participate in the study. The questionnaire was performed in resting hours under the supervision of school counselors in classrooms by students themselves. For statistical analysis, SPSS forWindows 13.0 was used. Variables have been presented on the basis of average and standard deviation and frequency (%). Pearson chi-square TEST, Student's t-test, Spearman's correlation analysis, univariate and multivariate logistic regression analyses were used. P-value < 0.05 was considered significant for all tests. ❑

1. Sociodemographic Characteristics

Sociodemographic characteristics, and data related to the students participating in the questionnaire survey were presented in Table ​ Table1 1 .

Sociodemographic characteristics of students participating in the questionnaire surveys.

A total of 6127 participants consisted of 2879 (47%) female, and 3248 (53%) male students. Mean ages of the participants (15.68 ± 0.72 years; range: 14-17 years), female (15.65 ± 0.76 years), and male students (15.71 ± 0.69 years) were also determined. Among participants, mothers of 24 (0.4 %), fathers of 168 (2.8%), and both parents of 5 (0.1%) students were deceased. Parents of 167 (2.8%) students were living apart. Students' mothers (n = 2908, 47.6%) and fathers' education (n = 2046, 33.6%) was primary school in the most of the cases and there was correlation between mothers and fathers' educational levels. (Spearman's correlation cefficient rho = 0.571, p < 0.001). Mothers of the majority of the students (81.1%; n = 4972) were housewives, and fathers of 17% (n = 1040) of the students were jobless. Mothers of 922 students (15%) were housewives, while their fathers were jobless as reported by the students themselves.

2. Students involved in Violence as Aggressors and Victims

Majority (96.7%; n = 5926) of the students were involved in bullying behaviours as aggressors or victims. Most (95.8%; n = 5677) of the total of 5926 students involved in bullying behaviours demonstrated physical aggressiveness (95.8%; n = 5677), emotional harassment (48.5%; n = 2875), and verbal assault (25.3%; n = 1499). While victims of these violent acts were subjected to physical (41.2 %; n = 2441), emotional (64.1%; n = 3801), and verbal abuse (47.3%; n = 2805) (Figure ​ (Figure1). 1 ). The probability of a male student being involved in violence was 8.4 times more frequent relative to a female student (95% of Confidence Interval = 5.5-12.8). Students whose mothers were businesswomen participated in violent acts 1.6-fold more frequently than children of housewives (95% of Confidence Interval = 1.05-2.43).

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a. Aggressors

The distribution of types of aggressive behaviour of the students according to gender, and age groups were presented in Figure ​ Figure2. 2 . When compared with the female students, male students exerted physical violence, emotional assault or verbal abuse more frequently (8.1, 2.6, and 3.1 times more often respectively; p < 0.001 for all types). Frequency of physical, emotional, and verbal violence increased with age (p < 0.001). When compared with a student aged 14 years, a 17-year old student resorted more frequently to physical (almost 2.2 fold increase; p = 0.01), emotional (1.6 fold increase; p = 0.01), and verbal (almost 2 fold increase; p = 0.007) assaults (Table ​ (Table2 2 ).

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Results of multivariate logistic regression model of the association between three types of aggressors and socio-demographic features.

R - Reference category; NS - No significant

Verbal abuse was observed more frequently (34.9%) among students with university graduate mothers. The probability of verbal violence was 1.5-1.9 times higher among shoolchildren of university graduate mothers when compared with the students whose mothers were of lower educational levels (p < 0.001).

The possibility of emotional bullying exerted by a student whose father working in private/public service sector (employees in hotels, retailers, restaurants, night-clubs, bars, patisseries, movie theaters, beauty salons, casinos, cleaners, etc) was nearly 32.3% lower than a student whose father was employed in other sectors (p = 0.007).

Most (89%) of the children who didn't resort to brute force were not found to be the perpetrators of violence in the neighbourhood. Fifty percent of the children who were frequently or always bullying in school were also detected to exert violence in the neighbourhood, (p < 0.001) (Figure ​ (Figure3). 3 ). Five percent of the students (n = 305) indicated that they were carrying sharp, and cutting instruments like pocket knives, and knives for the purpose of physical assault. Eight percent (n = 253) of the boys, and 2.2% of the girls carried cutting-penetrating instruments like knives, and pocket knives for the purpose of physical assault (p < 0.001).

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The distribution of types of victimization related to physical, emotional, and verbal infliction based on gender, and age of the students was presented in Figure ​ Figure4. 4 . A male student was more frequently subjected to physical, emotional, and verbal violence when compared with a female student (almost 2, 1.4, and 2 fold increase respectively; p < 0.001). The possibility of being a victim of physical and verbal bullying decreased with age (p < 0.05). A 15-year-old student suffered more frequently from physical (almost 1.3 – fold increase: p = 0.004), and verbal (almost 1.2 – fold increase: p = 0.035) bullying compared to a 17 year-old student (Table ​ (Table3 3 ).

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Results of multivariate logistic regression model of the association between three types of victimhood and socio-demographic features.

The probability of being a victim of violence was nearly 23% times lower for a student having a lycee graduate mother rather than a schoolchild of an illiterate mother (p < 0.05). A schoolchild of an employed mother was almost 1.2 times more likely to suffer from emotional harassment than a child of a housewife (p = 0.001).

Illiterate fathers of 54.9% of schoolaged children were unemployed, while jobless fathers of 30% of the students had dropped out during primary education. Schoolchild of an unemployed father was almost 1.2 times more prone to be victimized emotionally relative to a child of an employed father (p < 0.05).

Both Victimized and Aggresive students

A 41.7% of the physically aggressive students were also victims of physical bullying, while 79.9% of emotionally offensive students were also suffered from emotional harassment. Still 80.7% of the students who exerted verbal violence also suffered from verbal abuse (Figure ​ (Figure5). 5 ). As compared with a female student, male students were almost 2,2 times more likely to be both victim and perpetrator of physical violence (95% Confidence Interval = 1.9-2.4), 2,3 times more likely to be both victim and perpetrator of emotional assault (95% Confidence Interval = 2.1-2.6) and 3 times more likely to be both victim and perpetrator of verbal abuse (95% Confidence Interval = 2.5-3.4). As compared with a 17-year-old student, a 15-year old student was almost 1.3 times more likely to be both victim, and perpetrator of physical violence (95% Confidence Interval = 1.1-1.6). As observed in our investigation, the probability of being both victims and perpetrators of physical aggression among schoolchildren of the mothers with a lycée (35%) or university (37.1%) education was at a minimal level. A student raised by a mother graduated from a lycée was 30.4% less likely to be both executers, and victims of physical violence relative to those of illiterate mothers (p < 0.05). ❑

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Bullying in schools is an issue that continues to receive attention from researchers, educators, parents, and students ( 4 ). This study focuses not only on the prevalence of bullying, but also on those subsets of students who reported being the victims of physical, verbal and/or emotional bullying.

Sociodemographic Characteristics

Our study population consisted of male students with a mean age of 15.68 ± 0.72 years (range: 14-17 years). As for sociodemographic properties, lower educational level, possesion of a job of inferior quality have been revealed to be important factors in the exertion of bullying behaviours (Table ​ (Table1). 1 ). Prevalence of being both aggressors, and victims was reportedly higher among students aged between 8-16 years. In a study conducted on 62 adolescents aged 16 years, 15% of the male, and 7% of the female students demonstrated violent behaviours. Again, 72 adolescents (12%), 13% of boys, and 12% of the girls were detected to be victims of violence, while 13 adolescents were both perpetrators, and victims of violence. Persistency of being both perpetrators, and victims of violence was investigated among adolescents aged between 8-16 years, and 18 of 38 girls at 16, and 27 of 30 girls at 8 years of age were detected to be victims of violence. Educational levels, socioeconomic status, composition of the families, and changes in the marital status (divorce, re-marriage etc) were observed for a period of 8 years, and a correlation between being a victim of violence at 8 years of age, and infliction of violence at age 16 could not be detected ( 9 ). In compliance with our study, studies performed in Turkey have emphasized that demonstration of violence was encountered mostly among adolescents aged 15-16 years ( 2 , 10 ).

Students involved in violence as aggressors or victims

Majority (99.2%; n = 3223) of male, and female (93.9%; n = 2703) students were detected to be involved in one form of bullying behaviours as aggressors or victims at one time of their lives. For a male student, the likelihood of being involved in violent behaviours was detected to be nearly 8.4 times higher when compared with a female student (p < 0.001). A statistically significant correlation was not found between the involvement in violence, and age of the student, familial unity, level of education, and occupation of the parents (p > 0.05). A total of 5926 students involved in violence, demonstrated physical (95.8%; n = 5667), emotional (48.5%; n = 2875), and verbal (25.3%; n = 1499) bullying behaviours. The students involved in violence were also suffered from physical (41.2%; n = 2441), emotional (64.1%; n = 3801), and verbal (47.3%; n = 2805) bullying behaviours (Figure ​ (Figure1). 1 ). A survey conducted in 1994, 1998, and 2002 in Lithuania detected that one in every 3 children were the victims of various types of violence exerted regularly by their peers. (During all three surveys conducted in 1994, 1998 and 2002, about one in three students reported that they had been a victim of regular bullying. A higher percentage of boys (36%) reported being bullied than girls (32%, p < 0.05). This study demonstrated that students living in rural areas were 1.5 times more frequently bullied than those in the cities, and 40% the boys and 28% of the girls inflicted violence on their peers. When incidence rates of bullying in different countries were examined, the highest rate was detected in Lithuania, followed by Austria, Swiss, Germany, and Russia in decreasing frequency ( 11 - 14 ).

The incidence of physical, emotional or verbal violence by a male student was found to be higher (8.1, 2.6, and 3.1 times more frequent, respectively) in comparison with a female student (p < 0.001). Usage of physical, emotional, and verbal violence increased with age (p < 0.001). When compared with a student aged 14 years, a 17-year old student resorted more frequently to physical (almost 2.2 – fold increase; p = 0.01), emotional (1.6 fold increase; p = 0.01), and verbal (almost 2 fold increase; p = 0.007) assaults.

A concordance was detected between lower educational level of the family, and verbal, physical, and emotional aggression. Students with employed parents were found to be more prone to resort to physical bullying. In a study, 5% (n = 305) of the students reported that they had carried cutting, and penetrating instruments such as pocket knives, and knives with the intention of bullying. An 8% (n = 253) of the boys, and 2.2% (n = 52) of the girls using physical violence carried cutting, and penetrating instruments such as pocket knives, and knives for the intention of bullying (p < 0.001). A survey among 500 children detected evidence of bullying in 31.4% of the cases. In schools for girls, the incidence of bullying was detected to be 18%, while it was 38.2% in coeducational mixed schools. The incidence of bullying increased with age, and higher grades. Bullying was mostly encountered in the form of verbal violence such as nicknaming, followed by abusive language, rumoring, insult, and isolation Infliction of physical harm was seen at a rate of 16 percent. Feeling oneself badly, desiring to be left alone, and tearing his/her clothes etc. were also observed. School phobia, vomiting, and sleeping disorders were seen in these children. Frequently, headache was seen to be a cardinal symptom of girls, and boys subjected to bullying behaviours ( 15 ).

Statistically significant correlations were seen between types of physical, emotional, and verbal bullying and gender, and age of the students. The likelihood of being a victim of physical, emotional, and verbal bullying was higher among male students rather than female students (almost 2, 1.4, and 2 fold increase respectively; p < 0.001). A study demonstrated that physical and verbal victimization decreases with age (p < 0.05). Minimal degree of physical victimization was observed among students whose mothers were lycée (36.3%), or university (38.8%) graduates. The student whose parents had a lower level of education carries a higher potential of being a victim of bullying. In the study group where male students with a mean age of 13 consisted 50 % of the study population, cases were attending primary (40%), secondary (26%) , and higher levels of (34%) education These students were subjected to violence at least once for a duration of one year. This incidence was 3 times higher than those found in other studies. Male students were more frequently involved in bullying behaviours. In higher education male students were more frequently involved in bullying behaviours, while in primary, and secondary education there was no difference between genders. The frequency of bullying behaviours decreased in higher grades. Bullying was more frequently observed in families with separated parents or in the absence of two biologic parents ( 16 ).

Students both as victims and perpetrators of violence

Many students were detected to be both victims, and perpetrators of physical (41.7%), emotional (79.9%), and verbal (80.7%) violence (Figure 6).

Compared with a female student, the probability of being both perpetrator, and victim of a physical, emotional, and verbal bullying for a male student was increased by 2.2 (p < 0.01), 2.3 (p < 0.001) and 2.3 (p < 0.001) times, respectively. The incidence of being a victim decreased with age. Among students whose parents were lycée (35%) or university (37.1%) graduates, physical aggressiveness, and victimhood have been observedly at a minimal level. Compared with a schoolchild of an unemployed father, and a housewife mother, the child of employed parents was 1.6-fold more likely to be both victim, and a perpetrator of a verbal bullying (p = 0.001). According to investigations conducted in Italy, boys were resorting to bullying more frequently than girls, while both genders were becoming victims of violence with a similar incidence. Boys were more likely to inflict direct physical aggression with the intent of causing physical harm, whereas girls were more likely to inflict indirect forms of aggression with the intent of causing psychological harm. However, there were no significant gender differences in direct verbal aggression. Researches have indicated that bullying is often exerted in the classrooms, but it is also encountered in other parts of the school, like corridors, and rest rooms, as well. Overall, 56.7% of all students had never been bullied in the last 3 months, 13.9% were bullied once or twice, 14.7% sometimes and 14.7% once a week or more often. Girls tended to be victimized more than boys; 34_5% of girls, and 24_8% of boys, had been victimized sometimes or more often. Boys were significantly more likely to suffer from various types of direct bullying, whereas girls were slightly more likely to suffer from indirect forms of bullying (e.g. being rejected, rumours spread about them). Significant differences emerged as for types of direct bullying, especially for being threatened and marginally for being physically hurt. There were no significant gender differences between direct verbal and indirect bullying; boys were almost as likely as girls to suffer from indirect bullying. An 18.5 % of the girls, and 20.4 % of the boys were subjected to bullying behaviours exerted by both girls, and boys. Over half of all students had bullied others, and nearly half had been bullied in Italy. Boys bullied more than girls, and girls were somewhat more likely than boys to be bullied sometimes or more often ( 17 ).

In conclusion, a multidisciplinary approach involving affected children, their parents, school personnel, media, non-govermental organizations, and security units is required to achieve an effective approach for the prevention of violence targeting children in schools as victims and/or perpetrators. In consideration of the impact of child's familial, and environmental cultural factors, and school ambiance on violence as well, educational efforts should be exerted both to eliminate potential adversities and also prevent bullying behaviours in schools.


none declared.


  • Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 14 December 2021

Bullying at school and mental health problems among adolescents: a repeated cross-sectional study

  • Håkan Källmén 1 &
  • Mats Hallgren   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-0599-2403 2  

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health volume  15 , Article number:  74 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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To examine recent trends in bullying and mental health problems among adolescents and the association between them.

A questionnaire measuring mental health problems, bullying at school, socio-economic status, and the school environment was distributed to all secondary school students aged 15 (school-year 9) and 18 (school-year 11) in Stockholm during 2014, 2018, and 2020 (n = 32,722). Associations between bullying and mental health problems were assessed using logistic regression analyses adjusting for relevant demographic, socio-economic, and school-related factors.

The prevalence of bullying remained stable and was highest among girls in year 9; range = 4.9% to 16.9%. Mental health problems increased; range = + 1.2% (year 9 boys) to + 4.6% (year 11 girls) and were consistently higher among girls (17.2% in year 11, 2020). In adjusted models, having been bullied was detrimentally associated with mental health (OR = 2.57 [2.24–2.96]). Reports of mental health problems were four times higher among boys who had been bullied compared to those not bullied. The corresponding figure for girls was 2.4 times higher.


Exposure to bullying at school was associated with higher odds of mental health problems. Boys appear to be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of bullying than girls.


Bullying involves repeated hurtful actions between peers where an imbalance of power exists [ 1 ]. Arseneault et al. [ 2 ] conducted a review of the mental health consequences of bullying for children and adolescents and found that bullying is associated with severe symptoms of mental health problems, including self-harm and suicidality. Bullying was shown to have detrimental effects that persist into late adolescence and contribute independently to mental health problems. Updated reviews have presented evidence indicating that bullying is causative of mental illness in many adolescents [ 3 , 4 ].

There are indications that mental health problems are increasing among adolescents in some Nordic countries. Hagquist et al. [ 5 ] examined trends in mental health among Scandinavian adolescents (n = 116, 531) aged 11–15 years between 1993 and 2014. Mental health problems were operationalized as difficulty concentrating, sleep disorders, headache, stomach pain, feeling tense, sad and/or dizzy. The study revealed increasing rates of adolescent mental health problems in all four counties (Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), with Sweden experiencing the sharpest increase among older adolescents, particularly girls. Worsening adolescent mental health has also been reported in the United Kingdom. A study of 28,100 school-aged adolescents in England found that two out of five young people scored above thresholds for emotional problems, conduct problems or hyperactivity [ 6 ]. Female gender, deprivation, high needs status (educational/social), ethnic background, and older age were all associated with higher odds of experiencing mental health difficulties.

Bullying is shown to increase the risk of poor mental health and may partly explain these detrimental changes. Le et al. [ 7 ] reported an inverse association between bullying and mental health among 11–16-year-olds in Vietnam. They also found that poor mental health can make some children and adolescents more vulnerable to bullying at school. Bayer et al. [ 8 ] examined links between bullying at school and mental health among 8–9-year-old children in Australia. Those who experienced bullying more than once a week had poorer mental health than children who experienced bullying less frequently. Friendships moderated this association, such that children with more friends experienced fewer mental health problems (protective effect). Hysing et al. [ 9 ] investigated the association between experiences of bullying (as a victim or perpetrator) and mental health, sleep disorders, and school performance among 16–19 year olds from Norway (n = 10,200). Participants were categorized as victims, bullies, or bully-victims (that is, victims who also bullied others). All three categories were associated with worse mental health, school performance, and sleeping difficulties. Those who had been bullied also reported more emotional problems, while those who bullied others reported more conduct disorders [ 9 ].

As most adolescents spend a considerable amount of time at school, the school environment has been a major focus of mental health research [ 10 , 11 ]. In a recent review, Saminathen et al. [ 12 ] concluded that school is a potential protective factor against mental health problems, as it provides a socially supportive context and prepares students for higher education and employment. However, it may also be the primary setting for protracted bullying and stress [ 13 ]. Another factor associated with adolescent mental health is parental socio-economic status (SES) [ 14 ]. A systematic review indicated that lower parental SES is associated with poorer adolescent mental health [ 15 ]. However, no previous studies have examined whether SES modifies or attenuates the association between bullying and mental health. Similarly, it remains unclear whether school related factors, such as school grades and the school environment, influence the relationship between bullying and mental health. This information could help to identify those adolescents most at risk of harm from bullying.

To address these issues, we investigated the prevalence of bullying at school and mental health problems among Swedish adolescents aged 15–18 years between 2014 and 2020 using a population-based school survey. We also examined associations between bullying at school and mental health problems adjusting for relevant demographic, socioeconomic, and school-related factors. We hypothesized that: (1) bullying and adolescent mental health problems have increased over time; (2) There is an association between bullying victimization and mental health, so that mental health problems are more prevalent among those who have been victims of bullying; and (3) that school-related factors would attenuate the association between bullying and mental health.


The Stockholm school survey is completed every other year by students in lower secondary school (year 9—compulsory) and upper secondary school (year 11). The survey is mandatory for public schools, but voluntary for private schools. The purpose of the survey is to help inform decision making by local authorities that will ultimately improve students’ wellbeing. The questions relate to life circumstances, including SES, schoolwork, bullying, drug use, health, and crime. Non-completers are those who were absent from school when the survey was completed (< 5%). Response rates vary from year to year but are typically around 75%. For the current study data were available for 2014, 2018 and 2020. In 2014; 5235 boys and 5761 girls responded, in 2018; 5017 boys and 5211 girls responded, and in 2020; 5633 boys and 5865 girls responded (total n = 32,722). Data for the exposure variable, bullied at school, were missing for 4159 students, leaving 28,563 participants in the crude model. The fully adjusted model (described below) included 15,985 participants. The mean age in grade 9 was 15.3 years (SD = 0.51) and in grade 11, 17.3 years (SD = 0.61). As the data are completely anonymous, the study was exempt from ethical approval according to an earlier decision from the Ethical Review Board in Stockholm (2010-241 31-5). Details of the survey are available via a website [ 16 ], and are described in a previous paper [ 17 ].

Students completed the questionnaire during a school lesson, placed it in a sealed envelope and handed it to their teacher. Student were permitted the entire lesson (about 40 min) to complete the questionnaire and were informed that participation was voluntary (and that they were free to cancel their participation at any time without consequences). Students were also informed that the Origo Group was responsible for collection of the data on behalf of the City of Stockholm.

Study outcome

Mental health problems were assessed by using a modified version of the Psychosomatic Problem Scale [ 18 ] shown to be appropriate for children and adolescents and invariant across gender and years. The scale was later modified [ 19 ]. In the modified version, items about difficulty concentrating and feeling giddy were deleted and an item about ‘life being great to live’ was added. Seven different symptoms or problems, such as headaches, depression, feeling fear, stomach problems, difficulty sleeping, believing it’s great to live (coded negatively as seldom or rarely) and poor appetite were used. Students who responded (on a 5-point scale) that any of these problems typically occurs ‘at least once a week’ were considered as having indicators of a mental health problem. Cronbach alpha was 0.69 across the whole sample. Adding these problem areas, a total index was created from 0 to 7 mental health symptoms. Those who scored between 0 and 4 points on the total symptoms index were considered to have a low indication of mental health problems (coded as 0); those who scored between 5 and 7 symptoms were considered as likely having mental health problems (coded as 1).

Primary exposure

Experiences of bullying were measured by the following two questions: Have you felt bullied or harassed during the past school year? Have you been involved in bullying or harassing other students during this school year? Alternatives for the first question were: yes or no with several options describing how the bullying had taken place (if yes). Alternatives indicating emotional bullying were feelings of being mocked, ridiculed, socially excluded, or teased. Alternatives indicating physical bullying were being beaten, kicked, forced to do something against their will, robbed, or locked away somewhere. The response alternatives for the second question gave an estimation of how often the respondent had participated in bullying others (from once to several times a week). Combining the answers to these two questions, five different categories of bullying were identified: (1) never been bullied and never bully others; (2) victims of emotional (verbal) bullying who have never bullied others; (3) victims of physical bullying who have never bullied others; (4) victims of bullying who have also bullied others; and (5) perpetrators of bullying, but not victims. As the number of positive cases in the last three categories was low (range = 3–15 cases) bully categories 2–4 were combined into one primary exposure variable: ‘bullied at school’.

Assessment year was operationalized as the year when data was collected: 2014, 2018, and 2020. Age was operationalized as school grade 9 (15–16 years) or 11 (17–18 years). Gender was self-reported (boy or girl). The school situation To assess experiences of the school situation, students responded to 18 statements about well-being in school, participation in important school matters, perceptions of their teachers, and teaching quality. Responses were given on a four-point Likert scale ranging from ‘do not agree at all’ to ‘fully agree’. To reduce the 18-items down to their essential factors, we performed a principal axis factor analysis. Results showed that the 18 statements formed five factors which, according to the Kaiser criterion (eigen values > 1) explained 56% of the covariance in the student’s experience of the school situation. The five factors identified were: (1) Participation in school; (2) Interesting and meaningful work; (3) Feeling well at school; (4) Structured school lessons; and (5) Praise for achievements. For each factor, an index was created that was dichotomised (poor versus good circumstance) using the median-split and dummy coded with ‘good circumstance’ as reference. A description of the items included in each factor is available as Additional file 1 . Socio-economic status (SES) was assessed with three questions about the education level of the student’s mother and father (dichotomized as university degree versus not), and the amount of spending money the student typically received for entertainment each month (> SEK 1000 [approximately $120] versus less). Higher parental education and more spending money were used as reference categories. School grades in Swedish, English, and mathematics were measured separately on a 7-point scale and dichotomized as high (grades A, B, and C) versus low (grades D, E, and F). High school grades were used as the reference category.

Statistical analyses

The prevalence of mental health problems and bullying at school are presented using descriptive statistics, stratified by survey year (2014, 2018, 2020), gender, and school year (9 versus 11). As noted, we reduced the 18-item questionnaire assessing school function down to five essential factors by conducting a principal axis factor analysis (see Additional file 1 ). We then calculated the association between bullying at school (defined above) and mental health problems using multivariable logistic regression. Results are presented as odds ratios (OR) with 95% confidence intervals (Cis). To assess the contribution of SES and school-related factors to this association, three models are presented: Crude, Model 1 adjusted for demographic factors: age, gender, and assessment year; Model 2 adjusted for Model 1 plus SES (parental education and student spending money), and Model 3 adjusted for Model 2 plus school-related factors (school grades and the five factors identified in the principal factor analysis). These covariates were entered into the regression models in three blocks, where the final model represents the fully adjusted analyses. In all models, the category ‘not bullied at school’ was used as the reference. Pseudo R-square was calculated to estimate what proportion of the variance in mental health problems was explained by each model. Unlike the R-square statistic derived from linear regression, the Pseudo R-square statistic derived from logistic regression gives an indicator of the explained variance, as opposed to an exact estimate, and is considered informative in identifying the relative contribution of each model to the outcome [ 20 ]. All analyses were performed using SPSS v. 26.0.

Prevalence of bullying at school and mental health problems

Estimates of the prevalence of bullying at school and mental health problems across the 12 strata of data (3 years × 2 school grades × 2 genders) are shown in Table 1 . The prevalence of bullying at school increased minimally (< 1%) between 2014 and 2020, except among girls in grade 11 (2.5% increase). Mental health problems increased between 2014 and 2020 (range = 1.2% [boys in year 11] to 4.6% [girls in year 11]); were three to four times more prevalent among girls (range = 11.6% to 17.2%) compared to boys (range = 2.6% to 4.9%); and were more prevalent among older adolescents compared to younger adolescents (range = 1% to 3.1% higher). Pooling all data, reports of mental health problems were four times more prevalent among boys who had been victims of bullying compared to those who reported no experiences with bullying. The corresponding figure for girls was two and a half times as prevalent.

Associations between bullying at school and mental health problems

Table 2 shows the association between bullying at school and mental health problems after adjustment for relevant covariates. Demographic factors, including female gender (OR = 3.87; CI 3.48–4.29), older age (OR = 1.38, CI 1.26–1.50), and more recent assessment year (OR = 1.18, CI 1.13–1.25) were associated with higher odds of mental health problems. In Model 2, none of the included SES variables (parental education and student spending money) were associated with mental health problems. In Model 3 (fully adjusted), the following school-related factors were associated with higher odds of mental health problems: lower grades in Swedish (OR = 1.42, CI 1.22–1.67); uninteresting or meaningless schoolwork (OR = 2.44, CI 2.13–2.78); feeling unwell at school (OR = 1.64, CI 1.34–1.85); unstructured school lessons (OR = 1.31, CI = 1.16–1.47); and no praise for achievements (OR = 1.19, CI 1.06–1.34). After adjustment for all covariates, being bullied at school remained associated with higher odds of mental health problems (OR = 2.57; CI 2.24–2.96). Demographic and school-related factors explained 12% and 6% of the variance in mental health problems, respectively (Pseudo R-Square). The inclusion of socioeconomic factors did not alter the variance explained.

Our findings indicate that mental health problems increased among Swedish adolescents between 2014 and 2020, while the prevalence of bullying at school remained stable (< 1% increase), except among girls in year 11, where the prevalence increased by 2.5%. As previously reported [ 5 , 6 ], mental health problems were more common among girls and older adolescents. These findings align with previous studies showing that adolescents who are bullied at school are more likely to experience mental health problems compared to those who are not bullied [ 3 , 4 , 9 ]. This detrimental relationship was observed after adjustment for school-related factors shown to be associated with adolescent mental health [ 10 ].

A novel finding was that boys who had been bullied at school reported a four-times higher prevalence of mental health problems compared to non-bullied boys. The corresponding figure for girls was 2.5 times higher for those who were bullied compared to non-bullied girls, which could indicate that boys are more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of bullying than girls. Alternatively, it may indicate that boys are (on average) bullied more frequently or more intensely than girls, leading to worse mental health. Social support could also play a role; adolescent girls often have stronger social networks than boys and could be more inclined to voice concerns about bullying to significant others, who in turn may offer supports which are protective [ 21 ]. Related studies partly confirm this speculative explanation. An Estonian study involving 2048 children and adolescents aged 10–16 years found that, compared to girls, boys who had been bullied were more likely to report severe distress, measured by poor mental health and feelings of hopelessness [ 22 ].

Other studies suggest that heritable traits, such as the tendency to internalize problems and having low self-esteem are associated with being a bully-victim [ 23 ]. Genetics are understood to explain a large proportion of bullying-related behaviors among adolescents. A study from the Netherlands involving 8215 primary school children found that genetics explained approximately 65% of the risk of being a bully-victim [ 24 ]. This proportion was similar for boys and girls. Higher than average body mass index (BMI) is another recognized risk factor [ 25 ]. A recent Australian trial involving 13 schools and 1087 students (mean age = 13 years) targeted adolescents with high-risk personality traits (hopelessness, anxiety sensitivity, impulsivity, sensation seeking) to reduce bullying at school; both as victims and perpetrators [ 26 ]. There was no significant intervention effect for bullying victimization or perpetration in the total sample. In a secondary analysis, compared to the control schools, intervention school students showed greater reductions in victimization, suicidal ideation, and emotional symptoms. These findings potentially support targeting high-risk personality traits in bullying prevention [ 26 ].

The relative stability of bullying at school between 2014 and 2020 suggests that other factors may better explain the increase in mental health problems seen here. Many factors could be contributing to these changes, including the increasingly competitive labour market, higher demands for education, and the rapid expansion of social media [ 19 , 27 , 28 ]. A recent Swedish study involving 29,199 students aged between 11 and 16 years found that the effects of school stress on psychosomatic symptoms have become stronger over time (1993–2017) and have increased more among girls than among boys [ 10 ]. Research is needed examining possible gender differences in perceived school stress and how these differences moderate associations between bullying and mental health.

Strengths and limitations

Strengths of the current study include the large participant sample from diverse schools; public and private, theoretical and practical orientations. The survey included items measuring diverse aspects of the school environment; factors previously linked to adolescent mental health but rarely included as covariates in studies of bullying and mental health. Some limitations are also acknowledged. These data are cross-sectional which means that the direction of the associations cannot be determined. Moreover, all the variables measured were self-reported. Previous studies indicate that students tend to under-report bullying and mental health problems [ 29 ]; thus, our results may underestimate the prevalence of these behaviors.

In conclusion, consistent with our stated hypotheses, we observed an increase in self-reported mental health problems among Swedish adolescents, and a detrimental association between bullying at school and mental health problems. Although bullying at school does not appear to be the primary explanation for these changes, bullying was detrimentally associated with mental health after adjustment for relevant demographic, socio-economic, and school-related factors, confirming our third hypothesis. The finding that boys are potentially more vulnerable than girls to the deleterious effects of bullying should be replicated in future studies, and the mechanisms investigated. Future studies should examine the longitudinal association between bullying and mental health, including which factors mediate/moderate this relationship. Epigenetic studies are also required to better understand the complex interaction between environmental and biological risk factors for adolescent mental health [ 24 ].

Availability of data and materials

Data requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis; please email the corresponding author.

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Authors are grateful to the Department for Social Affairs, Stockholm, for permission to use data from the Stockholm School Survey.

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HK conceived the study and analyzed the data (with input from MH). HK and MH interpreted the data and jointly wrote the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Källmén, H., Hallgren, M. Bullying at school and mental health problems among adolescents: a repeated cross-sectional study. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 15 , 74 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-021-00425-y

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Original research article, effects of stress on school bullying behavior among secondary school students: moderating effects of gender and grade level.

research paper on school bullying

  • School of Educational Sciences, Anshun University, Anshun, Guizhou, China

This study investigated the effects of stress on school bullying behaviors among middle school students, and the moderating role of gender and grade level in this relationship. To this end, the Olweus Child Bullying Questionnaire (OBVQ) secondary school version of the child bullying questionnaire and the stressor scale for secondary school students were used to survey 3,566 secondary school students in Guizhou Province, and the data were statistically analyzed. Results showed that stress was significantly and positively associated with school bullying among secondary school students. Furthermore, both gender and grade moderated the relationship between stress and school bullying, showing that boys and middle school children are more likely to engage in bullying than girls and high school students, respectively. The results of the study provide a theoretical basis for the prevention and intervention of school bullying behaviors among middle school students.

1. Introduction

School bullying has been defined as intentionally aggressive behavior that occurs repeatedly between victims and perpetrators due to a power imbalance ( Olweus, 2013 ). Bullying in schools is a global youth problem that negatively affects the health and educational outcomes of young people ( UNESCO, 2017 ; Armitage, 2021 ). UNESCO stated that nearly one-third of students report that they have experienced bullying in school in the past month ( UNESCO, 2019 ). School bullying can have serious physical and psychological effects on adolescents if it is not addressed in a timely and effective manner. For bullies themselves, it usually leads to emotional and behavioral problems, such as anxiety ( Eyuboglu et al., 2021 ; Luo et al., 2022 ), depression ( Eyuboglu et al., 2021 ), insomnia (Fábia Carvalho et al., 2020 ), poor academic performance ( Riffle et al., 2021 ), violent criminal behavior ( Baldry, 2014 ), self-harm ( Eyuboglu et al., 2021 ; Myklestad and Straiton, 2021 ; Luo et al., 2022 ), suicidal ideation ( Husky et al., 2022 ), and suicidal behavior ( Benatov et al., 2022 ).

Adolescents often experience higher levels of stress, which is more likely to lead to maladaptive stress reactions ( Stelzig and Sevecke, 2019 ). Stress is “the subjective assessment of an individual’s response to various stimuli in life” ( Liu and Zhang, 2003 ), and it is one of the important environmental indicators that influence individuals’ psychological and behavioral development ( Koss and Gunnar, 2017 ; Engel and Gunnar, 2020 ). The theoretical model of psychological stress states that stress can alter the steady state within the organism and cause significant psychological and behavioral harm to individuals if it is too strong or lasts for too long ( Schroeder et al., 2018 ). Studies have been conducted to reveal the mechanisms by which stress triggers or exacerbates aggressive behavior ( Mendonça et al., 2019 ; Farrell et al., 2020 ; Felippe et al., 2021 ). Previous studies found a strong relationship between stress and aggressive behavior ( Demichelis et al., 2022 ; Hasegawa et al., 2022 ). Some of them confirmed that early stress (e.g., childhood adversity, early parenting styles) can lead to increased aggression later in life ( Connell et al., 2015 ; Bernhard et al., 2018 ). In addition, chronic stress over time may lead to excessive adaptive changes, which may result in maladaptive aggression in adulthood ( Tielbeek et al., 2018 ). In recent years, research on adolescents has found that impulsive aggression may be associated with higher levels of environmental stress ( Liu et al., 2018 ; Liu and Liu, 2021 ), Individuals with PTSD are more likely to engage in physical aggression ( Saunderson et al., 2022 ). Zhang et al. (2021) noted that the higher the pressure adolescents receive from their parents, the greater the risk of perpetrating bullying or being bullied. Therefore, this study hypothesizes that stress can significantly predict larger effects of school bullying behavior.

Mcgue and Jr (1984) noted that for most psychological and physiological variables, age and gender have a strong influence. Numerous studies have shown age- and gender-related differences in the experience and management of stress ( Schroeder et al., 2018 ; Stelzig and Sevecke, 2019 ). Schroeder et al. (2018) concluded that men tend to be more vulnerable to the long-term effects of early life and adolescent stress. Numerous studies on school bullying have also revealed gender and grade (age) differences in school bullying. In terms of gender differences in bullying, the number of boys who bully is higher than the number of girls ( Olweus, 1993 ; Eyuboglu et al., 2021 ), especially at the secondary level ( Rivers and Smith, 1994 ); there are also significant differences in both the form and the type of bullying ( Olweus, 1994 ; Smith and Sharp, 1994 ), with boys using direct bullying more often and girls favoring indirect bullying. In terms of grade (age) differences, the incidence of school bullying behavior was shown to decrease as grade (age) increased ( Boulton and Undeeerwood, 1992 ; Whitney and Smith, 1993 ). Moreover, some studies revealed that age and gender act as moderating factors between adolescent exposure to violence and emotional/behavioral problems ( Bordin et al., 2022 ). Therefore, this study hypothesizes that grade and gender moderated the relationship between stress and school bullying.

Previous studies have focused more on the influence of distal environmental triggers (early stress) on aggression, and on the change of school bullying behavior from elementary school to middle school level. Our study focuses more on the influence of proximal environmental triggers (recent triggers), thus expanding the influence of stress on aggression in this study. It also focuses on the change of school bullying behavior from middle school to high school, which complements previous studies.

This study hypothesizes that stress has significantly impact on school bullying behavior among secondary school students, while gender and grade level play a moderating role between the two. Figure 1 presents the research model.


Figure 1 . Model diagram of the role of gender and grade level in the relationship between stress and school bullying behavior.

2. Materials and methods

2.1. study object.

This study adopted a simple random sampling method and selected a total of 3,600 students from middle schools in the Anshun, Liupanshui, Bijie, and Qiannan areas of Guizhou Province from May to June 2019. This study was cross-sectional design. According to the Chinese education system, secondary school includes the seventh grade, the eighth grade, the ninth grade, the tenth grade, the eleventh grade, and the twelfth grade. The data of students who did not answer all items or chose the same answer for all items were excluded. Of these, 3,566 responded with valid answers to the questionnaires—a 99% return rate. There were 1,539 male students (43.2%) and 2,027 female students (56.8%); 436 students (12.2%) in the seventh grade, 647 students (18.1%) in the eighth grade, 582 students (16.3%) in the ninth grade, 562 students (15.8%) in the tenth grade, 1,108 students (31.1%) in the eleventh grade, and 231 (6.5%) in the twelfth grade (see Table 1 ). Informed consent was obtained from all respondents. The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by School of Educational Sciences, Anshun University, China.


Table 1 . Demographic information ( n  = 3,566).

2.2. Research tools

2.2.1. child bullying questionnaire obvq secondary school edition.

In this study, the Olweus Child Bullying Questionnaire (OBVQ) Secondary School Version, revised by Zhang et al. (1999) , was used to measure school bullying. The question, “(1) Have you bullied other students in any way at school this semester?” was used to identify child bullies. The type of bullying was measured by a subscale (six items), which was selected to examine the frequency of student bullying during that semester. It is divided into three parts: verbal bullying, relationship bullying and physical bullying. Scoring is on a four-point scale Score, rated from 0 to 4 (0 =  not occurring , 1 =  only once or twice , 2 =  two or three times a month , 3 =  once a week , and 4 =  several times a week ). The Cronbach’s ɑ coefficient for this subscale was 0.81, and the retest reliability was 0.77; Cronbach’s ɑ for this study was 0.869.

2.2.2. Stressor scale for secondary school students

This study used the stressor scale for secondary school students developed by Zheng and Chen (1999) , which consists of 39 stressful events that can cause stress reactions in secondary school students, including seven factors: academic learning stress, teacher stress, family environment stress, parenting style stress, peer friend stress, social and cultural stress, and body stress. High scores on the scale indicate more stressors, while low scores indicate the opposite. The Cronbach’s ɑ coefficient for this scale was 0.93 and the retest reliability was 0.86. Cronbach’s ɑ for this study was 0.928.

2.3. Statistical methods

This study was conducted using a group questionnaire with standardized administration procedures. SPSS 24.0 and the macro program Process developed by Hayes were used for data analysis and processing. The moderating effect of gender and grade level on the stress and school bullying behavior was explored using the Bootstrap method proposed by Hayes (2013) , with a sample size of 5,000 and Bootstrap CI using bias correction at 95% confidence level. Model testing criteria were used for confidence intervals not containing 0 and p  < 0.05 and the model established met the fit criteria ( Hayes, 2013 ). The direct and interactive effects of stress, gender, and grade on school bullying were then analyzed, as well as the specific moderating effects of gender and grade on said relationship.

3.1. Descriptive statistics and correlation analysis of the main study variables

Pearson correlation analysis found statistically significant correlations between gender, grade, stress, and school bullying ( r  = |0.19–0.28|, p  < 0.01), and no statistically significant correlations between grade, gender, and stress ( r gender  = −0.03, r grade  = −0.01, p  > 0.05). According to the MacArthur method determination criteria, M was determined to be a moderating variable if it was not significantly correlated with X and Y or if the correlation was small ( Kraemer et al., 2008 ). Based on the prior hypothesis and the related results, one concludes that gender and grade can be used as moderating variables. The descriptive statistics are shown in Table 2 .


Table 2 . Descriptive statistics and correlation analysis of each variable ( r , n  = 3,566).

3.2. Effects of gender and grade level on the relationship between stress and school bullying among secondary school students

The variables were transformed prior to effect analysis, and the continuous variables “school bullying” and “stress” were transformed in a standardized manner. The categorical variables “gender” and “grade” were coded as male = 1, female = 0, middle school = 1, and high school = 0. The analysis showed that the confidence intervals of the coefficients of the established model did not contain zero, all of them were statistically significant, as were the interaction effects, and the model met the fit criteria.

3.2.1. The moderating role of gender in stress and school bullying behavior

Bootstrap analysis found that stress and gender significantly predicted school bullying, explaining 12.6% of the total variance in school bullying [ F (3, 3,562) = 171.131, p < 0.001]. The interaction between the first two explained 1.5% of the total variance [ F (1, 3,562) = 58.98, p < 0.001]. The direct effects of stress and gender on school bullying were statistically significant, as was the effect of stress*gender interaction on school bullying (coeff = −0.241, t = −7.68, 95% CI = −0.303 ~ −0.180). Details are shown in Table 3 .


Table 3 . Effects of stress and gender on bullying behavior in school.

Direct and moderating effect analyses were conducted to further test the effect of stress on school bullying behavior under gender-specific moderation. The analysis found a statistically significant predictive effect of stress on school bullying in both genders. In the male group, the effect values for the effect of stress on school bullying were larger (Effect = 0.404, t  = 17.525, 95% CI = 0.358 ~ 0.449) than those in the female group (Effect = 0.162, t  = 7.580, 95% CI = 0.120 ~ 0.204). A slope analysis revealed ( Figure 2 ) that school bullying intensified with the increasing stress in both genders, however, the effect of stress on school bullying was higher in the male group than in the female group. It is evident that gender moderates the effect of stress on school bullying.


Figure 2 . Moderating role of gender in the relationship between stress and school bullying behavior.

3.2.2. The moderating role of grade level in stress and school bullying behavior

As shown in Table 4 , the coefficients of the established model and the interaction effects are statistically significant; furthermore, the model meets the fit criteria. The Bootstrap moderating effect analysis found that stress and grade level significantly predicted school bullying and explained 12.47% of the total variance in school bullying behavior [ F (3, 3,562) = 169.181, p  < 0.001]. The interaction between the first two could explain 1.35% of the total variation [ F (1, 3,562) = 54.95, p  < 0.001]. The direct effects of stress and grade level on school bullying were statistically significant (coeff = −0.628, t  = 12.610, 95% CI = −0.530 ~ −0.725; coeff = −0.366, t  = −11.66, 95% CI = −0.428 ~ −0.305), as was the effect of stress*grade interaction on school bullying (coeff = −0.232, t  = −7.413, 95% CI = −0.294 ~ −0.171).


Table 4 . Effects of stress and grade level on school bullying.

Direct and moderating effect analyses were conducted to further examine the effects of stress on school bullying behavior under grade-specific moderation. The analysis found a statistically significant predictive effect of stress on school bullying at both grade levels. In the middle school group, the effect values of stress on school bullying were larger (Effect = 0.395, t  = 17.708, 95% CI = 0.352 ~ 0.439). In the high school group, the effect value of stress on school bullying was smaller (Effect = 0.163, t  = 7.340, 95% CI = 0.120 ~ 0.206). A slope analysis revealed ( Figure 3 ) that the school bullying behavior intensified with increasing stress, in both groups. However, the effect of stress on school bullying behavior was higher in the middle school group than in the high school group, showing that grade level moderates the effect of stress on school bullying.


Figure 3 . Moderating role of grade level in the relationship between stress and school bullying behavior.

4. Discussion

4.1. the relationship between stress and school bullying.

This study explored the relationship between stress and school bullying behaviors among secondary school students as well as its mechanisms of action. Results found that stress had a significant positive predictive effect on school bullying behavior, which is consistent with previous national and international studies ( Estrada-Martiner et al., 2012 ; Herts et al., 2012 ; Hsieh et al., 2014 ; Wang and Zhang, 2015 ; Shao et al., 2018 ; Hu et al., 2021 ), and the higher the stress level of an individual, the higher the risk of developing school bullying behavior. The “frustration–aggression” theory suggests that when their needs are not met, individuals may feel frustration and use aggression to relieve and mask it. When students experience certain stressful events in their daily lives, they may feel frustrated in achieving their goals or even feel that their interests or safety are threatened, which can provoke a differential response, thus gradually developing reactive aggression to defend and protect themselves. Secondary school students in the adolescent stage have not yet completed/integrated the appropriate cognitive-emotional mechanisms to properly handle various stressful situations. They are characterized by immature mental development, mood swings, and lack of self-control, therefore, reactive aggression caused by frustration is more likely to occur. Consequently, to mitigate the effects of stress on school bullying behaviors of secondary school students, families and schools should actively focus on those facing stressful events at school and help them channel their emotions in a timely manner as well as to properly navigate through the crisis.

4.2. The moderating role of gender in the relationship between stress and school bullying behavior

This study found that the effect of stress on school bullying behavior of secondary school students was moderated by gender, with male students being more likely to develop school bullying behavior after being affected by stress. Buss proposed the theory of “gender differences in aggression” ( Buss et al., 1998 ), which suggests that men and women differ in the targets, behaviors, and causes of aggression. Anthropological, physiological, and evolutionary studies have revealed that genetic factors explain 50% of the variance in aggressive behavior ( Miles and Carey, 1997 ), with gender playing a moderating role between genes and aggression, and that genetic polymorphisms are significantly associated with the occurrence of aggressive behavior mainly in male populations ( Lachman et al., 1998 ; Estrada-Martiner et al., 2012 ). Moreover, there are large gender-based differences in stress responses ( Atkinson and Waddell, 1997 ), and a study by Bernhard et al. (2021) revealed that alterations in sex hormones (increased androgens in males and decreased estrogens in females) are strongly associated with conduct disorder ( Bernhard et al., 2021 ), with the male group being more affected, in multiple ways, than the female group. In addition, the socialization theory of gender roles mentions that men and women show gender differences in many aspects due to the different roles and responsibilities they hold in the socialization process ( Beall and Sternberg, 1995 ). The gender role stereotype that males should be assertive, independent, competitive, and aggressive, while females should be affectionate, caring, sensitive to the demands of others, and cooperative, lead to different gender characteristics and behaviors for men and women, making the former more likely to be involved in school bullying than the latter. Furthermore, both genders differ in the resolution strategies they use when faced with a problem that needs to be solved ( Chen, 2011 ), with girls being stronger in “seeking social support” and problem-oriented coping strategies ( Frydenberg and Lewis, 2000 ; Eschenbeck et al., 2007 ), while boys tend to use the strategy of “distracting themselves from unpleasant emotions” by distancing themselves more from the problem and becoming less emotionally invested in it. This increases their susceptibility to externalizing behaviors. As girls mature earlier and engage in more socialization than boys, they use more problem-solving strategies when faced with stress, generally employing non-aggressive approaches to conform their behavior to socially accepted role requirements; thus, females are less likely to use aggression as a form of problem solving than males. Consequently, schools should establish precise school bullying prevention and control mechanisms to give adequate attention to male high school students in stressful situations.

4.3. The moderating role of grade level in the relationship between stress and school bullying

This study found that stress has an impact on school bullying behaviors among middle school students while being moderated by grade level, with middle school students more likely to be affected by stress and engage in school bullying than high school students. Previous research has suggested that aggression and victimization are highly stable from late childhood to adolescence ( Scholte et al., 2007 ); however, research findings of Ryoo et al. (2015) showed that bullying and victimization are dynamic phenomena in groups that are frequently involved in bullying, suggesting that interventions should address the heterogeneity of the experiences of those involved in school bullying during adolescence. The present study further confirms this idea. The development of adolescents’ coping styles depends on the cognitive, biological, emotional, and social development state ( Backhaus et al., 2010 ), and research has confirmed that coping strategies diverge and expand with age, showing some flexibility ( Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner, 2011 ), especially in the cognitive domain ( Beck et al., 2016 ). According to the Social Information Processing Model of Children’s Social Adaptation (SIP model) proposed by Crick and Dodge (1994) children have a specific social cognitive process that influences or determines the final behavioral response before they respond to a particular social situation in the face of stress. High school students with higher cognitive levels are more inclined to make more comprehensive and objective interpretations at all stages of the information processing process, thus enabling appropriate behavioral responses. Zhang et al. (2011) further confirmed that dialectical thinking can reduce the tendency for aggressive behavior. Moreover, as secondary school students advance in their cognitive level, they also significantly develop their social emotions, increasing their ability to reflect on their emotions and developing an increasingly sophisticated emotion regulation strategy that manifests as “positive self-affirmation” ( Zimmer-Gembeck and Skinner, 2011 ). As high school students get older and socialize more, they are better able to discipline themselves with social norms and control their own behavior, they begin to seek the approval and support of others, they naturally behave in a way that is consistent with social morality, and social moral norms are gradually internalized. Chen’s study concluded that children become more socialized and use more problem-solving strategies as they get older, more so after the age of 12 ( Eschenbeck et al., 2007 ). Therefore, high school students at an older age will be less likely to engage in school bullying than middle school students, and more attention should be paid to the prevention and control of school bullying on middle school campuses and the establishment of a comprehensive prevention and control system.

This study has some limitations. First, the sample size was small and limited to secondary school students in Guizhou Province. Therefore, a larger and broader sample is needed to confirm our findings in future studies. Second, this study relied on secondary school students’ self-reports to conduct the assessment. Although the scale used in this study had high reliability, it could be further confirmed in the future using more rigorous and objective methods. Third, we did not adequately consider the effects of other potentially relevant variables (e.g., confounding factors such as coping strategies) when examining the relationship between stress and school bullying, which should be considered in future research.

5. Conclusion

The present study preliminarily revealed that stress has a significant effect on school bullying behavior among secondary school students, with gender and grade level playing a moderating role between stress and school bullying behavior. In terms of the effect of stress on school bullying behavior, males were more likely to be affected than female and Junior high school students than high school students. This may guide school bullying intervention programs on secondary school campuses. For example, society should pay attention to the bullying behavior of boys and focus on the problem of bullying in junior high school.

Data availability statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by School of Educational Sciences, Anshun University, China. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardian/next of kin.

Author contributions

SL was responsible for study design, data analysis and interpretation, and manuscript completion. YB was responsible for the analysis, interpretation of data, and manuscript completion. TQ and CL were responsible for data collection. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: secondary school students, stress, school bullying behavior, gender, grade level

Citation: Luo S, Ban Y, Qiu T and Liu C (2023) Effects of stress on school bullying behavior among secondary school students: Moderating effects of gender and grade level. Front. Psychol . 14:1074476. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1074476

Received: 19 October 2022; Accepted: 10 February 2023; Published: 15 March 2023.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2023 Luo, Ban, Qiu and Liu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Yongfei Ban, [email protected]

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Bullying defined.

  • National Variation
  • The Importance of Age

Stability of Bullying Roles

  • Gender Differences

The Bully-Victim

The peer group, parenting and home environment, sibling relationships, school factors, internalizing problems, academic performance, delinquency and criminality, impact beyond victims.

  • Interventions

Future Directions and Conclusion

  • Bibliography

Bullying Research Paper

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  • Bullying in School Research Paper

Bullying has received worldwide attention in the last 30 years as a form of aggressive behavior that can have a significant negative impact on the physical, emotional, and academic development of victims. The first major contribution to the academic study of bullying was made by Dan Olweus, who wrote the first scholarly book in English to deal with bullying. The book was written in response to the suicide of three bullied boys in Norway and reported a high prevalence of school bullying (20 % of Norwegian children reported having some involvement) as well as discussed the success of the world’s first bullying prevention program (Olweus 1993). Olweus’ work opened the way for an explosion of research on bullying, which expanded from an initial interest in schools to include broader contexts such as the workplace, prisons, and sibling relationships. While much of this work is of interest, showing that bullying has the potential to affect a significant proportion of the population, this review focuses on school bullying, as this is the area that has attracted the most research interest to date.

The international literature is repleted with definitions of school bullying, most of which seem to accept that bullying is any type of negative action intended to cause distress or harm that is repeated and targeted against individuals who cannot defend themselves. When research on bullying started in the 1980s, bullying was perceived to comprise only episodes of physical or verbal aggression where the victim was physically attacked or called names. In recent years, the definition of bullying has broadened to include other forms of aggression that are relational in nature and aim to damage the victim’s peer relationships and their social status such as spreading of malicious gossip and social exclusion. Fighting between people of approximately equal strength, a one-time attack, or a good-natured teasing and play fighting are not counted as bullying.

The advent and widespread use of electronic means of communication such as mobile phones and the Internet has made it easier to bully anonymously, through the use of pseudonyms and temporary accounts, at any time and in any place involving a wide audience. This development has meant that the definition of bullying has had to be expanded to account for what the literature refers to as “cyber-bullying” or “electronic bullying.” A nationally representative survey of 7,508 adolescents in the United States in 2005 found that 8.3 % had bullied others and 9.8 % had been bullied electronically at least once in the last 2 months (Wang et al. 2009). In the same year in England and Wales, a survey of pupils aged 11–16 found that 22 % had been cyber-bullied at least once or twice in the last couple months (Smith et al. 2008). The most common form of cyber-bullying internationally is sending threatening and/or nasty text messages.

Bullying Prevalence and Continuity

National variation in bullying.

There are large variations across countries in the prevalence of bullying perpetration and victimization. In an international survey of health-related symptoms among school-aged children, the percentage of students who reported being frequently bullied during the current term ranged from a low of 5 % to 10 % in some countries to a high of 40 % in others (Due et al. 2005). The prevalence of bullies in primary school ranges, in most countries, between 7 % and 12 % and remains at those levels in secondary school (around 10 %). It is unclear whether these differences in prevalence reflect genuinely different levels of engagement in bullying among countries or, at least partly, result from different meanings of the term “bullying” in different countries and differences in methodologies and samples used.

An example of why valid comparisons between countries are not possible is Portugal where the bullying rate is high compared to other countries. Berger (2007) in her analysis found that one detail of educational policy in Portugal may account, among other things, for this higher rate of bullying. In Portuguese schools, children are asked to repeat sixth grade unless they pass a rigorous test. This practice results in at least 10 % of all sixth graders (more often boys) to be held back 2 years or more, and these older, bigger children are almost twice as likely to bully compared to the class average. This suggests that the difference in prevalence rates between countries may be, at least partly, accounted for by external factors including national differences in school policies and environments but also differences in the methodologies used (self-reports vs. peer and/or teacher reports), students’ differing levels of cognitive ability, cultural differences in reporting, and different meanings of the term “bullying” in different countries.

The Importance of Age in Bullying

Despite variations in prevalence, it is a universal finding that bullying victimization is more frequent among younger children and steadily declines with age. A range of explanations have been put forward to explain these age differences (Smith et al. 1999a, b). Compared to older children, younger children are less likely to have developed the appropriate skills and coping strategies to deal effectively with bullies and avert further victimization. Younger children are also less likely to refrain from bullying others due to socialization pressure. Finally, there is evidence that younger students adopt a more inclusive definition of bullying when responding to prevalence surveys, and this may, at least partly, account for the higher reported frequency of bullying victimization in primary school. For example, younger pupils might find it more difficult to distinguish between bullying and fighting, broadening the use of the term bullying to include aggressive behaviors that involve no imbalance of power. Within the general trend of decreasing bullying victimization over time, researchers have observed an abrupt increase in bullying during the transition from primary to secondary school which may reflect some students’ attempts to establish dominance hierarchies in the new school environment. Relational forms of bullying take precedence over physical modes of attack as children grow older and their social skills improve.

There is some controversy in the literature as to the stability of bullying victimization in primary school. Some studies have reported that bullying victimization is relatively stable over a period of up to 4 years in primary school and often continues in secondary school. Other studies have found that only a relatively small proportion of children (around 4–5 %) are victimized repeatedly over time in primary school.

In secondary school, the stability of both bully and victim roles is considerably higher than in primary school according to teacher, peer, and self-reports. It is estimated that two out of three male bullies remain in their role over a 1-year period. Despite the moderate to high stability of the victim and bully roles in secondary school, prevalence rates are lower than in primary school. This suggests that a small number of victims are targeted consistently and systematically in secondary school.

Stability in bullying victimization has been explained in two ways. Firstly, it has been observed that victims select social environments that reinforce the risk of victimization, for example, they are more likely to have friends who are less accepted by the peer group and often victimized themselves. Secondly, victims often lack the social skills to break through in new environments, and this increases the risk that they are labeled as victims and locked in that role over a long period of time. It is important, therefore, to acknowledge that although for some children bullying victimization will be situational, for others it will develop into a trait.

Gender Differences in Bullying

The view that males are more likely to bully and be bullied than females has been dismissed in recent years following a better understanding about the different forms aggressive behavior such as bullying can take. Although males are more likely to engage in physical forms of bullying such as pushing and hitting, females are, according to some studies, more adept at employing relational forms of aggression (e.g., social exclusion, spreading of nasty rumors) against their victims especially during adolescence. No consistent gender differences have been identified in the use of verbal bullying (e.g., calling names, nasty teasing). This suggests that overall gender differences are not as pronounced as originally thought and that bullying is not a male problem.

Characteristics of Children and Adolescents Involved in Bullying

There is some controversy in the literature about the profile of bullies. Initially, studies described children who bullied others as insecure, anxious individuals who have low self-esteem, are unpopular among their classmates, and use aggressive strategies to resolve conflicts. This stereotype was later disputed by research that suggested bullies are socially competent and have superior theory of mind skills (i.e., awareness of others’ mental functions and states) and good levels of social intelligence, knowing how to attain goals without damaging their reputation. Linked to this, there is also debate concerning whether bullies lack empathic skills. Some research suggests that bullies understand the emotions of others but do not share them. The inconsistencies across studies may be, at least partly, due to different definitions of bully status and different methodologies employed. Studies which have distinguished between “pure” bullies and bully/victims have revealed that “pure” bullies have few conduct problems, perform well at school, are popular among their classmates, and do not suffer from physical and psychosomatic health problems.

There is more consensus on the profile of “pure” victims. Research has identified that “pure” victims exhibit elevated levels of depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor social skills. Hawker and Boulton’s (2000) meta-analysis found that peer victimization is more strongly concurrently associated with depression than with anxiety, loneliness, or self-esteem. Another meta-analysis by Card (2003) found that the strongest correlates of the victimization experience are low self-concept, low physical strength, low school enjoyment, poor social skills, and high internalizing and externalizing problems. It was unclear from these reviews of cross-sectional studies, however, whether internalizing problems lead to victimization or vice versa.

The recent body of longitudinal research on bullying and peer victimization more widely suggests that the relationship between internalizing problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, and victimization is more likely to be reciprocal, that is, internalizing problems contribute to victimization and vice versa. A metaanalysis of 18 longitudinal studies examining associations between peer victimization and internalizing problems in children and adolescents concluded that internalizing problems both precede and follow peer victimization experiences (Reijntjes et al. 2011). It is worth noting, however, that the path from psychological maladjustment to victimization has not been replicated in all studies. For instance, Bond et al. (2001) found no support for the hypothesis that emotional maladjustment invites victimization.

Recent work suggests that bullying might arise out of early cognitive deficits, including language problems, imperfect causal understanding, and poor inhibitory control that lead to decreased competence with peers, which over time develops into bullying. Research does not support the assertion that physical appearance (e.g., wearing glasses) is a risk factor for being bullied at school. The only physical characteristic that has been associated with an increased risk of victimization is low physical size and strength. There is less evidence on how equality characteristics influence victimization. There is no consistently robust evidence to suggest that ethnic minority children are more at risk of being bullied at school. Sexual orientation has rarely been investigated in longitudinal studies as a possible risk factor of bullying victimization, but there is some, mainly qualitative, evidence of sexual minorities being targeted in secondary schools. There is stronger evidence that children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to victimization in mainstream settings, although it might be other characteristics of disabled children that make them more vulnerable to victimization such as lack of friends rather than the disability per se.

Olweus (1993) was the first researcher to identify a small proportion of victims of bullying that he called “provocative victims” or “bully-victims,” who bully other children as well as being bullied by them. Research has identified that bully-victims are the most troubled group among children and adolescents involved in bullying incidents. This group displays the highest levels of internalizing problems, including depression, anxiety, low selfesteem, and loneliness. At the same time, they score high on externalizing problems such as aggression, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and conduct problems. Other research has shown that bully-victims display higher levels of neuroticism and psychoticism than either bullies or victims. Bully-victims use aggressive strategies to cope with stressors at school that increase the risk of further victimization and rejection from peers.

Besides the traditional roles of bully, victim, and bully-victim, research has identified that all students take on a role when bullying episodes emerge. Salmivalli et al. (1996) distinguished between six different roles children can take in bullying situations: the bully (leader), the reinforcer (encourages and provides audience), the assistant (follower/helper, e.g., holds the child down), the defender (helps the victim and/or tells bullies to stop), the outsider (stays away from bullying situations), and the victim. Subsequent research established that the three roles of bully, reinforcer, and assistant are closely correlated with each other and, therefore, cannot usefully discriminate between children. In kindergarten, the three most commonly held roles are those of the bully, the victim, and the defender. Fewer students are defenders by middle school, and the majority becomes witnesses or bystanders when bullying takes place. Such passive behavior, although not directly encouraging of bullying, provides a permissive context for bullies that allows them to continue harassing their victims.

Environmental Influences on Bullying

There is clear evidence that parenting styles are related to bullying behavior. Studies indicate that bullies are more likely to have parents who are authoritarian and punitive, disagree more often, and are less supportive. The parents of bullies are more likely to have been bullies themselves when they were young. Victims, on the other hand, are more likely to have been reared in an overprotective family environment. Bully-victims tend to come from family backgrounds that are exposed to abuse and violence and favor the use of harsh, punitive, and restrictive discipline practices. This group reports little positive warmth in their families and more difficulties in communicating with parents.

Family characteristics are related to bullying victimization in different ways for boys and girls. Boys are more prone to victimization when the father is highly critical or absent in his relationship with his son, thus failing to provide a satisfactory role model. Victimization in boys is also associated with maternal overprotectiveness which may hinder boys’ search for autonomy and independence, whereas victimization in girls is more strongly related to maternal hostility which may lead to anxiety and decreased sense of connectedness in relationships.

Very little research has examined longitudinal associations between early home environment and subsequent bullying behavior. The few studies that exist suggest a link between low emotional support and subsequent bullying behavior at school. Parents who are disagreeable, hostile, cold, or rejecting tend to have children who are at risk of becoming aggressive in the future. In a small longitudinal study, Schwartz et al. (1997) found that bully-victims at 10 years were significantly more likely than the other groups to have had experiences with harsh, disorganized, and potentially abusive home environments 5 years earlier. Mother-child interactions at 5 years were characterized by hostile, restrictive, or overly punitive parenting. They were significantly exposed to higher levels of marital conflicts and more likely to come from marginally lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Bullies were found to be exposed to adult aggression and conflicts, but not victimization by adults, and were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These findings need to be replicated in larger samples before any safe conclusions can be drawn.

More recently, there has been interest in how sibling relationships affect the development of bullying behavior. There is international evidence that children who are victimized at school are more likely, compared to other groups, to be victimized by their siblings at home. Wolke and Samara (2004) found that more than half of victims of bullying by siblings (50.7 %) were also involved in bullying behavior at school compared to only 12.4 % of those not victimized by siblings, indicating a strong link between intrafamilial and extrafamilial peer relationships. Those who were both victimized at home and at school had the highest behavior problems and were the least prosocial. Similar evidence exists in relation to bullying perpetration, suggesting that those who bully at school tend to exhibit similar behaviors towards their siblings at home.

A number of school factors have also been implicated as correlates of bullying behavior. One of the most consistent findings in the international literature is that the number and quality of friends at school is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, protective factor against bullying victimization. Having friends is not sufficient in itself to protect against victimization. For instance, when at-risk children have friends with internalizing problems, who are physically weak or who themselves are victimized, the relation of children’s behavioral risk to victimization is exacerbated.

More recent work on the role of class structure and climate on bullying has shown that variations in peer structure and dominance hierarchies influence the stability of bullying victimization. For example, victims in primary school classes with a more pronounced hierarchical structure are less likely to escape their victim role compared to those in classes with less clearly marked hierarchies (Sch€afer et al. 2005).

Consequences of Bullying

There has been a growing interest in recent years to investigate the long-term effects of bullying involvement on children’s and adolescents’ social, emotional, behavioral, and academic development using longitudinal samples. The results of these studies suggest that victims and bully-victims manifest more adjustment problems than bullies. Victims and, especially, bully-victims are more likely to show elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness; perform less well academically; and display conduct problems. The only negative long-term outcome that has consistently been reported in the literature for bullies is their involvement in later offending. There is also some initial evidence that bullying perpetration is a significant risk factor of poor academic performance.

Several cross-sectional studies have demonstrated negative associations between peer victimization and a range of internalizing problems, including loneliness and low self-esteem. A meta-analysis of 23 cross-sectional studies of the association between peer victimization and psychological maladjustment found that peer victimization was more strongly concurrently associated with depression than with anxiety, loneliness, or self-esteem (Hawker and Boulton 2000).

Over the last decade, research on bullying is increasingly reliant on longitudinal methodologies to disentangle whether victimization contributes to internalizing problems or vice versa. It has been argued, for example, that children who display internalizing behaviors (e.g., anxiety or shyness) are more at risk of being targeted by peers due to their inability to cope effectively with provocation. The majority of longitudinal studies investigating associations between peer victimization and psychological maladjustment have found evidence for both directions.

There is some longitudinal evidence that bullying involvement has a negative impact on academic performance, although more studies are needed to reach a definitive conclusion. A US longitudinal study that began in 2002 with a sample of about 1,700 adolescents found that being a bully had a stronger negative effect on self-perceived academic competence over time than being a victim after controlling for demographic background variables and baseline academic competence (Ma et al. 2009). Furthermore, only bully status predicted lower self-reported grades.

Despite showing fewer adjustment problems than victims and bully-victims, bullies are at an increased risk of later delinquency and criminal offending. A recent meta-analysis of studies measuring school bullying and later offending found that school bullies were 2.5 times more likely than noninvolved students to engage in offending over an 11-year follow-up period (Ttofi et al. 2011). The risk was lower when major childhood risk factors were controlled for, but remained statistically significant. The effect of bullying on later offending was especially pronounced when bullying was assessed in older children. The longitudinal association between bullying perpetration and later offending has been replicated in many countries, including Australia, Canada, and Europe.

Finally, there is evidence that bullying and victimization have a negative impact not only on the individual children involved but also on bystanders. Children who witness bullying incidents report increased anxiety, less satisfaction with school, and lower academic achievement. There is also evidence that in school classes where a lot of victimization is taking place, school satisfaction among students is low.

Bullying Interventions

Following the development of the first anti-bullying program by Dan Olweus in Norway in the 1980s, a considerable number of anti-bullying interventions have flourished around the world to reduce bullying behaviors and protect victims. These fall under four broad categories: curriculum interventions generally designed to promote an anti-bullying attitude within the classroom; whole-school programs that intervene on the school, class, and individual level and address bullying as a systemic problem; social and behavioral skills training; and peer support programs including befriending and peer mediation. A systematic review conducted in 2004 evaluated the strength of scientific evidence in support of anti-bullying programs (Vreeman and Carroll 2007). The review concluded that only a small number of anti-bullying programs have been evaluated rigorously enough to permit strong conclusions about their effectiveness.

Whole-school interventions were found to be more effective in reducing victimization and bullying than interventions that focused only on curriculum changes or social and behavioral skills training. Targeting the whole school involves actions to improve the supervision of the playground, having regular meetings between parents and teachers, setting clear guidelines for dealing with bullying, and using role-playing and other techniques to teach students about bullying. The success of whole-school interventions, relative to other stand-alone approaches, supports the view that bullying is a systemic, sociocultural phenomenon derived from factors operating at the individual, class, school, family, and community level. Hence, interventions that target only one level are unlikely to have a significant impact.

A more recent systematic review of school-based anti-bullying programs found that, overall, these programs are effective in reducing bullying perpetration and victimization by an average of 20–23 % and 17–20 %, respectively (Farrington and Ttofi 2009). The interventions that were found to be most effective were those that incorporated parent training/meetings, disciplinary methods, and videos; targeted older children; and were delivered intensively and for longer. There is less robust evidence on the effectiveness of peer support programs that include activities such as befriending, peer counseling, conflict resolution, or mediation, and a systematic review suggested their use may lead to increases in bullying victimization.

More recently, there has been a growing interest in the use of virtual learning environments to reduce bullying at schools. The basic feature of these programs is a computer-based environment that creates a highly believable learning experience for children who find themselves “present” in the situation that causes emotional distress and, as a result, learn experientially how to deal with school problems. An example of such a program is “FearNot,” an intervention that was developed to help victims of bullying explore the success or otherwise of different coping strategies to dealing with bullying victimization through interactions with “virtual” victims of school bullying. The evaluation of this intervention found that the victims that received the intervention were more likely to escape victimization in the short term than victims in control schools who did not interact with the software (Sapouna et al. 2010). These results suggest that the use of virtual environments might be an engaging and useful component of whole-school anti-bullying policies that merits further testing. A key finding that emerged from this research is that interventions are more likely to be successful if they have the support of teachers and other school personnel and there is a strong commitment to reduce bullying in the school community. This is considered to be one of the reasons behind the huge success of the Olweus’ prevention program that has not been replicated to date.

Although an abundance of knowledge has emerged in recent years regarding the correlates of bullying behavior, there is still relatively little known about the causal processes and mechanisms associated with the bully and victim status. Longitudinal studies, which track bullies and victims over time, offer one of the best chances of disentangling the antecedents of bullying perpetration and victimization from its consequences, and these should form a key part of future research in this field. Another approach which shows much promise is the cutting-edge attempt to unravel the causes of bullying behavior made by researchers investigating biological and environmental influences and the way these influences interact.

One of these studies, involving 1,116 families with 10-year-old twins, found that the tendency for children to be bullied was largely explained by genetics (73 % of variance) and less so by environmental factors that were unique to each child (Ball et al. 2008). Another study of 506 six-year-old twins found that variance in victimization was accounted for only by shared and non-shared environmental influences (29 % and 71 %, respectively) and was not related to the child’s genetic predisposition (Brendgen et al. 2008). These discrepancies might be explained by differences in methodologies used, as studies drew on different informants to assess bullying victimization (mothers and peers, respectively). Although results to date have been contradictory, future breakthroughs in this area have the potential to transform radically the study of bullying.

To understand more fully how bullying behaviors develop, future research will also need to investigate in more depth how individual and classroom level factors interact to cause involvement in bullying. It is not currently understood whether the relationship between risk factors and bullying is the same across different school and class environments or the extent to which consequences of bullying and victimization are dependent on class-and school-level factors.

Finally, another area that would benefit from more attention is the investigation of resilience to bullying. Some initial evidence suggests that maternal warmth has an environmental effect in protecting children from negative outcomes associated with victimization (Bowes et al. 2010). However, we still know relatively little about the factors that promote resilience to bullying and victimization among at-risk children, and also what role bullying has to play in increasing resilience. We also know little about the factors that help victims cope better with the effects of victimization.

To conclude, what the recent flurry of research activity has highlighted is how complex the bullying phenomenon is and that, although much has been learned to date, there is clearly a great need to understand how variables describing the family, school, class, and community environment interact with individual characteristics to determine who gets bullied and who bullies others. Research should neither be blind to nor discouraged by these complexities.


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