You are here

Smith, P. K., & Monks, C. P. (2008). Concepts of bullying: Developmental and cultural aspects. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 20, 101-112.

The Encarta World English Dictionary defines a bully as an aggressive person who intimidates or mistreats weaker people. Bullying is directed often repeatedly toward a particular victim who is usually unable to defend him/herself. Victimized children may be younger, weaker, or less psychologically confident. The bully gains psychological gratification, status in the peer group, and sometimes financial gain.

Historical Origins of the Study of Bullying: Olweus defined bullying as repeated oppression of a less powerful person by a more powerful person; it is a desire to hurt someone repeatedly. Early work on bullying mentioned only physical and verbal types. In the 1990s, relational forms of bullying took effect. In the 2000s, cyberbullying started to occur. Another recent term is bias bullying or prejudice-driven bullying. This is bullying based on group characteristics and would include racial harassment, faith-based bullying, sexual harassment, and homophobic bullying.

Assessing Definitions, the Criteria Used, and the Cartoon Task: Whatever definition researchers decide on, children and adults may not necessarily agree on that meaning. Two main approaches have been used in the study of how bullying is defined outside the research community, recall and recognition tasks. In recall tests, people are asked to define bullying and give examples. In recognition tasks, a participant is given a vignette and asked if it is bullying. A particular methodology is the cartoon task, a universal approach. 25 cartoons illustrate different social situations that may or may not be bullying. The situations vary in type of aggression, number of bullies, repetition, and negative effect on the victim. Little gender difference was found; however, age changes and cultural differences were seen.

Age Changes Understanding Bullying: Such changes may be developmental or historical. Until around eight or nine years, children use the term bullying broadly to cover all kinds of nasty behavior even when no imbalance of power is involved. For 8 year old children, the cartoon task showed two clusters, non-aggressive and aggressive items. For the 14 year olds, five clusters occurred, non-aggressive, physical aggression (even handed dispute or provoked retaliation), physical bullying (power difference), verbal, and social exclusion. Adults are less likely to consider social or relational aggression as bullying; this could be in part due to their definition of bullying growing up, when bullying was mainly viewed as verbal or physical.

Age Changes Behaviors Related to Bullying: Some children behave aggressively early on; they can be physically, verbally, or relationally aggressive. However, they often use direct, confrontational methods. Indirect bullying is often done by older children and adolescents. Young children’s aggression differs from bullying as observed in older students in terms of repetition. Although the aggressive behavior of young children shows some stability over time, with the same children behaving aggressively toward their peers, such children do not repeatedly target the same person. They tend to target different children on different occasions. These behaviors are defined as peer victimization instead of bullying. However, they me be the precursors to bullying behavior. The widespread victimizing can be the aggressor trying to identify the most susceptible victims within a new peer group. Young children may also find it hard to identify susceptible victims. It can also be a reflection of a less-fixed social hierarchy.

Cultural Differences Terms used for Bullying: In France the word violence is used for bullying. In the United States, victimization has been used. Six clusters were identified, terms higher on physical, verbal, and social bullying that were closest to the definition of bullying, terms that are higher on social exclusion, terms higher on verbal bullying, higher on verbal but moderately on physical bullying, higher on physical bullying, and highest on physical bullying but moderately on verbal and/or social exclusion.

Cultural Differences Behavioral Differences in Bullying: Boys are more often bullies than victims and more likely to engage in physical bullying. The rates of being a victim declines with age.