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A review of the extent, nature, characteristics and effects of bullying behaviour in schools.

Bullying behaviour no doubt is becoming a common feature, and a nightmare in schools all over the world. It is a worrisome practice in schools because it infringes on the child's right to human dignity, privacy, freedom and security. The physical, emotional and educational consequences of bullying behaviour can never be underestimated. Therefore, this endeavour attempted to further expose us to the meaning, history, extent and nature of bullying behaviour in schools. The characteristics of bullies and their victims and the effects of bullying on the child's mental health were also discussed.


School has always been recognized as an institution for the transfer of knowledge and culture to the future generation. It is a dynamic human system dedicated to the nurturing of mutual growth and understanding between children and adults (Schultz, Glass & Kamholtz, 1987; Rutter, 1995).

In schools, the learners are the centre of focus. They are of utmost importance hence, adequate information about the students is necessary for any meaningful learning to take place. For teachers' efforts not to be wasted and for learners to change along with the set goals, such factors that affect learning and teaching, which include child growth, age, heredity, interest, home and social effects and violence in school (including school bullying and peer victimization) need to be addressed.

From the psychological perspective, bullying as a behavioural characteristics can be conceptualized in a number of ways. It can also be taken to be a subset of aggressive behaviours. As with aggressive behaviours generally, bullying intentionally causes hurt to the recipient. This hurt can be both physical and psychological. Bullying behaviour infringes upon the child's right to human dignity, privacy, freedom and security. It has an influence on the victim's physical, emotional, social and educational well being (Wet, 2005).

Bullies frequently target people who are different from themselves and they seek to exploit those differences. They select victims they think are unlikely to retaliate such as persons who are overweight, wear glasses, or have obvious physical differences like big ears or severe acne. Such victims are common subjects of ridicule in the hands of bullies. However, these differences do not necessarily need to be physical, as students who learn at a different pace or are anxious or insecure can also be targets for bullies. Bullies resort to this abusive behaviour as a way of dealing with difficult situations at home such as broken homes, or partial separation from parents. Some bullies may see their behaviours as normal because they grow up from families in which everyone regularly gets angry and shouts.

Whatever the situation or causes, bullies usually pick on others as a way of dealing with their own problems. In some cases, bullies pick on others because they need a victim (someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker), or because they try to gain acceptance and feel more important, popular, or in control. Thus, the thrust of this paper therefore is to bring to further knowledge the concept of bullying, the characteristics of the students who are bullied, the characteristics of the victims, the nature and extent of bullying and the outcome of bullying.

The Concept of Bullying

Bullying is not a new phenomenon among school children. Most adults can remember incidents of bullying in which they were the bullies or the intended victims. Bullying has only received research attention since the early 1970's when Dan Olweus, a Norwegian researcher began to study this area. At that time, strong societal interest in bullying/victim problem emerged in Scandinavia, where bullying was known as "mobbing". Olweus' 1978 book, "Aggression in the Schools--Bullies and Whipping Boys", is considered a landmark and the first systematic study of the phenomenon of bullying (Noelle, 2005)

Bullying can be described as repeated negative events, which over time are directed at special individuals and which are carried out by one or several other people who are stronger than the victim. Negative events can be aggressive physical contact in the form of fights and shoving, verbal threats and mockery, grimacing or cruel gesturing.

Bullying occurs when a person willfully and repeatedly exercises power over another with hostile or malicious intent. A wide range of physical or verbal behaviours of an aggressive or anti-social nature are encompassed by the term bullying. These include, humiliating, harassing and mobbing (Colvin, Tobin, Beard, Hagan & Sprague, 1998). Bullying may also assume less direct forms (sometimes referred to as "psychological bullying") such as gossiping, spreading rumours, and shunning or exclusion (O'Connel, Pepler & Craig, 1999).

However, the most widely used definition of bullying is that coined by Olweus (1978), which states that a person is being bullied when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Negative actions are considered to be when someone purposefully inflicts, or tries to inflict injury or discomfort on another person. Negative actions may be both verbal (e.g. threatening, degrading, teasing) and non-verbal (e.g. hitting, kicking, slapping, pushing, vandalizing property, rude gestures, and making faces) (Olweus, 1993). Bullying may be carried out by a single person (the bully) or by a group against a single person (the victim) or by a group.

Langevin (2000) claimed that this definition requires that negative actions must be carried out repeatedly and intentionally to be considered bullying, which excludes occasional and less serious negative action. In order to be considered bullying, there should also be an actual or perceived power imbalance. That is, the person experiencing the negative actions has trouble defending him/ herself and is helpless to some degree against the harassing person or persons (Besag, 1991; Rigby & Slee, 1993).

Olweus (1993) opined that another distinction that is sometimes made in defining bullying is that of direct and indirect bullying. Direct bullying is defined as open attacks on the victim, while indirect bullying consists of social isolation and exclusion from the group. Smith and Sharp (1994) submitted that a further criterion is that bullying must be unprovoked on the part of the victim.

The Characteristics of Students who are Bullies

There are many common characteristics found in most bullies. Bosworth, Espelage and Simon (2001) opined that most bullies are male, popular, and often athletes. They have excellent social skills, with the ability to attract many followers, and easily manipulate others.

Bullies are psychologically strong and very popular among their peers. However, the peer status is important in terms of boosting their well being. Bullying behaviour is self reinforcing. When students find that putting others down give them approval from their peers, they are likely to do it repeatedly. Sometimes, they can easily butter up to adults, making them unsuspecting bullies (Bosworth, Espelage & Simon 2001).

Generally, a bully is someone who teases and intimidates other students, although there are many other ways to bully a fellow student. Many people feel that the typical bully comes from a broken home, but this is not necessarily true. Still, the less supervision a child gets at home, the more likely he is to be a bully. Different studies have proved that most bullies look for a victim who is smaller, younger and weaker. As a practice, bullies have more aggressive attitudes towards their social surroundings and a positive attitude about violence. Furthermore, it has been shown by different surveys that bullies are steered by impulses, they need to dominate others and do not show any empathy for the victim.

Rigby (1996) discussed two possible conceptualizations of the bully. One is a child who is vicious and uncaring, the product of a dysfunctional family. This bully has an aggressive temperament, and he/she is hostile and un-empathic in relations with others. The second conceptualization suggests that some bullies are in fact members of a group that builds its strength on harassing vulnerable children who are not members of their group. The bully may or may not be malicious in intent, and the members reassure themselves that no real harm is being done. Rigby (1996) called this type of bully a "passive bully" or "follower".

As for girls, they experience a different form of bullying. Although it is a more indirect form of bullying, social manipulation is very prevalent within females. Social manipulation can include many actions, including spreading gossip, telling lies, betraying trust, passing notes, ignoring the victim, or excluding the victim (Anonymous, 2001; Kenny, McEachan & Aluede, 2005).

The Characteristics of Students who are Victims of Bully

Victims of bullying are described as more anxious, careful and insecure compared to other students in general. They are not aggressive but have a negative self image. Olweus (1993) stated that bullying victim often lacks friends in the class and at school. Students exposed to long-term bullying can see the school environment as unfriendly, frightening, and go through a major part of school with anxiety and insecurity. The major dependence which bullying victims feel towards their families can also be explained by their vulnerability and their otherwise insecure situation. With respect to physical attributes, victims are physically weak than non-victims.

Bosworth, Espelage and Simon (2001) asserted that 30% to 40% of bullies show some level of depression, and their bullying is often a cry for help. Most likely the victims will be both less confident and unpopular. Therefore, many victims react by becoming upset or crying as a way of dealing with their anger or fear. Victims have a tendency to be depressed, anxious, shy and lonely (Drake, 2003).

Rubin (2003) maintained that from previous research, victims tend to have a lower self-esteem and a high level of depression. Victims tend to be physically smaller, more sensitive, unhappy, cautious, anxious, quiet and withdrawn than other children (Bryne, 1994). Most victims of bullying can be termed "passive" or "submissive" victims (Olweus, 1994). They are generally insecure and non-assertive, and react by withdrawing and crying when attacked by other students. In this sense, they are vulnerable to being victimized, as bullies know these children will not retaliate. A less common characteristic, the "provocative victim", has also been described. Olweus (1994) classified this type of victim of bullying as a combination of both anxious and aggressive traits, and these students sometimes provoke classmates into victimizing them by their overactive and irritable behaviour.

The Nature of Bullying

Bullying can take many forms and has been categorized in many ways by various researchers. Pearce (1991) identified three different kinds of bullies: the aggressive one, the anxious one and the passive one.

(a) the aggressive bully--is aggressive towards everybody, not just the weak. The aggressive bulies are insensitive, domineering, lacking in self-control; but, contrary to the psycho-dynamic notion, they are also high in self-esteem. Furthermore, most bullies would fall into this category.

(b). the anxious bully--is more disturbed. They share more of the victim's characteristics, such as low self-esteem, insecurity and loneliness, emotionally unstable and provocative. They are met likely to be victims themselves.

(c). the passive bully--is the one who engages in bullying in order to protect himself /herself and to achieve status. Apassive bully would be easily dominated and led, would be more sensitive to the sufferings of others but would do nothing about it and also would be reluctant to engage in active bullying.

Langevin (2000) classified bully into four, these include:

(a) Physical bullies- these are the easiest to identify. They act out their anger by hitting, shoving, or kicking their chosen target--or by damaging their victim's property.

(b) Verbal bullies--they use words to hurt and humiliate their target, through either name--calling, insult or persistent and harsh teasing.

(c) Relationship bullies--they spread nasty rumours about their target. This behaviour is predominantly adopted by female bullies.

(d) Reactive victims--these are victims of bullying who turn into bullies themselves. Of course, their having been victims of bullying does not excuse their conduct; it only helps to explain it.

Aside the above classifications, other researchers (i.e. Garrity, Jens, Porter, Sager & Short-Camilli, 2001; Rigby, 1996) noted that forms of bullying can be basically categorized into five as follows:-

(a) Physical aggressive (e.g. pushing, tripping, spitting)

(b) Social alienation (e.g. excluding, coercing, other to reject or exclude a person)

(c) Verbal aggression (e.g. name calling, taunting, teasing)

(d) Intimidation (e.g. threats, intimidating, coercing one to do what they would not ordinarily do)

(e) Relational bullying:- bullying that damages relationships (e.g. gossiping, spreading rumours, making racial slurs)

Bullying can take the form of direct and indirect, overt or very subtle, and it ranges in severity from mild to severe. There is overlap in the categorizations and again there is no one agreed upon categorization (Rigby, 1996).

The more recent form of bullying is electronic bullying, which is otherwise known as digital bullying. This form of bullying is a new and insidious development. It involves the sending of menacing messages through telephone calls or by Email messages. In addition, youths also create hate-filled web pages about a victim where they include personal information about the victim. This form of bullying is extra-ordinarily damaging to the child who is being victimized by it (Aluede, 2006). Moreover, mobile phones are a popular choice for bullies. They provide bullies with the perfect means of taunting their targets with little fear of being caught. Text messages provide complete anonymity. Many "Pay--As--You--Go" mobile phones can be bought over the counter and do not require proof of identity, nor is there any record kept of the new owner. Calls made from these types of mobile phones are difficult to trace (Anonymous, 2005).

The Extent of Bullying

Bullying among school children occurs worldwide. It takes place in small schools, large schools, single sex, co-educational schools, traditional and progressive schools. It occurs in both primary and secondary schools. The most common form of bullying for both sexes is verbal and includes teasing, harassment and name--calling. It is the most painful form and has the longest--lasting impact. However, extortion, physical violence, nasty rumours, exclusion from the group, damage to property and threats are also regarded as bullying. The playground is the most common place for bullying to occur and most children believe that bullying cannot be stopped.

Bullying in schools across the world is beginning to assume a serious dimension. For example, in Australia, Prof. Ken Rigby reported that one student out of six between the ages of 9 and 17, is affected by bullying at least once a week. In American schools, there are approximately 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million victims (Lumsdem, 2002).

For instance, in U.S., in a national study, Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton and Scheidt (2001) found that about 30% of 6th through 10th grade students had been involved in bullying incidents with moderate or frequent regularity. Similar prevalence rates were found in the State of Florida. For example, in a study by Bully Police, USA (n. d.) found that of the 2,701,022 school age children in Florida, approximately 442,157 students representing 16.37% were involved in bullying.

Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton and Scheidt (2001) added that limited available data show that bullying is much more common among younger teens than older teens. As teens grow older, they are less likely to bully others and to be the targets of bullies.

Rigby and Slee (1991) remarked that bullying occurs more frequently among boys than girls. Teenage boys are much more likely to bully others and also to be the targets of bullies. While both girls and boys say others bully them by making fun of the way they look or talk, boys are more likely to report being hit, slapped or pushed. Teenage girls are more often the targets of rumours and sexual comments.

Also, in a study of fourth--through eight--graders, above 15% of the respondents reported being severely distressed by bullying and 22% reported academic difficulties stemming from maltreatment by peers (Hoover & Oliver, 1996). Gallagber's study (as cited in Nansel et al, 2001) reported that one out of four children is bullied, and one out of five defined himself/herself as a bully. In all, approximately 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools every month. In the same view, Vail (2002) claimed that many students avoid public areas of the school such as the cafeteria and restrooms in an attempt to elude bullies. For some students, the fear is so great that they avoid school altogether, hence everyday approximately 160,000 students stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied.

Olweus (1993) opined that teenage boys target boys and girls, teenage girls most often bully other girls, using more subtle and indirect forms of aggression than boys. For example, teenage girls, instead of physically harming others, they are more likely to spread gossip or encourage others to reject or exclude another girl. In addition, a survey published in "Pediatrics in Review" reveals that in Norway, 14% of children are either bullies or victims. In Japan, 15% of primary school pupils say that they are bullied, while in Australia and Spain, the problem prevails among 17% of the students. In Britain, one expert figures that 1.3 million children are involved in bullying.

In Israel, Professor Amos Rolider of Emek Yizre'el College surveyed 2,972 pupils in 21 schools. According to the Jerusalem post, the professor found that "65% complained of being smacked, kicked, pushed or molested by fellow pupils" (Anonymous, 2003). Wet (2005) reported that in 1985, investigation on bullying conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, it was found that 7% of the youths who took part in the investigation victimized their fellow learners; 9% indicated that they were victims of bullies. Furthermore, 6% indicated that they were victims and bullies. Similarly, in a Norwegian study, in which 568,000 learners participated during 1983-1984, it was found that 9% of the participants were "now and then" "relatively regularly" or "regularly" victims of bullying; 7% were found guilty of bullying (Olweus, 1994).

According to Limber, Flerx, Nation and Melton, 1996 (cited in McEachern, Kenny, Blake & Aluede, 2005), one out of 12 secondary school children in the Netherlands is "very regularly" or "regularly" bullied. Nansel et al (2001) found that 60.9% of the 207 participants in a research project in Gauteng indicated that they were bullied during the 2002 school year. Northmore's study (as cited in Wet, 2005) of Johannesburg Centre for School Quality and Improvement (CSQI) points out that 90% of the learners at a Johannesburg school told CSQI that they were bullied in the previous year.

In Nigeria, however, there are little or no adequate statistical facts (as at now) to show the number of students affected by bullying. Nevertheless, Umoh (2000) noted that cases of bullying have been reported in many schools in Nigeria but that the deviant act is not usually given the desirable attention. Bullying has most of the time been ignored by many teachers, counsellors and school administrators because of its silent but adverse effect. Some school personnel even see it as not a serious problem and consequently pay little or no attention to the behaviour. This lukewarm attitude promotes the deviant behaviour and discourages researchers into bullying. This may be responsible for the paucity of literature on bullying among secondary school students in Nigeria (Asonibare, 1998, as cited in Idowu & Yahaya, 2006).

The Effects of Bullying

Bullying can have devastating effects on victims. For the victims of bullying, they go to school everyday fearing harassment, taunting and humiliation. For all potential educators, it is very important to realize that bullying is a problem, so that we can work to prevent it now or in the future (Anonymous, 2005).

There are many repercussions of bullying that are quite shocking. According to Kerlikowske (2003) these include:

(1) Children who are bullied are more likely to be depressed; 26% of girls who were frequently bullied reported depression as opposed to 8% of girls who were not. Similarly the boys who were bullied and reported depression were 16% as against 3% who were not.

(2) Victims are more likely to be suicidal, with 8% for girls and 4% for boys, compared to 1% overall for non-victims of bullying.

(3) Bullies are more likely to carry weapons, with 43% carrying weapons to school at least once a week, compared to 8% who were not carrying weapons.

(4) 46% of bullies are more likely to be injured while 16% of bullies are not likely to be injured.

(5) As one middle-school student expressed it "there is another kind of violence, and that is violence by talking. It can leave you hurting more than a cut with knife. It can leave you bruised inside" (National Association of Attorneys General, 2000).

(6) Students who are targeted by bullies often have difficulty concentrating on their school work, and their academic performance tends to move from "marginal to poor" (Ballard, Tucky & Remley, 1999). Typically, bullied students feel anxious, and this anxiety may in turn produce a variety of physical or emotional ailments

(7) Rates of absenteeism are higher among victimized students than rates among non-bullied peers, as are drop-out rates. Nansel et al (2001) observed that "youths who are bullied generally show higher levels of insecurity, anxiety, depression, loneliness, unhappiness, physical and mental symptoms, and low-self esteem.

(8) Long--term effects on victims--persistent bullying during the school years may have long--term negative effects on the victims many years beyond school (Olweus, 1993). Chronic bullies seem to maintain their behaviours into adulthood thus influencing their ability to develop and maintain positive relationships (Oliver, Hoover & Hazier, 1994).

(9) Drake (2003) found that victims of bullies tend to be less popular in school than other students not involved in bullying. As a result of being bullied, 16% boys and 31% girls reported being absent from school in attempt to avoid being victimized (Rigby, 1997).

(10) Bullying does not just affect the victim, but it also has consequences for the bully. First, for the victim, bullying can cause physical, academic, social and psychological problems. Some of the physical symptoms include headaches and migraines, skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, athletes foot, ulcers, sweating, trembling, shaking, palpitations and panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, aches and pains in the joints and muscles; and frequent illness such as viral infections and second, for the bully, they are seldom able to conclude friendship, they are often anti-social adults and the bullying is sometimes the first stepping stone to juvenile crime and criminal activities (Aluede, 2006; Wet, 2005).

(11) The psychological scars left by bullying often endure for years. For instance, the feelings of isolation and the loss of self-esteem that victims experience seem to last into adulthood (Clarke & Kiselica, 1997).


Bullying is not just isolated behaviour on the part of its perpetrators; instead it is part of a more generally anti-social and rule-breaking (conduct-disordered) behaviour pattern. Therefore, students (particularly boys) who bully others are especially likely to engage in other anti-social/delinquent behaviours such as vandalism, shop lifting, truancy and frequent drug use; and these may continue into young adulthood.


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Oyaziwo Aluede, Ph.D, Fajoju Adeleke, MBA, Don Omoike, Ph.D and Justina Afen-Akpaida, M. Ed. Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Professor Oyaziwo Aluede at
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Author:Aluede, Oyaziwo; Adeleke, Fajoju; Omoike, Don; Afen-Akpaida, Justina
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Date:Jun 1, 2008
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