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What makes a bully tick? Scientists search for answers.

Josh, a teen from a small town in Pennsylvania, knows what it feels like to be bullied. From 7th through 12th grade, he suffered through name-calling, insults, and cruel jokes. "I dreaded going to school every day," Josh says. "It took every ounce of energy in me to get up in the morning and get dressed."

The constant verbal abuse sabotaged Josh's self-esteem and his schoolwork. "It was impossible for me to learn, because I was always preoccupied. Even if they weren't talking about me during class, their voices were still in my head." Josh is now 19 and out of school, but his self-confidence hasn't recovered from the years of abuse.

Josh isn't alone. Bullying, or repeatedly harassing someone over a period of time, affects 30 percent of teens in the U.S.: 5.7 million teens are estimated to be bullies, victims of bullying, or both.

Q: Are bullies born that way?

A: Scientists say it's not that simple. Bullying and other aggressive behaviors stem from a number of factors, including influences from a person's home and school environment. Studies are finding that certain biological factors also partly contribute to aggressive behavior.

Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, is studying a gene, or unit of hereditary material, called MAO-A. This gene comes in different varieties, one of which, called MAOA-L, could affect a person's risk for becoming aggressive.

Compared with people born with the MAO-A version of the gene, people with the MAOA-L type of gene have slightly higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers inside the brain, are responsible for regulating aspects of a person's behavior and functions (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 12). Serotonin, specifically, plays a major role in controlling emotions. Meyer-Lindenberg says that the gene variation affects how a person's emotional centers are wired as he or she develops.


To learn how the gene variation affects emotions, Meyer-Lindenberg exposed test subjects to images of threatening situations. Then he studied their brain scans. He discovered that people with the MAOA-L gene responded to the pictures with higher activity in the amygdala, or the brain structure that signals fear, than people with the MAO-A gene. At the same time, the brain regions that control a person's fears were less active. This double whammy suggests that people born with the MAOA-L gene might lose their cool more easily than others when they feel threatened.

Meyer-Lindenberg warns that the MAOA-L gene alone is not responsible for making a person violent. "[It's] just a minor risk factor," he says. After all, none of the test subjects in his research were violent.

Q: What makes a bully?

A: Scientists say that bullying is largely a learned behavior. One way that people learn behaviors is by watching others and then imitating what they observe. "We know that kids model from their parents," says Russell Skiba, a professor of school psychology at Indiana University. In a home environment where parents use verbal and physical abuse, kids may register that aggression is a way to obtain results, or get what they want.

Experts emphasize that not all kids from troubled homes become bullies, and not all bullies come from troubled homes. Some teens learn bullying behavior by modeling their friends at school. Ironically, some kids who were bullied themselves turn around and victimize others.

Surveys show that bullying is particularly widespread among teens. Scientists believe one possible reason is that the prefrontal cortex, or the area of the brain that oversees judgment and self-control, isn't fully developed during the teenage years. Therefore, teens may be more vulnerable to making bad decisions such as modeling aggressive behaviors.

Q: What does a bully look like?

A: Bullies can be male or female, and can come in all shapes and sizes. Studies show that many bullies are also smart and popular. Experts say that girl bullies generally use indirect methods of expressing aggression such as rumors and exclusion. Boys, on the other hand, are often prone to physical bullying. In recent years, bullying has also gone high-tech. An increasing number of both boys and girls are sending spiteful e-mails and text messages, or creating slander-filled Web pages. In a 2005 survey conducted by Clemson University, 25 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys in American middle schools said that they had been targeted by cyberbullies at least once within a two-month period.

Skiba points out that while bullies may not fit a stereotype, all bullies do have one thing in common: "They seem to be more rewarded by others' reactions to their bullying." Bullies may enjoy seeing their victim's angry or fearful reactions. Bullies may also feel rewarded by the attention they get from onlookers. Skiba explains that behavioral psychologists have found that if a behavior produces a reward, then it reinforces the learning of that behavior.

Josh thinks that bullies repeatedly harassed him because he was an easy target for gaining rewards: "They saw that I was a very insecure person, and they knew that they could easily take advantage of me."

Q: Can bullying be stopped?

A: Some schools that use bully-prevention programs have seen a decline in bullying incidences by as much as 50 percent. Many of these programs work by attempting to create a school environment where bullies won't be rewarded or tolerated.

Skiba explains: According to cognitive psychology (study of mental processes), each person acts according to his or her schema, or mental concept of how the world works. Many bullying-prevention programs use activities and discussions to try to replace the old schema that bullying is normal with a new schema that recognizes how damaging bullying can be to its Victims. When the new schema becomes widely accepted in a school population, it becomes more difficult for bullying to be accepted. This causes some bullies to unlearn their behavior.

Since each school has a unique environment, experts suggest that school officials seek consultants to help develop an anti-bullying program that best suits the school's population. For the programs to really work, Skiba stresses that school administrators, teachers, students, and parents need to work together.

Josh's former school has started an anti-bullying program. He hopes it will help protect students from experiencing a nightmare like his.



Take the multiple-choice quiz below. Then, read on to discover how much you know about the issue.

1 What percentage of middle-school girls in the United States are harassed by cyberbullies at least once during a two-month period?

(A) 7

(B) 13

(C) 19

(D) 25

2 Which of the following is a bullying behavior?

(A) sending spiteful e-mails

(B) physical aggression

(C) spreading rumors

(D) All of the above

3 Scientists have found a gene that plays--role in aggressive behavior.

(A) a minor

(B) a major

(C) the primary


4 Some schools that use anti-bullying programs have cut incidences of bullying by as much as--percent.

(A) 19

(B) 27

(C) 43

(D) 50

5 Which grade has the highest percentage of students being bullied at school?

(A) 6th

(B) 7th

(C) 8th

(D) 9th

nuts & bolts

Serotonin is a chemical messenger that regulates emotions. Follow the steps to see how it relays its message.

1 A NEURON, or nerve cell, releases serotonin from its cell body. The chemical travels as signals called nerve impulses through an axon.

2 SEROTONIN reaches a synapse, or gap between neurons. Receptors on another neuron receive the impulses. Dendrites carry the message toward the neuron's cell body.

3 SEROTONIN PATHWAY The impulses continue traveling in this manner from one neuron to another, sending signals to different parts of the brain.


One expert offers these tips:

1 Recognize that bullying is a serious problem.

Bullying can lead to serious consequences--for both victims and bullies. Victims may experience depression and an increased risk of suicide. Bullies who don't change are more likely to get in trouble with the law as adults. "If we can stop bullying, we're not just doing a favor for victims, we're also doing a favor for the bullies," says Skiba.

2 Don't be a bystander.

By not addressing the issue, bullying escalates. "Encourage peers not to engage in bullying each other," says Skiba. He advises teachers: "Take bullying very seriously and intervene whenever you see it."

4 Find ways for teens to report bullying.

Many teens find the common line of "go tell the principal" unrealistic and uncomfortable. Skiba suggests that teachers, administrators, and students create a plan together that makes students feel safe to report bullying.

4 If you're part of a group that bullies, set a goal not to take part in it.

Skiba says: A teen who makes a resolution to do something a little bit differently from his or her peers can help make a big difference.

web extra

To learn more about bullying, visit:


LIFE: Behavior

What Makes a Bully Tick?


Jump-start your lesson with these pre-reading questions:

* The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 students in the U.S. miss school every day due to a fear of bullies. How might bullying affect its victims in the long term?

* According to the U.S. Department of Justice, younger students are more likely to be bullied than older students. Physical bullying peaks in middle school and then declines through high school. Verbal abuse, however, remains constant. What percentage of American middle school students do you think reported being bullied at school?

* Studies show that students often feel that adult intervention in bullying is infrequent or unhelpful. Teens also fear that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies. A 2002 study shows that 25 percent of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying; therefore, they intervene in only 4 percent of bullying incidents. How might an antibullying program work to change both students' and teachers' attitudes toward tackling bullying?


* Josh, the teen featured in the article, says some students who were nice to him one-on-one stopped being kind when they were around other kids. They even jumped on the bullying bandwagon and ganged up on Josh. What factors might have prompted these students to switch behaviors? Use the article to help you explain your reasoning.


SOCIAL STUDIES: Have students research facts and statistics on bullying. Then have them create posters to hang in the school's hallways to help educate their peers about the issue.


* This teen-friendly Web site from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers tips on how to stop bullying. Includes animated stories that you can download, and then watch and discuss. Site includes a Spanish language section for educators and adults. Visit:

* For more on bullying, visit the site of the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center:

* To learn more about Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg's study on the "aggression" gene variation, go to:

* Educators can learn more about school violence by visiting the Web site of Dr. Russel Skiba's Safe and Responsive Schools project:

DIRECTIONS: Match the word(s) in the left colunm with the correct
phrase in the right column.

-- 1. Neuron a. brain structure that signals fear
-- 2. Synapse b. nerve cell
-- 3. Amygdala c. mental concept of how the world works
-- 4. Neurotransmitter d. imitate behavior
-- 5. Model e. gap between neurons
-- 6. Prefrontal cortex f. brain chemical that regulates emotions
-- 7. Serotonin g. area of the brain that oversees judgment
 and serf-control
-- 8. Schema h. chemical messenger inside the brain


Bullying in schools

In "What Makes a Bully Tick?" (p. 10), you learned that 30 percent of U.S. teens are involved in bullying. How often are teens bullied at school? Below is a chart showing the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school--defined as inside the school building, on school grounds, on a school bus, or going to and from school. Use the information in the chart to help you complete the sections that follow.
Percentage of U.S. students between 6th and 12th grades
who reported being bullied at school (by year)

Grade 1999 2001 2003

6th 10.5 14.3 13.9

7th 9.0 13.0 12.7

8th 5.5 9.2 8.8

9th 5.0 8.6 6.7

10th 3.2 4.6 3.5

11th 2.6 4.3 3.5

12th 1.2 2.4 2.2

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey

A. Graph It

On a separate piece of paper, use the above data to construct the following:

1. A line graph showing the percentage of U.S. students between 6th and 12th grades who reported being bullied at school in the years 1999, 2001, and 2003.

Hint: Use a different color pencil for each grade. Be sure to provide a color key. Label the x-axis "year", and the y-axis "percentage." Remember to give your graph a title.

2. What type of graph would you use to compare the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school in 1999 by grade? Construct that graph.

B. Analyze the Data

Use the data table and your graphs to answer the following questions in complete sentences.

1. In 1999, which grade had the highest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school? What was the percentage?

2. According to the given data, which grade of which year had the highest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school? On the flip side, which grade of which year had the lowest percentage of students who reported being bullied?

3. Study your line graph and the data table. Describe the trends.


What Makes a Bully Tick?

1. b 2. e 3. a 4. h 5. d 6. g 7. f 8. c


A. Graph It

2. You would use a bar graph to compare by grad the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school in 1999e.

B. Analyze the Data

1. In 1999, 6th grade had the highest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school. According to the data table, 10.5 percent of 6th graders were bullied in that year.

2. According to the given data, 6th grade in 2001 had the highest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school. And 12th grade in 1999 had the lowest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school.

3. For all featured grades, the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school increased between 1999 and 2001, and then decreased between 2001 and 2003. Generally, 6th grade had the highest percentage of students who reported being bullied at school. As the grade increased, the percentage of bullying declined--except for one case: In 2003, 3.5 percent of both 10th and 11th graders reported being bullied at school.
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Article Details
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Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 23, 2006
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