MARIA TTOFI is a lecturer in psychological criminology and a research fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University. Her area of interest is school bullying and violence, focusing on developmental criminology and early intervention research, and experimental criminology including systematic and meta-analytic reviews. She was given an award for Bullying Abuse Prevention by the University at Buffalo SUNY last year and has been involved in two major research projects into school bullying and its ongoing effects.
When we talk about bullying, what do we mean?
We should differentiate between school bullying and different types of playful or reactive aggression. Victimisation without provocation is what we mean by bullying. It can be physical, verbal or relational. Relational bullying, like exclusion, can be even more torturing than physical bullying.
Cyberbullying is the new type of extended victimisation. With cyberbullying a child can always be a victim, even when he or she goes home. The abuse is potentially there all the time. It is a relatively new area of research, but certainly promising in terms of intervention because schoolteachers seem especially concerned by this new threat.
While it is obviously unpleasant to be bullied, does it necessarily matter in the long-term?
School bullying does not just go away once pupils finish school. Experiences of bullying at school are directly related to adverse outcomes later in life. I directed a British Academy project in collaboration with Professors Farrington and Lösel at the Institute of Criminology [at Cambridge University] on the long-term criminal and health outcomes of children involved in school bullying. This study showed that bullies are roughly twice as likely compared with non-involved students to commit violent and criminal offences later in life (up to about 6-7 years later on average). Bullies are also more likely to be excluded from school. Victims of bullying, on the other hand, are about 50% more likely to be depressed later in life. These findings were controlled for other major childhood risk factors, such as maternal depression and so on.
So addressing the problem might be seen as crime prevention?
Yes. Overall, prevention programmes are effective in reducing bullying and can interrupt the long-term link between school bullying and later adverse outcomes including crime and depression.
What kind of programmes are you talking about?
In simple terms kids need to feel okay with coming forward and letting teachers and parents know about their problem. A lot of research suggests that, quite often, parents and teachers are not aware of the child’s victimization. Restorative justice in schools is also interesting—a less formal approach in which the perpetrator and the victim are brought into the same room for a blame-free discussion. Then my research shows that more intensive, long-lasting programmes are more likely to be effective in reducing bullying and victimization, probably because time is needed for the creation of the right school ethos.
Some school bullies and victims do seem to be resilient against the detrimental impact of these early childhood experiences. We know, for example, based on results from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development that the percentage of school bullies at age 14 who were convicted for criminal offending up to age 50 was significantly smaller for those who came from families with a high family income compared to those from poor families.
We know for sure that children who are bullies are more likely to come from dysfunctional backgrounds. They are more likely to indicate that their fathers are cold and unemotional or that there is a lack of warmth in their family environment. We know they are more likely to have yelling in their home and problematic forms of interaction with their parents. Conversely, victims of school bullying tend to come from over-protective families. Maybe if you come from an over-protective family you aren’t able to develop your own personality, so you go to school lacking the basic social skills and become a target of school bullies.
What about video games?
A lot of research shows that playing aggressive video games that encourage violence as normal results in problem behaviour. Many anti-bullying programmes have used video games as an intervention so that they can get the games to work in the opposite way. I’ve been involved in the KiVa anti-bullying programme in Finland and they’ve included video games as a main element. 98% of victims involved in discussions with their schools’ KiVa teams felt that their situation had improved and the KiVa programme won the European Crime Prevention Award in 2009.
Is there less bullying if there is more discipline?
There is less bullying if there is more playground supervision. It has been suggested by Professor Peter Smith at Goldsmith’s that larger schools may facilitate bullying. We know bullying takes place especially during lunch breaks so perhaps in a larger school with less supervision we might see more of it. If it is true that you get more bullying when children are unsupervised it suggests that it is a natural thing that people do from some evolutionary point of view?
One may assume this—clearly some children may be more aggressive than others and future developments in neuroscience might show intrinsic aggression. However, awareness about the problem does reduce bullying. We have a lot of research to show that school bullying is not just something that occurs between the perpetrator and the victim. Other participants come into play. Christina Salmivalli did research into different roles in school bullying and how important bystanders are in encouraging or discouraging the behavior. It is not a dyadic relationship—we should have in mind the overall social framework of the children affected.