Exploring Human Potential

Bullying: A Double-Edged Sword

Posted on | March 30, 2010 | Comments Off on Bullying: A Double-Edged Sword

The suicide death of a young girl, Phoebe Prince, tortured by high school tormentors, reminds us that bullying is alive and well across America.

The  American Medical Association Alliance, over 10 years ago created SAVE, Stop America’s Violence Everywhere. This grassroots program addressed many forms of violence over the years, but especially identified one problem in particular: bullying among children. The AMA Alliance’s effort rightly recognized that our children are the key to a peaceful future. As then AMA Alliance President Jean Howard said, “No community is immune to violence. Everyone deserves a safe place to learn and grow. If we want a peaceful society, we must all work together to create an environment of tolerance and peace early in life.”

How big a problem is childhood violence? Aggressive violent behavior is pervasive in America’s schools. A 2001 study of nearly 16,000 sixth to 10th graders in U.S. public and private schools revealed that nearly 9 percent of the children were involved in frequent bullying. Males were more common offenders than females with approximately 13 percent involved, compared to 5 percent of girls. There was very little difference between whites, blacks, and hispanics.3

Bullying is a unique form of aggression because it causes long-term damage to both source and target. Both bullies and the bullied often suffer from poor psycho-social functioning. Both show poor academic performance, poor relationship building, and loneliness. Bullies have high rates of discipline problems, usually dislike school, and are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Bullied kids are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. By their 20s, former bullies and those who have been bullied are likely to continue to suffer consequences. Bullies have four times the rate of criminal behavior as non-bullies in adulthood, with 60 percent having at least one conviction. Those who were bullied have higher levels of adult depression and poor self-esteem.4,5

The rates of bullied children roughly mirror the rates of their tormentors. The behavior is most common in the sixth grade, with rates slowly declining by the 10th grade. Still, in grade 10, nearly 7 percent are bullies and nearly 5 percent are still victimized.3

Both males and females are bullied, but in somewhat different ways. Males are more likely to be physically attacked, reporting being physically bullied nearly 18 percent of the time, compared to 11 percent in females. Verbal violence takes multiple forms, including attacking one’s looks or speech, attacking religion or race, spreading false rumors, or making sexual comments or gestures – the latter somewhat more common among females.3

Bullying is a double-edged sword slicing away at the fabric of society. What can be done to identify those involved and intervene early? Clearly most realize that bullying is not just “kids being kids”2,6 The risk factors for bullies include poverty, overcrowding, disadvantaged schools, difficult childhood temperaments, inadequate parenting, poor socialization skills, and poor school performance. An especially high-risk group exists among those who experience social isolation, difficulties with learning, and a history of problematic behavior. Such individuals often have a history of being, first, bullied, and then becoming bullies. These individuals have been labeled “provocative victims” who exhibit both anxious and aggressive behaviors.3,5

What are some of the warning signs? They include unpredictable temper and mood swings, loneliness and depression, vandalism and arson, gun availability and preoccupation with weapons, threats of violence to self, others and animals, gang affiliation, and absence of parental supervision.3,4

School principals must enforce zero tolerance policies, devise guidelines on how violence should be handled, and encourage parental involvement. Students must report violence, serve as peer mentors, and participate in violence-prevention programs. Parents must be role models for non-violence, ensure firearm safety and security if firearms are in their homes, and be accessible to their children. Teachers must work with parents to recognize early warning signs of trouble, report problems when they are still correctable, and practice conflict resolution in their classrooms. Legislators must pass laws to ensure responsible gun control, mandate full health and mental health coverage (that includes children), and fund early intervention and violence-prevention programs. And non-profit organizations including churches, synagogues and mosques, can together champion social tolerance, community coalitions, and parenting classes.2

Peace is not the absence of war. We have to work together for peace and create an environment where tolerance and mutual support are realistic alternatives to hatred and violence.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1.Shock and anger rock US town after US bullying suicide. Brisbane Times.

2.SAVE Planning Guide. American Medical Association Alliance. Chicago, 2004.

3.Nansel TR, Overpeck M, Pilla RS, Ruan WJ, Simons-Morton B, Scheidt P. Bullying behaviors among US youth – prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. JAMA. 2001;285:2094-2100.

4.Twemlow SW. Preventing violence in schools. Psychiatric Times. 2004;21. Available at: Accessed Oct. 4, 2004.

5.Olweus D. Bullying at school: long-term outcomes for the victims and an effective school-based intervention program. In: Huesmann LR, ed. Aggressive Behavior: Current Perspectives. New York, NY: Plenum Press; 1994:97-130. Cited in Nansel TR, Overpeck M, Pilla RS, Ruan WJ, Simons-Morton B, Scheidt P.

6.American Medical Association. Report 11 of the Council on Scientific Affairs (I-99). School Violence.


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