Based on what we see on television or read in the newspapers, many of us develop beliefs about bullies and victims. Sometimes those beliefs are more myth than fact. In this article I describe a few commonly held myths about bullies and victims. I label these beliefs as myths because researchers who study bullies and victims of many different ages and in many different contexts have not found them to be true.
Myth #1: Bullies are rejected by their peers and have no friends.
Many people believe that everybody dislikes the class bully. But in truth, the research shows that many bullies have high status in the classroom and lots of friends (1). Particularly during the middle school years, some bullies are actually quite popular among their classmates who perceive them as especially “cool” (2). As young teens try out their need to be more independent, it seems that bullies sometimes enjoy a new kind of notoriety. Many classmates admire their toughness and may even try to imitate them.
Myth #2: Bullies have low self-esteem.
Just as it has been incorrectly assumed that bullies are rejected by peers and have no friends, there is a general belief that such youth are low in self-esteem. That myth has its roots in the widely accepted view that people who bully others must act that way because they think poorly of themselves. Some readers may remember the self-esteem movement of the 1980s when many people argued that raising self-esteem was the key to improving the outcomes of children with academic and social problems (3). But there is not much evidence in peer research that bullies suffer from low self-esteem (4). To the contrary, many studies report that bullies perceive themselves in a positive light, perhaps sometimes displaying inflated self-views, and that high self-esteem can sometimes encourage bullies to rationalize their antisocial actions (5).
Myth #3: Being a victim builds character.
Another misconception is that bullying is a normal part of childhood and adolescence and that the experience of peer harassment builds character. In contrast to this view, research findings quite clearly show that bullying experiences increase the vulnerabilities of children. For example, we know that children who are passive and socially withdrawn are at heightened risk of getting bullied and that these children become even more withdrawn after incidents of harassment (6).
Myth #4: Many childhood victims of harassment become violent as teens.
The portrayal of victims lashing out at their tormentors has been reinforced by the media portrayals of school shooting incidents over the past few years (7). However, the truth is that most victims of bullying are more likely to suffer in silence than to retaliate. As indicated above, many victims experience psychological adjustment problems like depression and low self-esteem, which may make them inclined to turn inward rather than outward.
Myth #5: There is a victim personality.
Although certain personality characteristics (e.g., the tendency to be shy or withdrawn) indeed place children at higher risk for being bullied, there are also a host of situational factors (e.g., being a new student in school) and social risk factors (e.g., not having a friend) that increase the likelihood of a child being or continuing to get bullied. These situational factors explain why there are more temporary than chronic victims of bullying (8).
Myth #6: Bullying involves only perpetrators and victims.
Many parents, teachers, and students view bullying as a problem that is limited to bullies and victims. Yet, there is much research showing that bullying involves more than the bully-victim dyad (9). For example, bullying incidents are typically public (rather than private) events that have witnesses. Studies based on playground observations have found that in most incidents, at least four other peers were present as witnesses, bystanders, assistants to bullies, reinforcers, or defenders of victims (10). One observation study found that in more than 50% of the observed incidents of bullying, peers reinforced bullies by passively watching. In only about 25% of the incidents did witnesses support the victim by directly intervening, distracting, or discouraging the bully (10).
Understanding facts versus myths about bullies and victims is important for intervention. The problems of victims and bullies are not the same. Victims of harassment need interventions that help them develop more positive self-views and that teach them not to blame themselves for their experiences with harassment. Interventions for bullies do not need to focus on self-esteem. Rather, bullies need to learn strategies that help them control their anger and their tendency to blame other people for their problems. And peers need to learn that bullying is a whole school problem for which everyone is responsible. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.
U.S. Department of Education Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS)
Initiative A federal grant-awarding program that allows schools districts to apply for funds to support programs that promote a safe school environment.
UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools/School Mental Health Project
This website allows access to a clearinghouse of resources for enhancing mental health in schools. Among the resources that can be accessed are consumer information outlets, national organizations whose mission focuses on mental health in schools, relevant government agencies, listservs, and electronic journals and newsletters.
For further reading
Hyman, I., Kay, B., Tabori, A., Weber, M., Mahon, M., & Cohen, I. (2006). Bullying: Theory, research, and interventions. In C. Evertson & C. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 855-884). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
A comprehensive and up-to-date review of the topic of bullying in schools. There is a particularly relevant section on interventions to address school bullying