Bullies stay in the shadows

A better understanding of bullies is essential if the problem is to be tackled effectively, according to the latest findings from researchers.

Further analysis of an international survey on health behaviours among pupils in 35 countries, which was first published last June, "challenges popular preconceptions", Andrew Mellor, manager of the Anti-Bullying Network and Scottish Schools Ethos Network, says.

One example is that being the victim of bullying is often cited as a reason why some children truant. "In fact, the report suggests that children who admitted to bullying others were significantly more likely to report playing truant than either their victims or children not involved in bullying in any way," Mr Mellor states.

The evaluation of the study, which involved 4,400 Scottish pupils in P7, S2 and S4, shows that significantly fewer bullies, 62.4 per cent, reported never skipping school during the term in question, compared with 79.8 per cent of their peers who were neither bullies nor victims.

The figures were even more marked for female bullies, 57.6 per cent of whom said they had never played truant, compared with 81.2 per cent of other girls. For boys, the respective figures were 65.2 per cent and 78.3 per cent.

A briefing paper issued by the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit at Edinburgh University noted: "While it is necessary to meet the needs of victims, bettering our understanding of bullies and the application of this knowledge to anti-bullying strategies may enhance early intervention which, if successful, could result in a decline in the number of victims."

The researchers say this is particularly important because bullies, as well as their victims, may carry their attitudes and behaviours from school into adulthood.

But their paper points out that we are a considerable way short of understanding the problem. There is no reliable information nationally on why pupils choose to bully others or how long they have been behaving in such a way. There is also a lack of knowledge about whether bullies pick on youngsters their own age, cross-gender bullying, group bullying or regional differences.

Some variations in the extent of the problem between schools may reflect differences in school ethos, the paper states.

Attitudes to school, to teachers and to their peers were also found to be consistently more negative for bullies than for others. Another feature of bullies is that their mothers were less likely to know where they were at night, compared to their fellow pupils.

In another study by the unit, bullies also scored less well on a range of health and behavioural factors. Compared to those who were neither bullies nor victims, they reported being less generally healthy, having more psychological problems, smoking more heavily, being drunk on two or more occasions and using cannabis more frequently.

The researchers comment on "the bravado of bullies, their need to impress others and maintain a certain outward appearance or image". The picture portrayed in the study of their smoking and drinking is in line with this view, they say. "However, it is not in keeping with this theory of image-making that bullies also report poorer psychological wellbeing and general health.

"Should the bravado theory be a sound one, we would expect just the reverse to have been the case."

The briefing paper also notes that, since fewer than half of those who describe themselves as bullies reported poor health or risky behaviour, "this suggests that bullies do not form a homogeneous group and, like other groups, members engage in an array of behaviours".

Social Context of Bullying Behaviours and Bullying: Health, Well-Being and Risk Behaviours. By Leslie Alexander, Candace Currie and Andrew Mellor.

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