What makes one child a "bully" and another a "victim"? This question has challenged researchers for over 40 years. In the early days we believed that "bullies" were less socially skilled than their peers, had perhaps come from backgrounds where physical strength was used to succeed and were less skilled academically.
In contrast, "victims" were often cast as timid, socially inept, clumsy and coming from overprotective families where boys in particular had poor relationships with their fathers. Add to the mix factors such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, faith and socio-economic status and the picture becomes a mix of cultural and social prejudices and perceived inadequacies. But does this reflect the reality in schools today?
A study by psychologist Jaana Juvonen at the University of California, Los Angeles, has shown that bullies are usually well-liked by pupils and teachers. Bullies are psychologically strong, socially skilled and understand the impact their actions will have on others. Status is a key driver - these pupils want to be seen as leaders and want to show off their authority. They do not come from deprived or violent homes, but are perhaps more likely to use aggression as a tool. In fact, bullies quite often demonstrate skills we admire in our leaders.
So what myths can we dispel about victims? The picture is more consistent because victims have often been the focus of research. Pupils with poor motor skills at ages 10-11 are more likely to be bullied at ages 13-14 than those who develop those skills more quickly. This may explain why a lot of victims report harrowing experiences playing sport or in PE classes.
There is also evidence to suggest that parental socio-economic status plays a role. Having greater access to resources seems to go hand in hand with some young people's beliefs about entitlement. Thus one child may be bullied because he or she does not have the latest mobile phone or other fashion accessory, while another may be a bully because he or she wants it.
In a study of 185 teenagers who self-identified as bullies, my colleagues and I asked respondents why they bullied other pupils. We then looked at their scores on an assessment scale for hostility. The highest scores were found among pupils who reported bullying others who were poor at sports. Next came those who bullied pupils who were poor at schoolwork. High hostility scores were also found among those who bullied pupils because of their possessions or because they had themselves been bullied. Finally, high hostility scores were also found among those who reported bullying pupils with special educational needs and those who were perceived to be lesbian or gay. In all the cases we analysed, pupils had a very clear idea why they had bullied someone else.
Based on these findings, I began to work on a model to understand the relationship between the bully and the victim (see diagram). The catalyst may be an event, person or environment that has the potential to induce an emotional reaction in the bully. The strength of that reaction may be moderated by expectations (positive or negative) and outcomes (also positive or negative).
A series of mediators determine whether the emotional reaction becomes an action. First, there is a bully's belief in his or her entitlement to hurt a particular individual. Second, the perceived status of a bully to a victim; popular pupils are rarely victims. Third, proximity: can the bully reach the intended victim? With the advent of the internet, proximity is no longer about physical space but about the ability to "invade" and control another's cyberspace.
Ultimately, bullying is an issue of power or control over others; those who have it want to keep it and some of those who do not have it aspire to it. Wrapped up in this competition for supremacy lie issues of status, beliefs about entitlement and brute force. That force may be physical or verbal, but it can also involve the manipulation of relationships and social groups, which may exist in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard.
Ian Rivers is professor of human development within the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University and visiting professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University. He is the author of Homophobic Bullying: research and theoretical perspectives (Oxford University Press USA, 2011) and lead author of Bullying: a handbook for educators and parents (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).