Experiencing bullying can significantly impact one’s well-being, and extensive research spanning decades substantiates this claim. Individuals subjected to bullying during childhood and adolescence face increased vulnerabilities, including the risks of anxiety, depression, school disengagement, peer rejection, social isolation, and self-harm.
Moreover, adults can also fall victim to bullying, commonly within the workplace, experiencing comparable levels of distress as their younger counterparts.
As a professor specializing in child and adolescent development, my research focuses on understanding the origins of bullying behavior and exploring effective interventions to prevent and address it.
First, let’s establish the definition of bullying: It involves malicious and harmful actions perpetrated by individuals with greater power or status, such as a popular student in school or a supervisor at work. These individuals consistently target, harass, annoy, or harm someone with less power or status.
Bullying manifests in various forms, including physical aggression like pushing, shoving, and hitting; relational tactics such as spreading rumors, excluding someone from a friend group, or making derogatory remarks; and even sexual harassment and stalking behavior.
At times, bullies single out individuals based on factors such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or appearance. Those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, individuals who are overweight, or those with physical or developmental disabilities are more susceptible to bullying. Consequently, they may experience mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and engage in self-harming behavior.
The question remains: Why do bullies engage in such behavior? Early exposure to bullying, often through modeling and social learning, plays a significant role. Bullies observe and mimic aggressive behavior they witness in others. Media also contributes to this phenomenon, as the glamorization and gamification of mean or violent conduct in music, video games, TV, and movies lead bullies to emulate what they perceive as cool or rewarding.
Family dynamics also influence bullying behavior. Children raised in homes lacking kindness and intimacy but marked by physical punishment and intense conflict, including parental disputes, may perceive such behavior as acceptable and replicate it in their interactions with peers.
Similarly, joining a group of friends who are bullies increases the likelihood that an individual will adopt bullying behavior. In essence, some individuals bully to enhance their social standing among friends.
Bullying may stem from various motives. Some individuals engage in bullying to boost their self-esteem by belittling others, while others have learned that force and intimidation yield favorable outcomes. Some struggle with impulse control and find it challenging to calm down when angry. Additionally, certain bullies view their actions as strategic means to advance in certain contexts, such as an adult bullying a coworker by spreading embarrassing rumors to hinder a rival’s promotion.