Student involvement in bullying throughout high school is likely to vary, and may also depend on prior experience with bullying, a new Australian study suggests. The research also found that new bullies and new victims of bullying emerge in each year level. The authors of the study, Grace Skrzypiec, Helen Askell-Williams, Phillip Slee and Mike Lawson from Flinders University explain their findings and implications for schools.
Sometimes parents take the initiative to move a child who is being bullied to a new school in the hope that they can be spared victimisation. Similar hopes characterise young people bullied in primary school when they move onto high school.
Our new study, published in the journal Violence and Victims, has shed light on the likelihood of primary school students' continued involvement in bullying at their new high school.
Research in schools
The longitudinal study tracked over 3000 South Australian students from Year 7 – which is the final year of primary school in the state – to Year 11, each year asking them whether or not they had been victimised, bullied others, or had been involved both as a victim and a bully.
Bullying involvement was determined using the Peer Relations Questionnaire (Rigby & Slee, 1991), as well as other items in a purpose built ‘Living and Learning at School' Questionnaire. Sophisticated statistical analyses of the final data sample of 1400 students – who had suitable data across the five years of data collection – calculated the probability of students' involvement in bullying based on students' reports about whether they had been a bully or victim in each year of school.
Findings of the study
Findings were revealing in that ‘first-time' bullies and ‘first-time' victims emerged in each year of high school. The risk of becoming a bully for the first time in any school year up to and including Year 11 ranged from 2 per cent to 4 per cent in each school year. The risk of becoming a victim for the first time ranged from 6 per cent to 15 per cent in each school year. The risk of becoming both a bully and a victim for the first time ranged from 2 per cent to 4 per cent in each school year (up to and including Year 11). These are new findings, as most studies only ask students at one point in time about whether they have been involved in bullying. However, tracking students over a number of years shows that students' involvement in bullying can vary over their school life. In every school year up to and including Year 11, a small, but nevertheless salient, number of students who had not been victims or bullies in the past emerged.
The study also found that the overall chances of a young person becoming a victim of bullying up to Year 11 was 36 per cent. If the student had been a victim in Year 7, this probability rose to 56 per cent. The chances of a student becoming a bully up to Year 11 was 16 per cent. If a student had been a bully in Year 7, the odds were significantly higher at 40.5 per cent.
Interestingly, if a student was a bully in Year 7, the chances of them becoming a victim up to Year 11 was 55 per cent. While there were few differences between males and females, the findings were stronger for males.
A strength of the study is its longitudinal nature as there are few longitudinal studies in school bullying research. A limitation is that the research relied on student self-reports. However, it is arguable that the best informants about students' involvement in bullying are the students themselves, especially with non-physical types of bullying such as verbal, exclusionary, and cyber bullying. Future research could consider collecting data from parents and teachers as well as students.
Implications for bullying prevention
The implications of our study are that bullying prevention programs, and victim support programs, cannot be one-off events. Rather, they need to occur throughout the school years, and should be tailored to the developmental age of students.
A program for Year 7s will likely be quite different to a program for Year 11s, considering the differences in students' social and emotional maturity and self-regulation. Furthermore, bullying prevention programs need to be designed for all students, avoiding labelling and stigmatising.
The study provided evidence to show that involvement in bullying is variable, with new bullies and victims emerging in high school, and some bullies and victims having longer involvement. As such, bullying prevention requires attention at all levels of students' social systems, including school involvement, parental involvement, and community involvement, ensuring that positive relational behaviour is modelled and explicitly taught.
Rigby, K., & Slee, P. T. (1991). Bullying among Australian school children: Reported behavior and attitudes toward victims. The journal of social psychology, 131(5), 615-627. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1991.9924646
Skrzypiec, G., Askell-Williams, H., Slee, P.T., Lawson, M.J. (2018). Involvement in Bullying During High School: A Survival Analysis Approach. Violence and Victims Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 563-582.
The authors of this study suggest bullying prevention programs should continue throughout school years. How often are students at your school involved in anti-bullying programs?
In your own school, what are your current anti-bullying strategies? What can be done to improve these strategies? What are you already doing well?
The full paper detailing the findings of this study is available to download.