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Researchers have been studying bullying among children and teens for over 40 years. The earliest work seems to have been done in the United Kingdom around 1978.  Shelley Hymel and Susan Swearer (2015) published a great summary of findings on youth bullying. This is a summary of what they found.


Bullying has been somewhat difficult to define and assess because educators, researchers, and youth themselves offer different definitions. However, peers appear to be present for “at least 85% of bullying incidents” (p. 294) and may be the most reliable observers of bullying other than the perpetrators and victims.

The prevalence of bullying varies. Between 10 – 33% of students report being victimized and 5 – 13% state that they have bullied other students. The large differences in percentages are due to differences in ways bullying has been defined and how bullying instances were recorded (by teachers, by peers, by victims and/or by parents).

Bullying starts as early as preschool, grows during grade school, peaks during middle school and declines by the end of the high school years.

In the US, bullying overall seems to have declined over the years but cyber-bullying has increased.  It’s possible that anti-bullying education campaigns are related to the decrease in physical bullying.

Around 40 – 50% of middle school youth who are bullied tend to be bullied more than once.  Victims who are repeatedly bullied tend to have much greater long-term psychological harm.

The most common forms of youth bullying are social (e.g., humiliation, ostracism) and verbal (e.g., taunts, calling names) bullying.

Youth recognize physical acts of bullying such as hitting or kicking.  But many youth aren’t clear about what constitutes other forms of bullying, including social, verbal and cyber-bullying. That lack of clarity often leads victims to not report their abuse.

There seem to be two basic types of youth bullies: (1) the socially integrated bully and (2) the marginalized bully. The socially integrated bully is sometimes harder to recognize as they appear as socially positive, competent individuals, at least to adults.

Bullied youth are often very reluctant to tell anyone they are being victimized for fear of additional bullying or threats of retaliation from the bullies. However, when youth have strong, positive relationships with their teachers they are somewhat more likely to disclose the bullying.

These findings are very important in understanding the basic patterns of bullying among youth, including transition age youth in foster care.

4 takeaways from this study:

  • Bullying is most often found during grades 6 – 9; adults should be more vigilant about youth being bullied during those grades.
  • Students with strong, positive connections to at least one school official (especially a teacher) seem more likely to disclose victimization.
  • Social workers and foster parents should periodically review the connections foster youth have with their school teachers and promote positive connections whenever possible.
  • Responsible adults (social worker, caregiver, teacher) should educate all youth on what constitutes bullying in its various forms and what to do when one is bullied.

To review and order a FREE laminated card on bullying, please contact us!

Original article citation:  Hymel, S., & Swearer, S. M. (2015). Four decades of research on school bullying: An introduction. American Psychologist, 70(4), 293-299.

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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.