Short-Term Stability and Prospective Correlates of Bullying in Middle-School Students: An Examination of Potential Demographic, Psychosocial, and Environmental Influences

Article excerpt

Stability and change of bullying over a four-month interval was examined in 516 middle school students (grades 6-8). The stability coefficient was .65 for the entire sample. There was a significant increase in bullying behavior from Time 1 to Time 2 for 6th grade students; no significant change in bullying was found among 7th or 8th graders. For 6th graders, a greater confidence in using non-violent strategies was associated with less bullying at Time 2, while beliefs supportive of violence and misconduct, less positive adult influences, and more negative peer influences were associated with greater likelihood of bullying at Time 2. Higher levels of impulsivity, anger, and depression were also associated with greater levels of bullying over time. Several explanations for the increase in bullying behaviors among 6th graders are discussed and linked to intervention efforts.

Recent violent events in U.S. schools highlighted by the news media have involved students who were allegedly victims of bullying (Begley, 1999). As such, parents and educators have become more concerned about these low-level aggressive behaviors during childhood and adolescence that were previously seen as normative and harmless. While a plethora of research has been conducted on physical, overt aggression within U.S. schools, fewer studies have focused specifically on low-level aggression such as the teasing, namecalling, and threatening that characterize bullying. For the purposes of this study, bullying is defined as a subset of aggressive behavior that has potential to cause physical or psychological harm to the recipient, and includes name-calling, teasing, verbal threats, social exclusion, and pushing (Hoover, Oliver, & Hazier, 1992; Rigby, Cox, & Black, 1997; Thompson & Sharp, 1998).

Although many studies on bullying have been conducted outside the United States, several recent reports provide some insight into the prevalence of bullying within U.S. schools. Available data from cross-sectional studies in midwestern and southeastern U.S. schools suggest that bullying behavior is quite common. In a study of junior high and high school students from midwestern towns, 88% reported having observed bullying and 77% reported being a victim of bullying during their school years (Hoover et al., 1992). Similarly, 25% of students in grades 4 through 6 admitted to bullying another student with some regularity in the three months preceding the study (Limber et al., 1997).

A primary aim of this study is to examine whether bullying behaviors remain stable over a 4-month time period among middle-school students (grades 6-8). During early adolescence, the function and importance of the peer group changes dramatically (Crockett, Losoff, & Petersen, 1984; Dornbusch, 1989). Adolescents turn to their peers to discuss problems, feelings, and fears, thereby the time spent with friends becomes very important (Sebald, 1992; Youniss & Smollar, 1985). With this increased reliance on peers for social support comes pressure to attain social status (Corsaro & Eder, 1990; Eder, 1985). The pressure to obtain peer acceptance and status is likely to be intense as young adolescents attempt to negotiate a complex social environment that presents unique challenges not encountered during the elementary school years. Recent studies have actually found that bullying among 6th graders might be associated with popularity and for some students it serves to enhance their social standing within classrooms (Espelage & Holt, in press; Pellegrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999). Therefore, we hypothesized that bullying behaviors might escalate over the course of a semester for middle-school students.

Our examination of bullying differs in several ways from previous investigations of aggression during early adolescence. Given the results of ethnographic analyses of the middle-school culture, which found that teasing is more frequent than overt aggression (Eder, 1995), we deviate from the mainstream aggression literature by including verbal teasing and threatening behaviors in addition to overt, physical aggression. …