The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Breeding Bullies—and Victims

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The American media have worried a great deal recently about the problem of adolescent bullying. But commentators have to date largely ignored the social problem that fosters the culture of bullying, both by stripping away the restraints on the teens who do the bullying and by stripping away the protections from the teens who become their victims. That social problem is parental divorce—a problem recently and quite compellingly identified as an antecedent cause of adolescent bullying by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.

Scrutinizing data collected from a nationally representative sample of 2,464 adolescent Norwegians (50.8 percent female; 49.2 percent male) ages 12 to 15, the researchers uncovered evidence of considerable bullying: 10 percent of adolescents in the sample acknowledged having been bullied once a week or more in the recent past, with 8 percent reporting having been teased, 3.5 percent reporting having been excluded from social groups, and 1.9 percent reporting having been physically assaulted. Though boys were more often physically assaulted than girls, teasing and exclusion appeared to be gender-neutral forms of bullying.

Of course, if some teens find themselves the victims of bullying, other teens must be doing that bullying. Indeed, the Norwegian researchers find that 5 percent of the adolescents in the study admitted having “been aggressive” toward peers “often” during the previous six months. This aggression took the form for frequent teasing for 1.6 percent of those surveyed, of actually attacking peers for 1.8 percent, of threatening peers for 1.5 percent, and of “being mean” to peers for 1.8 percent. Not surprisingly, “more boys than girls reported frequent aggression.”

Surprisingly, adolescents victimized by bullying share with the bullies a number of psychological problems: “Both bullied adolescents and adolescents who were aggressive toward others,” remark the researchers, “showed lower global self-worth, higher levels of depressive symptoms, and more broad-spectrum psychological problems than noninvolved adolescents. These findings are consistent with earlier reports.” The Norwegian scholars speculate that “low self-worth, frequently reported by depressed students, might both be a cause and a result of being bullied or being aggressive.”

But those who were the victims of bullying shared more than psychological problems with those doing the bullying: the two groups also share an unfavorable family background. “More of the students being bullied and students being aggressive toward others,” write the researchers, “reported parental divorce than did noninvolved students” (p<.01 for both comparisons). Readers may readily imagine how the psychological distress of experiencing a parental divorce might leave adolescents emotionally vulnerable, and therefore “easy targets” for the bullies among their peers. But the Norwegian researchers suggest that parental divorce also incubates bullying by “leav[ing] the adolescents . . . [with] . . . less monitoring, often fewer adults to confide in, and sometimes increased aggression because of feelings of loss.”

Unfortunately, the Norwegian researchers conclude with recommendations—predictably like those common in the American media—that focus on how “intervention” by “school and health personnel” might reduce bullying, especially by referring victims of bullying and those doing the bullying “to visit appropriate services” for psychological therapy.

Since the researchers themselves concede that “antibullying prevention programs have varied greatly in their outcomes,” with some programs returning only “moderate results,” perhaps it is time for a truly root-and-branch approach to the problem: Why not keep children in intact families, families that neither expose children to the harm of bullying nor inflict on children the psychological ills that feed the peer aggression of bullying?

(Anne Mari Undheimand Anne Mari Sund, “Prevalence of Bullying and Aggressive Behavior and Their Relationship to Mental Health Problems among 12- to 15-year-old Norwegian Adolescents,” European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 19.11 [November 2010]: 803–11.)