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- Bullying Defined
- Prevalence and Continuity
- National Variation
- The Importance of Age
- Stability of Bullying Roles
- Gender Differences
- Characteristics of Children and Adolescents Involved in Bullying
- The Bully
- The Victim
- The Bully-Victim
- The Peer Group
- Environmental Influences
- Parenting and Home Environment
- Sibling Relationships
- School Factors
- Internalizing Problems
- Academic Performance
- Delinquency and Criminality
- Impact Beyond Victims
- Future Directions and Conclusion
The study of bullying has flourished in recent years, reflecting the growing recognition of the negative long-term effects this type of aggressive behavior can have on victims and bullies. There is now a considerable body of cross-sectional and longitudinal research that has informed our understanding of what bullying is; who it is most likely to affect; what consequences it can have for victims, bullies, and the peer group; and what can be done to reduce its occurrence. This research paper attempts to shed some light on these questions by reviewing key empirical research conducted in this field over the last three decades. The piecemeal and theoretically unsystematic way in which much of this evidence has been produced, however, makes it difficult to reach a clear and coherent conclusion on why bullying happens and how it can be effectively prevented. Readers of this review should be aware of these research limitations, which, to some extent, reflect the complexity of the bullying phenomenon that precludes straightforward, one-size-fits-all conclusions.
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Bullying has received worldwide attention in the last 30 years as a form of aggressive behavior that can have a significant negative impact on the physical, emotional, and academic development of victims. The first major contribution to the academic study of bullying was made by Dan Olweus, who wrote the first scholarly book in English to deal with bullying. The book was written in response to the suicide of three bullied boys in Norway and reported a high prevalence of school bullying (20 % of Norwegian children reported having some involvement) as well as discussed the success of the world’s first bullying prevention program (Olweus 1993). Olweus’ work opened the way for an explosion of research on bullying, which expanded from an initial interest in schools to include broader contexts such as the workplace, prisons, and sibling relationships. While much of this work is of interest, showing that bullying has the potential to affect a significant proportion of the population, this review focuses on school bullying, as this is the area that has attracted the most research interest to date.
The international literature is repleted with definitions of school bullying, most of which seem to accept that bullying is any type of negative action intended to cause distress or harm that is repeated and targeted against individuals who cannot defend themselves. When research on bullying started in the 1980s, bullying was perceived to comprise only episodes of physical or verbal aggression where the victim was physically attacked or called names. In recent years, the definition of bullying has broadened to include other forms of aggression that are relational in nature and aim to damage the victim’s peer relationships and their social status such as spreading of malicious gossip and social exclusion. Fighting between people of approximately equal strength, a one-time attack, or a good-natured teasing and play fighting are not counted as bullying.
The advent and widespread use of electronic means of communication such as mobile phones and the Internet has made it easier to bully anonymously, through the use of pseudonyms and temporary accounts, at any time and in any place involving a wide audience. This development has meant that the definition of bullying has had to be expanded to account for what the literature refers to as “cyber-bullying” or “electronic bullying.” A nationally representative survey of 7,508 adolescents in the United States in 2005 found that 8.3 % had bullied others and 9.8 % had been bullied electronically at least once in the last 2 months (Wang et al. 2009). In the same year in England and Wales, a survey of pupils aged 11–16 found that 22 % had been cyber-bullied at least once or twice in the last couple months (Smith et al. 2008). The most common form of cyber-bullying internationally is sending threatening and/or nasty text messages.
Bullying Prevalence and Continuity
National Variation in Bullying
There are large variations across countries in the prevalence of bullying perpetration and victimization. In an international survey of health-related symptoms among school-aged children, the percentage of students who reported being frequently bullied during the current term ranged from a low of 5 % to 10 % in some countries to a high of 40 % in others (Due et al. 2005). The prevalence of bullies in primary school ranges, in most countries, between 7 % and 12 % and remains at those levels in secondary school (around 10 %). It is unclear whether these differences in prevalence reflect genuinely different levels of engagement in bullying among countries or, at least partly, result from different meanings of the term “bullying” in different countries and differences in methodologies and samples used.
An example of why valid comparisons between countries are not possible is Portugal where the bullying rate is high compared to other countries. Berger (2007) in her analysis found that one detail of educational policy in Portugal may account, among other things, for this higher rate of bullying. In Portuguese schools, children are asked to repeat sixth grade unless they pass a rigorous test. This practice results in at least 10 % of all sixth graders (more often boys) to be held back 2 years or more, and these older, bigger children are almost twice as likely to bully compared to the class average. This suggests that the difference in prevalence rates between countries may be, at least partly, accounted for by external factors including national differences in school policies and environments but also differences in the methodologies used (self-reports vs. peer and/or teacher reports), students’ differing levels of cognitive ability, cultural differences in reporting, and different meanings of the term “bullying” in different countries.
The Importance of Age in Bullying
Despite variations in prevalence, it is a universal finding that bullying victimization is more frequent among younger children and steadily declines with age. A range of explanations have been put forward to explain these age differences (Smith et al. 1999a, b). Compared to older children, younger children are less likely to have developed the appropriate skills and coping strategies to deal effectively with bullies and avert further victimization. Younger children are also less likely to refrain from bullying others due to socialization pressure. Finally, there is evidence that younger students adopt a more inclusive definition of bullying when responding to prevalence surveys, and this may, at least partly, account for the higher reported frequency of bullying victimization in primary school. For example, younger pupils might find it more difficult to distinguish between bullying and fighting, broadening the use of the term bullying to include aggressive behaviors that involve no imbalance of power. Within the general trend of decreasing bullying victimization over time, researchers have observed an abrupt increase in bullying during the transition from primary to secondary school which may reflect some students’ attempts to establish dominance hierarchies in the new school environment. Relational forms of bullying take precedence over physical modes of attack as children grow older and their social skills improve.
Stability of Bullying Roles
There is some controversy in the literature as to the stability of bullying victimization in primary school. Some studies have reported that bullying victimization is relatively stable over a period of up to 4 years in primary school and often continues in secondary school. Other studies have found that only a relatively small proportion of children (around 4–5 %) are victimized repeatedly over time in primary school.
In secondary school, the stability of both bully and victim roles is considerably higher than in primary school according to teacher, peer, and self-reports. It is estimated that two out of three male bullies remain in their role over a 1-year period. Despite the moderate to high stability of the victim and bully roles in secondary school, prevalence rates are lower than in primary school. This suggests that a small number of victims are targeted consistently and systematically in secondary school.
Stability in bullying victimization has been explained in two ways. Firstly, it has been observed that victims select social environments that reinforce the risk of victimization, for example, they are more likely to have friends who are less accepted by the peer group and often victimized themselves. Secondly, victims often lack the social skills to break through in new environments, and this increases the risk that they are labeled as victims and locked in that role over a long period of time. It is important, therefore, to acknowledge that although for some children bullying victimization will be situational, for others it will develop into a trait.
Gender Differences in Bullying
The view that males are more likely to bully and be bullied than females has been dismissed in recent years following a better understanding about the different forms aggressive behavior such as bullying can take. Although males are more likely to engage in physical forms of bullying such as pushing and hitting, females are, according to some studies, more adept at employing relational forms of aggression (e.g., social exclusion, spreading of nasty rumors) against their victims especially during adolescence. No consistent gender differences have been identified in the use of verbal bullying (e.g., calling names, nasty teasing). This suggests that overall gender differences are not as pronounced as originally thought and that bullying is not a male problem.
Characteristics of Children and Adolescents Involved in Bullying
There is some controversy in the literature about the profile of bullies. Initially, studies described children who bullied others as insecure, anxious individuals who have low self-esteem, are unpopular among their classmates, and use aggressive strategies to resolve conflicts. This stereotype was later disputed by research that suggested bullies are socially competent and have superior theory of mind skills (i.e., awareness of others’ mental functions and states) and good levels of social intelligence, knowing how to attain goals without damaging their reputation. Linked to this, there is also debate concerning whether bullies lack empathic skills. Some research suggests that bullies understand the emotions of others but do not share them. The inconsistencies across studies may be, at least partly, due to different definitions of bully status and different methodologies employed. Studies which have distinguished between “pure” bullies and bully/victims have revealed that “pure” bullies have few conduct problems, perform well at school, are popular among their classmates, and do not suffer from physical and psychosomatic health problems.
There is more consensus on the profile of “pure” victims. Research has identified that “pure” victims exhibit elevated levels of depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor social skills. Hawker and Boulton’s (2000) meta-analysis found that peer victimization is more strongly concurrently associated with depression than with anxiety, loneliness, or self-esteem. Another meta-analysis by Card (2003) found that the strongest correlates of the victimization experience are low self-concept, low physical strength, low school enjoyment, poor social skills, and high internalizing and externalizing problems. It was unclear from these reviews of cross-sectional studies, however, whether internalizing problems lead to victimization or vice versa.
The recent body of longitudinal research on bullying and peer victimization more widely suggests that the relationship between internalizing problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, and victimization is more likely to be reciprocal, that is, internalizing problems contribute to victimization and vice versa. A metaanalysis of 18 longitudinal studies examining associations between peer victimization and internalizing problems in children and adolescents concluded that internalizing problems both precede and follow peer victimization experiences (Reijntjes et al. 2011). It is worth noting, however, that the path from psychological maladjustment to victimization has not been replicated in all studies. For instance, Bond et al. (2001) found no support for the hypothesis that emotional maladjustment invites victimization.
Recent work suggests that bullying might arise out of early cognitive deficits, including language problems, imperfect causal understanding, and poor inhibitory control that lead to decreased competence with peers, which over time develops into bullying. Research does not support the assertion that physical appearance (e.g., wearing glasses) is a risk factor for being bullied at school. The only physical characteristic that has been associated with an increased risk of victimization is low physical size and strength. There is less evidence on how equality characteristics influence victimization. There is no consistently robust evidence to suggest that ethnic minority children are more at risk of being bullied at school. Sexual orientation has rarely been investigated in longitudinal studies as a possible risk factor of bullying victimization, but there is some, mainly qualitative, evidence of sexual minorities being targeted in secondary schools. There is stronger evidence that children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to victimization in mainstream settings, although it might be other characteristics of disabled children that make them more vulnerable to victimization such as lack of friends rather than the disability per se.
Olweus (1993) was the first researcher to identify a small proportion of victims of bullying that he called “provocative victims” or “bully-victims,” who bully other children as well as being bullied by them. Research has identified that bully-victims are the most troubled group among children and adolescents involved in bullying incidents. This group displays the highest levels of internalizing problems, including depression, anxiety, low selfesteem, and loneliness. At the same time, they score high on externalizing problems such as aggression, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and conduct problems. Other research has shown that bully-victims display higher levels of neuroticism and psychoticism than either bullies or victims. Bully-victims use aggressive strategies to cope with stressors at school that increase the risk of further victimization and rejection from peers.
The Peer Group
Besides the traditional roles of bully, victim, and bully-victim, research has identified that all students take on a role when bullying episodes emerge. Salmivalli et al. (1996) distinguished between six different roles children can take in bullying situations: the bully (leader), the reinforcer (encourages and provides audience), the assistant (follower/helper, e.g., holds the child down), the defender (helps the victim and/or tells bullies to stop), the outsider (stays away from bullying situations), and the victim. Subsequent research established that the three roles of bully, reinforcer, and assistant are closely correlated with each other and, therefore, cannot usefully discriminate between children. In kindergarten, the three most commonly held roles are those of the bully, the victim, and the defender. Fewer students are defenders by middle school, and the majority becomes witnesses or bystanders when bullying takes place. Such passive behavior, although not directly encouraging of bullying, provides a permissive context for bullies that allows them to continue harassing their victims.
Environmental Influences on Bullying
Parenting and Home Environment
There is clear evidence that parenting styles are related to bullying behavior. Studies indicate that bullies are more likely to have parents who are authoritarian and punitive, disagree more often, and are less supportive. The parents of bullies are more likely to have been bullies themselves when they were young. Victims, on the other hand, are more likely to have been reared in an overprotective family environment. Bully-victims tend to come from family backgrounds that are exposed to abuse and violence and favor the use of harsh, punitive, and restrictive discipline practices. This group reports little positive warmth in their families and more difficulties in communicating with parents.
Family characteristics are related to bullying victimization in different ways for boys and girls. Boys are more prone to victimization when the father is highly critical or absent in his relationship with his son, thus failing to provide a satisfactory role model. Victimization in boys is also associated with maternal overprotectiveness which may hinder boys’ search for autonomy and independence, whereas victimization in girls is more strongly related to maternal hostility which may lead to anxiety and decreased sense of connectedness in relationships.
Very little research has examined longitudinal associations between early home environment and subsequent bullying behavior. The few studies that exist suggest a link between low emotional support and subsequent bullying behavior at school. Parents who are disagreeable, hostile, cold, or rejecting tend to have children who are at risk of becoming aggressive in the future. In a small longitudinal study, Schwartz et al. (1997) found that bully-victims at 10 years were significantly more likely than the other groups to have had experiences with harsh, disorganized, and potentially abusive home environments 5 years earlier. Mother-child interactions at 5 years were characterized by hostile, restrictive, or overly punitive parenting. They were significantly exposed to higher levels of marital conflicts and more likely to come from marginally lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Bullies were found to be exposed to adult aggression and conflicts, but not victimization by adults, and were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These findings need to be replicated in larger samples before any safe conclusions can be drawn.
More recently, there has been interest in how sibling relationships affect the development of bullying behavior. There is international evidence that children who are victimized at school are more likely, compared to other groups, to be victimized by their siblings at home. Wolke and Samara (2004) found that more than half of victims of bullying by siblings (50.7 %) were also involved in bullying behavior at school compared to only 12.4 % of those not victimized by siblings, indicating a strong link between intrafamilial and extrafamilial peer relationships. Those who were both victimized at home and at school had the highest behavior problems and were the least prosocial. Similar evidence exists in relation to bullying perpetration, suggesting that those who bully at school tend to exhibit similar behaviors towards their siblings at home.
A number of school factors have also been implicated as correlates of bullying behavior. One of the most consistent findings in the international literature is that the number and quality of friends at school is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, protective factor against bullying victimization. Having friends is not sufficient in itself to protect against victimization. For instance, when at-risk children have friends with internalizing problems, who are physically weak or who themselves are victimized, the relation of children’s behavioral risk to victimization is exacerbated.
More recent work on the role of class structure and climate on bullying has shown that variations in peer structure and dominance hierarchies influence the stability of bullying victimization. For example, victims in primary school classes with a more pronounced hierarchical structure are less likely to escape their victim role compared to those in classes with less clearly marked hierarchies (Sch€afer et al. 2005).
Consequences of Bullying
There has been a growing interest in recent years to investigate the long-term effects of bullying involvement on children’s and adolescents’ social, emotional, behavioral, and academic development using longitudinal samples. The results of these studies suggest that victims and bully-victims manifest more adjustment problems than bullies. Victims and, especially, bully-victims are more likely to show elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness; perform less well academically; and display conduct problems. The only negative long-term outcome that has consistently been reported in the literature for bullies is their involvement in later offending. There is also some initial evidence that bullying perpetration is a significant risk factor of poor academic performance.
Several cross-sectional studies have demonstrated negative associations between peer victimization and a range of internalizing problems, including loneliness and low self-esteem. A meta-analysis of 23 cross-sectional studies of the association between peer victimization and psychological maladjustment found that peer victimization was more strongly concurrently associated with depression than with anxiety, loneliness, or self-esteem (Hawker and Boulton 2000).
Over the last decade, research on bullying is increasingly reliant on longitudinal methodologies to disentangle whether victimization contributes to internalizing problems or vice versa. It has been argued, for example, that children who display internalizing behaviors (e.g., anxiety or shyness) are more at risk of being targeted by peers due to their inability to cope effectively with provocation. The majority of longitudinal studies investigating associations between peer victimization and psychological maladjustment have found evidence for both directions.
There is some longitudinal evidence that bullying involvement has a negative impact on academic performance, although more studies are needed to reach a definitive conclusion. A US longitudinal study that began in 2002 with a sample of about 1,700 adolescents found that being a bully had a stronger negative effect on self-perceived academic competence over time than being a victim after controlling for demographic background variables and baseline academic competence (Ma et al. 2009). Furthermore, only bully status predicted lower self-reported grades.
Delinquency and Criminality
Despite showing fewer adjustment problems than victims and bully-victims, bullies are at an increased risk of later delinquency and criminal offending. A recent meta-analysis of studies measuring school bullying and later offending found that school bullies were 2.5 times more likely than noninvolved students to engage in offending over an 11-year follow-up period (Ttofi et al. 2011). The risk was lower when major childhood risk factors were controlled for, but remained statistically significant. The effect of bullying on later offending was especially pronounced when bullying was assessed in older children. The longitudinal association between bullying perpetration and later offending has been replicated in many countries, including Australia, Canada, and Europe.
Impact Beyond Victims
Finally, there is evidence that bullying and victimization have a negative impact not only on the individual children involved but also on bystanders. Children who witness bullying incidents report increased anxiety, less satisfaction with school, and lower academic achievement. There is also evidence that in school classes where a lot of victimization is taking place, school satisfaction among students is low.
Following the development of the first anti-bullying program by Dan Olweus in Norway in the 1980s, a considerable number of anti-bullying interventions have flourished around the world to reduce bullying behaviors and protect victims. These fall under four broad categories: curriculum interventions generally designed to promote an anti-bullying attitude within the classroom; whole-school programs that intervene on the school, class, and individual level and address bullying as a systemic problem; social and behavioral skills training; and peer support programs including befriending and peer mediation. A systematic review conducted in 2004 evaluated the strength of scientific evidence in support of anti-bullying programs (Vreeman and Carroll 2007). The review concluded that only a small number of anti-bullying programs have been evaluated rigorously enough to permit strong conclusions about their effectiveness.
Whole-school interventions were found to be more effective in reducing victimization and bullying than interventions that focused only on curriculum changes or social and behavioral skills training. Targeting the whole school involves actions to improve the supervision of the playground, having regular meetings between parents and teachers, setting clear guidelines for dealing with bullying, and using role-playing and other techniques to teach students about bullying. The success of whole-school interventions, relative to other stand-alone approaches, supports the view that bullying is a systemic, sociocultural phenomenon derived from factors operating at the individual, class, school, family, and community level. Hence, interventions that target only one level are unlikely to have a significant impact.
A more recent systematic review of school-based anti-bullying programs found that, overall, these programs are effective in reducing bullying perpetration and victimization by an average of 20–23 % and 17–20 %, respectively (Farrington and Ttofi 2009). The interventions that were found to be most effective were those that incorporated parent training/meetings, disciplinary methods, and videos; targeted older children; and were delivered intensively and for longer. There is less robust evidence on the effectiveness of peer support programs that include activities such as befriending, peer counseling, conflict resolution, or mediation, and a systematic review suggested their use may lead to increases in bullying victimization.
More recently, there has been a growing interest in the use of virtual learning environments to reduce bullying at schools. The basic feature of these programs is a computer-based environment that creates a highly believable learning experience for children who find themselves “present” in the situation that causes emotional distress and, as a result, learn experientially how to deal with school problems. An example of such a program is “FearNot,” an intervention that was developed to help victims of bullying explore the success or otherwise of different coping strategies to dealing with bullying victimization through interactions with “virtual” victims of school bullying. The evaluation of this intervention found that the victims that received the intervention were more likely to escape victimization in the short term than victims in control schools who did not interact with the software (Sapouna et al. 2010). These results suggest that the use of virtual environments might be an engaging and useful component of whole-school anti-bullying policies that merits further testing. A key finding that emerged from this research is that interventions are more likely to be successful if they have the support of teachers and other school personnel and there is a strong commitment to reduce bullying in the school community. This is considered to be one of the reasons behind the huge success of the Olweus’ prevention program that has not been replicated to date.
Future Directions and Conclusion
Although an abundance of knowledge has emerged in recent years regarding the correlates of bullying behavior, there is still relatively little known about the causal processes and mechanisms associated with the bully and victim status. Longitudinal studies, which track bullies and victims over time, offer one of the best chances of disentangling the antecedents of bullying perpetration and victimization from its consequences, and these should form a key part of future research in this field. Another approach which shows much promise is the cutting-edge attempt to unravel the causes of bullying behavior made by researchers investigating biological and environmental influences and the way these influences interact.
One of these studies, involving 1,116 families with 10-year-old twins, found that the tendency for children to be bullied was largely explained by genetics (73 % of variance) and less so by environmental factors that were unique to each child (Ball et al. 2008). Another study of 506 six-year-old twins found that variance in victimization was accounted for only by shared and non-shared environmental influences (29 % and 71 %, respectively) and was not related to the child’s genetic predisposition (Brendgen et al. 2008). These discrepancies might be explained by differences in methodologies used, as studies drew on different informants to assess bullying victimization (mothers and peers, respectively). Although results to date have been contradictory, future breakthroughs in this area have the potential to transform radically the study of bullying.
To understand more fully how bullying behaviors develop, future research will also need to investigate in more depth how individual and classroom level factors interact to cause involvement in bullying. It is not currently understood whether the relationship between risk factors and bullying is the same across different school and class environments or the extent to which consequences of bullying and victimization are dependent on class-and school-level factors.
Finally, another area that would benefit from more attention is the investigation of resilience to bullying. Some initial evidence suggests that maternal warmth has an environmental effect in protecting children from negative outcomes associated with victimization (Bowes et al. 2010). However, we still know relatively little about the factors that promote resilience to bullying and victimization among at-risk children, and also what role bullying has to play in increasing resilience. We also know little about the factors that help victims cope better with the effects of victimization.
To conclude, what the recent flurry of research activity has highlighted is how complex the bullying phenomenon is and that, although much has been learned to date, there is clearly a great need to understand how variables describing the family, school, class, and community environment interact with individual characteristics to determine who gets bullied and who bullies others. Research should neither be blind to nor discouraged by these complexities.
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