Bullying Among Children and Youth
Susan P. Limber and Maury M. Nation

Recent research in the United States and abroad has documented that bullying is a common and potentially damaging form of violence among children. Not only does bullying harm both its intended victims and the perpetrators, it also may affect the climate of schools and, indirectly, the ability of all students to learn to the best of their abilities. Moreover, the link between bullying and later delinquent and criminal behavior cannot be ignored. Although studies of comprehensive antibullying programs are scarce in the United States, evaluation data from other countries suggest that adopting a comprehensive approach to reduce bullying at school can change students' behaviors and attitudes, reduce other antisocial behaviors, and increase teachers' willingness to intervene.

Stimulated by the pioneering work of Dan Olweus in Norway and Sweden, researchers from several nations -- Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Japan, Norway, and the United States -- have begun to explore the nature, prevalence, and effects of bullying among school children. Their findings provide compelling reasons for initiating interventions to prevent bullying. Its high prevalence among children, its harmful and frequently enduring effects on victims, and its chilling effects on school climate are significant reasons for prevention and early intervention efforts in schools and communities.

The phenomenon of bullying deserves special attention by educators, parents, and children concerned with violence prevention for two significant reasons. First, the prevalence of bullying and the harm that it causes are seriously underestimated by many children and adults. It is critical that any violence prevention strategy work to raise the awareness of children, school staff, and parents regarding the link between bullying and other violent behaviors.

Second, the nature of bullying does not necessarily lend itself to the same interventions that may effectively reduce other types of conflict among children. Because it involves harassment by powerful children against children with less power (rather than a conflict between peers of relatively equal status), common conflict resolution strategies such as mediation may not be effective.


Bullying among children is understood as repeated, negative acts committed by one or more children against another. These negative acts may be physical or verbal in nature -- for example, hitting or kicking, teasing or taunting -- or they may involve indirect actions such as manipulating friendships or purposely excluding other children from activities. Implicit in this definition is an imbalance in real or perceived power between the bully and victim.

Intervention Model

The first and best-known intervention to reduce bullying among school children was launched by Olweus in Norway and Sweden in the early 1980's. Inspired by the suicides of several severely victimized children, Norway supported the development and implementation of a comprehensive program to address bullying among children in school. The program involved interventions at multiple levels:

Bullet Schoolwide interventions. A survey of bullying problems at each school, increased supervision, schoolwide assemblies, and teacher inservice training to raise the awareness of children and school staff regarding bullying.
Bullet Classroom-level interventions. The establishment of classroom rules against bullying, regular class meetings to discuss bullying at school, and meetings with all parents.
Bullet Individual-level interventions. Discussions with students identified as bullies and victims.

The program was found to be highly effective in reducing bullying and other antisocial behavior among students in primary and junior high schools. Within 2 years of implementation, both boys' and girls' self-reports indicated that bullying had decreased by half. These changes in behavior were more pronounced the longer the program was in effect. Moreover, students reported significant decreases in rates of truancy, vandalism, and theft and indicated that their school's climate was significantly more positive as a result of the program. Not surprisingly, those schools that had implemented more of the program's components experienced the most marked changes in behavior.

The core components of the Olweus antibullying program have been adapted for use in several other cultures, including Canada, England, and the United States. Results of the antibullying efforts in these countries have been similar to the results experienced in the Scandinavian countries, with the efforts in Toronto schools showing somewhat more modest results. Again, as in the Scandinavian study, schools that were more active in implementing the program observed the most marked changes in reported behaviors.

Bullying in the United States

Although there have been few studies of the prevalence of bullying among American schoolchildren, available data suggest that bullying is quite common in U.S. schools. In a study of 207 junior high and high school students from small midwestern towns, 88 percent reported having observed bullying, and 77 percent indicated that they had been victims of bullying during their school careers.1 A study of 6,500 students in fourth to sixth grades in the rural South indicated that 1 in 4 students had been bullied with some regularity within the past 3 months and that 1 in 10 had been bullied at least once a week. Approximately one in five children admitted that they had bullied another child with some regularity in the previous 3 months.2 These figures are consistent with estimates of several other researchers. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, bullying occurs more frequently on school grounds than on the way to and from school.3

Consequences of Bullying

Studies of bullying suggest that there are short- and long-term consequences for both the perpetrators and victims of bullying. Students who are chronic victims of bullying experience more physical and psychological problems than their peers who are not harassed by other children4 and they tend not to grow out of the role of victim. Longitudinal studies have found that victims of bullying in early grades also reported being bullied several years later.5 Studies also suggest that chronically victimized students may as adults be at increased risk for depression, poor self-esteem, and other mental health problems,6 including schizophrenia.7

It is not only victims who are at risk for short- and long-term problems; bullies also are at increased risk for negative outcomes. One researcher found that those elementary students who were bullies attended school less frequently and were more likely to drop out than other students.8 Several studies suggest that bullying in early childhood may be a critical risk factor for the development of future problems with violence and delinquency. For example, Olweus' research found that in addition to threatening other children, bullies were several times more likely than their nonbullying peers to commit antisocial acts, including vandalism, fighting, theft, drunkenness, and truancy, and to have an arrest by young adulthood.9 Another study of more than 500 children found that aggressive behavior at the age of 8 was a powerful predictor of criminality and violent behavior at the age of 30.10

Antibullying Initiative

Until recently, little attention has been given to the establishment of antibullying initiatives in U.S. schools. Within the past several years, a number of school-based programs have been developed to address bullying, although the degree to which they embrace a whole-school approach to the problem varies.

Only one U.S. program has been based explicitly on the comprehensive model developed by Olweus in Sweden and Norway. Through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Gary B. Melton, Susan P. Limber, and colleagues at the Institute for Families in Society of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC, have adapted Olweus' model for use in rural middle schools in that State. Interventions are focused at the levels of the individual, classroom, school, and community at large. A comprehensive evaluation involving 6,500 children currently is under way to measure the effects of the program.


1. J.H. Hoover, R. Oliver, and R.J. Hazler, "Bullying: Perceptions of adolescent victims in Midwestern USA," School Psychology International 13:5-16,1992.

2. S.P. Limber, P. Cunningham, V. Florx, J. Ivey, M. Nation, S. Chai, and G. Melton, "Bullying among school children: Preliminary findings from a school-based intervention program," paper presented at the Fifth International Family Violence Research Conference, Durham, NH, June/July 1997.

3. S.P. Limber et al., June/July 1997; D. Olweus, "Victimization by peers: Antecedents and long-term outcomes," in Social Withdrawal, Inhibitions, and Shyness, edited by K.H. Rubin and J.B. Asendorf, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1993, pp. 315-341; I. Rivers and P.K. Smith, "Types of bullying behavior and their correlates," Aggressive Behavior 20:259-368, 1994; I. Whitney and P.K. Smith, "A survey of the nature and extent of bullying in junior/middle and secondary schools," Educational Research 35:3-25, 1993.

4. K. Williams, M. Chambers, S.Logan, and D. Robinson, "Association of common health symptoms with bullying in primary school children," British Medical Journal 313:17-19, 1996.

5. Olweus, 1993.

6. Olweus, 1993.

7. J.G. Parker and S.R. Asher, "Peer relations and later personal adjustment: Are low accepted children at risk?" Psychological Bulletin 102:357-389, 1987.

8. B.J. Byrne, "Bullies and victims in school settings with reference to some Dublin schools," Irish Journal of Psychology 15:574-586, 1994.

9. Olweus, 1993.

10. L.D. Eron, L.R. Husemann, E. Dubow, R. Romanoff, and P.W. Yarmel, "Aggression and its correlates over 22 years," in Childhood Aggression and Violence: Sources of Influence, Prevention and Control, edited by D.H. Crowell, I.M. Evans, and C.R. O'Donnell, New York: Plenum, 1987, pp. 249-262.

For more information, contact Susan Limber, Assistant Director, Institute for Families in Society, University of South Carolina, Carolina Plaza, Columbia, SC 29208, 803-737-3186.

Combating Fear and Restoring Safety in Schools Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  April 1998