Social inequality increases the risks of school bullying, and low-income youth tend to be more vulnerable. However, in schools where many students come from deprived backgrounds, such as low-income, poorly educated, single-parent or dysfunctional families, their less deprived classmates may be at risk of bullying, according to a study conducted by HSE Institute of Education researchers.
Socioeconomic factors have been found to contribute significantly to school bullying. The risk of victimisation is associated with family income: teenagers from deprived families are more likely to be bullied, according to Arthur Rean, Head of the HSE Institute of Education Laboratory for Prevention of Antisocial Behaviour, and Maria Novikova, Research Fellow with the Laboratory. Deprived families are often those in which one or both parents are unemployed.
Similar findings have been reported by international researchers: coming from a low-income family is often associated with a higher risk of being bullied.
However, socioeconomic inequality can sometimes have an opposite effect. Schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a high ratio of deprived children often create higher bullying risks for children from non-deprived backgrounds, and many students are affected by theadverse psychological climate in such schools.
The researchers examined the socioeconomic causes of school bullying based on findings from a survey of 890 high school students (average age: 16 years) in five federal districts of Russia.
School bullying is a recurring situation in which one student (or group of students) intentionally causes harm to another – usually, someone who is less popular in the group. Teenage aggression is often driven by an urge to raise or maintain one’s status among peers or to claim superiority over others (including teachers).
According to the researchers, an important characteristic of involvement in bullying is 'changeability of roles': those who have been bullied are more likely to show aggression towards someone who is weaker. This is confirmed by the high correlation of data indicating bullying involvement in different roles found by the study.
Aggressive behaviour can occur as a reaction to humiliation or provocation. When asked about the reasons why they had got into a fight, young men often responded that they had been insulted (70%) or 'forced to defend themselves' (50%), etc.
Several types of bullying can be distinguished:
physical – attacks or fights;
verbal – insults or threats;
social – ignoring or leaving someone out of peer interactions, spreading rumours and gossip about them;
cyberbullying – using digital technology to bully someone, e.g. by posting offensive comments and videos in social media or messengers, etc.
Ameta-analysis of bullying prevalence reveals that 35% of school students worldwide are involved in traditional bullying (both as perpetrators and victims) and 15% – in cyberforms of bullying.
Bullying is common in Russian schools. According to Rean and Novikova, the proportion of respondents who have been involved in a bullying situation at least once recently ranges from one third (as victim or perpetrator) to one half (as witness).
Most often, respondents witnessed bullying behaviour (65% of respondents witnessed bullying at least once and 13% witnessed it more than three times in the previous month), while being a bullying victim or perpetrator was less common (5% of respondents reported being victims and 3% reported being perpetrators three or more times during the studied period).
Verbal and social aggression are the most common forms, including rude and offensive comments, offensive gestures and demonstrative rejection, e.g. refusing to talk to a person or work together on a school project.
Of all high school students surveyed, 35.7% reported having practiced social bullying once or twice and 60% reported never engaging in it. Verbal bullying was practiced once or twice by 35.4%, while 57% of students reported never engaging in it.
Physical attacks were perpetrated once or twice by 20% of respondents and never by 75.2%. As for cyberbullying, the number are, respectively, 26.8% and 69.3% of respondents.
The prevalence of bullying varies by type, with social and verbal bullying being the most common.
Social bullying on more than two occasions was reported by 7.9% of respondents; 36.5% had experienced it once or twice and 55.6% had never experienced it. The numbers for verbal bullying are 10.4%, 44.5% and 45.1%, respectively.
6.1% of respondents had suffered physical bullying more than three times, 31.4% had faced it once or twice, and 62.5% had never experienced it. The numbers for cyberbullying are 3.6%, 26.2% and 70.2%, respectively.
Students at the highest risk of victimisation were those who responded to the survey question about their family's financial situation by choosing 'There is enough money for everyday expenses, but we have difficulty buying clothes'. Such students were more likely to experience social bullying (being excluded from peer interactions, having rumours spread about them, etc.), verbal and cyberbullying.
Boys in this category were much more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of physical bullying, while girls often witnessed social, verbal and cyberbullying. More bullying victims and perpetrators were found in those cities with fewer than 500 thousand inhabitants, as well as in million-plus cities.
There used to be a long-standing assumption that school bullying 'hardens' the victim, making them stronger. Studies from recent decades, however, have shown that bullying is clearly detrimental for all parties involved, including victims, witnesses and perpetrators: some suffer severe trauma, putting them at risk of depression and suicide, lowering their self-esteem and creating problems with communication, among other things, while some others learn to dominate and use force to achieve their goals.
But the big question is, what causes bullying? A recent study reveals that parental behaviour can be a strong factor in determining whether or not children will be involved in bullying their peers.
Perpetrators often come from families with an authoritarian parenting style associated with a lack of nurturing and neglect of the children's needs.
Family relations have been found to influence the likelihood of bullying, in particular conflicts, pressure, power hierarchy (between parents and children and between siblings), refusal to discuss issues openly, and others.
Family composition also plays a role. 'Having a sibling, no matter whether older or younger, significantly increases the chances of involvement in school bullying as a perpetrator or a witness', according to Rean and Novikova, who also suggest that 'suboptimal parenting strategies' may be the cause. A teenager who competes with siblings for parental attention but feels neglected may 'use bullying behaviour at school to assert him or herself'.
Generally, teenage aggression can have multiple causes and triggers, such as a low level of trust in society (causing youngsters to perceive the world as a hostile environment), pressure from schoolteachers, problems with learning, teenage crises, health problems, and others.
Zero tolerance for bullying in schools can help stop this behaviour. It has been found that school classes where students as well as teachers find aggressive conduct unacceptable tend to face less bullying and fighting. Countries which have implemented anti-bullying programmes – such as the U.K., the U.S., and Nordic countries – report a decrease in teenage aggression. The researchers conclude that Russia, too, needs comprehensive bullying prevention programmes which should target students, parents, and teachers, as well as school psychologists and administrators.