It's possible that all these years we've been blaming the wrong kids for stealing our milk money. The image of the schoolyard bully as a disaffected social outcast or a hulking denizen of shop class is a familiar one and a staple of teenage lore. But as researchers and teachers grow increasingly sensitive to the issue of school violence, they are studying bullying more closely and finding that the stereotypes are often misleading.
In fact, bullies are likely to be among the most popular kids in school, admired by peers and teachers alike, according to a report presented last week at a meeting of the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.). "These are the kids that other students look up to, the ones everybody wants to hang out with," says Dorothy Espelage, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-authored the study. It defines bullying as persistent teasing, name calling or social exclusion; Espelage did not include overt physical acts, since she found they were rare and typically used by students with more serious problems.
Espelage focused on students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, when the problem is most acute. "As kids transition into middle school, they are negotiating new settings, establishing power within peer groups," she says. In this confusing period, denigration of others often proves a successful route to prominence. In boys this generally manifests itself through taunting or threats of violence, while girls are more apt to spread rumors or inflict social ostracism. The study shows bullying tapering off as kids advance into the eighth grade.
William Pollack, a psychologist who examines bullying in his book Real Boys' Voices, agrees that intimidation is too often rewarded. "Aggression, homophobia and violent behavior are looked up to in boys," he says. "Being artistic or musical is not." He cautions, however, that not all child bullies are the cool kids--some are among the most depressed students in a class and may be reacting to being bullied themselves. Pollack is also worried that the phenomenon is on the rise, partly because families spend less time together, which leaves boys fewer outlets for productive communication. "It's a national epidemic," he says. "Both the amount of teasing and the intensity of it have increased over time, and the stakes are higher. We're talking AK-47s now, not just a shove." While Espelage acknowledges that it is difficult to know whether bullying is growing more common, she says that recognition of its consequences is certainly on the rise. Both agree that while bullying has been around since the one-room schoolhouse, it should no longer be dismissed as a mere adolescent rite of passage.
An estimated 160,000 children each day miss school for fear of being picked on, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Typically, these students are different in dress or appearance or seem unlikely to defend themselves. In addition to academic failings, they suffer such physical ailments as stomachaches and headaches as well as psychological troubles that in extreme cases include suicidal tendencies.