Seeing oneself as a bullying target?

Researchers investigate self-perception and peer victimization in adolescents
October 9, 2019

Peer victimization, also known as bullying, has gained the attention of children, parents, teachers, researchers and policy makers in recent years. October is National Bullying Prevention month, a time to focus and raise awareness on bullying. Though it takes several forms—physical, verbal, relational and cyberbullying—peer victimization of all types has been linked to academic troubles, depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol use and other risk-seeking behaviors. This is especially concerning as about 20 percent of students ages 12-18 in the United States report experiencing some form of bullying.

Research has explored many of the causes and effects of bullying, but limited work has focused on how the way students perceive themselves is associated with peer victimization.

Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH and E. Lisako J. McKyer, PhD, MPH, of the Texas A&M School of Public Health, along with Adam E. Barry, PhD, and Kelly L. Wilson, PhD, from the Texas A&M Department of Health and Kinesiology, and colleagues from the University of Georgia, Clarkson University and the University of Cincinnati recently conducted a new study aimed at filling this knowledge gap. The study, published in The Journal of School Nursing, examined self-perceived positive and negative descriptions among middle school and high school students who have reported verbal bullying and analyzed associations between student self-perception, drug use and perceived drug and alcohol use and sexual activity among friends to determine whether such factors may predict verbal peer-victimization.

The researchers used data from a questionnaire of approximately 1,000 middle school and high school students in Indiana. The questionnaire asked students whether they felt put down or verbally victimized by others often. The students were also surveyed about how they perceive themselves fitting positive descriptors such as independent, smart or popular and negative descriptors such as unattractive, boring or immature. The questionnaire also collected data about what percentage of the respondents’ friends engaged in sexual activity and alcohol and drug use and the students’ own history of substance use.

Smith and his colleagues found that about 16 percent of the students surveyed reported being put down by others often, with nearly equal percentages for male and female students. A larger proportion of middle school students reported verbal bullying than high school students.

Although the percentages were roughly equal for male and female students, male students reported greater drug use and perceived risky behaviors in friends.

Female students were more likely to give self-descriptions of considerate and independent on the positive side and confused on the negative. In contrast, male students were more likely to state they were popular and self-confident or immature, boring and careless.

Lastly, the researchers observed that students who held more positive self-perceptions were less likely to report having been put down by others, whereas students with more negative views were more likely to report being bullied.

The findings of this study support previous research pointing to how characteristics that students’ peers’ value such as athleticism, popularity and wealth are associated with peer-victimization. “It seems students who align with peer-valued characteristics are less likely to be victimized,” Smith said. It may be that students internalize such peer-valued traits in their own self-perceived characteristics. However, because this study only examined cross-sectional relationships, it remains to be seen whether positive and negative self-perceptions repel and attract victimization, respectively, or if self-perceptions result from bullying. If the former is the case, this would indicate interventions by parents, teachers and school nurses are needed to build positive self-perceptions and thus reduce bullying.

This study was also limited by the self-reported nature of the data and lack of measurements on severity and frequency of victimization. Additionally, this study focused only on verbal victimization, warranting further research in other types of bullying. More research is also needed about what the role factors such as race, ethnicity or household income may play in peer victimization and on the effects that other influencing figures such as coaches, parents and teachers may have on self-perceptions.

“This study serves as a starting point for additional research and may inform future interventions to reduce peer victimization,” Smith said. “With additional efforts, we can work collaboratively with policymakers, teachers, parents and other concerned parties to develop new strategies to reduce the health risks of bullying among adolescents.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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