Bullying and Violence

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, Sarah Bushman, MPP and Sarah Pedersen, BA

Americans have become keenly aware of the links between school violence and bullying. The Columbine shooting in 1999 was committed by two teenagers who had been harassed and ostracized by athletes and other students in their school. There have been other well-publicized incidents of bullied students retaliating with violence.

One of the first studies to examine the link between bullying and violence asked whether it was the bully or the victim who was most likely to be dangerously violent by measuring four violence-related behaviors: carrying a weapon in the last 30 days, carrying a weapon in school in the last 30 days, frequent fighting during the last year, and sustaining an injury during the last year from a fight that required medical care.

The study, published in 2003, was based on more than 15,000 students who participated in the Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, a nationally representative survey of youth in grades 6 through 10 in public, Catholic, and other private schools during the spring of 1998. The youths completed anonymous questionnaires during one class period.

The results showed, as might be expected, that violence-related behaviors were more common in boys (ranging from 13%-27% among those who reported each behavior) than girls (ranging from 4%-11%).

While the study did not conclude that the victims of bullying were the kids most likely to be dangerous, it did find that victims are more likely than kids who have never been bullied to feel that violence is a solution to their problems. Kids who bully or are bullied are more likely to be involved in one or more of the four violence-related behaviors. The youths most likely to carry a weapon reported bullying others in or away from school or being bullied away from school. Boys and girls who bully are more likely to be engaged in frequent fighting and injured in a fight. This is also true for boys who are bullied away from school.

A child who bullies and is also a victim of bullying can be at even higher risk for certain violence-related behaviors. For example, youths who were sometimes bullied in and away from school, and who also bullied others away from school weekly, were 16 times more likely to carry a weapon.

The authors of the study concluded that bullying often occurs in conjunction with more serious aggressive and antisocial behavior, and therefore should not be considered a normal and accepted part of youth behavior, even though it is common.

Has Bullying Increased or Decreased Since Then?

Since the original survey in 1998, the HSBC has been conducted twice, once in 2002 and again in 2005. The new surveys indicate bullying is decreasing in schools, perhaps due to programs and policies implemented after the initial findings, in addition to increasing awareness of the problem.

To examine prevalence rates of bullying techniques, Jing Wang, Ph.D. at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and co-authors published a study in 2009 using data from the 2005 HBSC survey. The authors grouped bullying techniques into four categories: physical (e.g., hitting, pushing and kicking), verbal (e.g., name-calling and teasing in a hurtful way), social (e.g., spreading rumors and deliberately excluding peers), and electronic (e.g., using cell phones and computers). Prevalence rates of having bullied others or having been bullied at school at least once in the last two months were 21% physically, 54% verbally, 51% socially, and 14% electronically. The study found that boys were more involved in physical or verbal bullying, whereas girls were more involved in relational bullying. The study also found that higher parental support was linked to less involvement across all forms of bullying.  While traditional forms of bullying were more prevalent, cyber bullying was also a serious issue.

Cyber bullying: A New Problem

While in-person bullying seems to be decreasing, other forms of harassment may be increasing.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 4% of US students aged 12-18 reported being victims of cyber bullying in 2007.  However, many studies, such as the 2009 study discussed above, indicate the percentage could be higher and growing.  In about half the cases of the NCES study, the cyber bullying involved the posting of information harmful to the victim online, and the other half were threats or insults during online chats.  The NCES defined cyber bullying as including “students who responded that another student posted hurtful information about the respondent on the Internet; made unwanted contact by threatening or insulting the respondent via instant messaging; or made unwanted contact by threatening or insulting the respondent via text (SMS) messaging.”

Researchers have not yet examined the link between cyber bullying and school violence. However, a 2011 study by Wang and his colleagues at NIH looked at the link between cyber bullying and depression. Using the 2005 HBSC survey, kids who were victims of frequent cyber bullying (two or three times a month) reported significantly higher levels of depression than kids who bully frequently. This is an interesting finding and different from what researchers found for traditional bullying where both bullies and victims of bullying experienced significantly higher levels of depression when the bullying was frequent.

What accounts for this difference? Researchers think that the anonymous nature of being attacked by a cyber bully may lead victims to feel even more isolated, dehumanized, and helpless than if they were being bullied in person.  Some victims of cyber bullying have been ostracized and in extreme cases have committed suicide.  Meanwhile, the cyber bullies may not understand the seriousness of their actions since the anonymity of the internet separates them from the victim.


Although violence-related behaviors, such as carrying a weapon, fighting, and getting injured while fighting are associated with both bullying and being bullied, these behaviors occur more often among those doing the bullying. Violence-related behaviors are strongly linked to bullying that takes place out of school. Even carrying a weapon in school is more related to bullying out of school than bullying in school.

Research has demonstrated that victims of cyber bulling have high levels of depression.  If victims are not able to talk about and report incidences of cyber bullying, they may feel a need to retaliate with violence.

Almost all states now have bullying laws, though only half make provisions for cyber bullying.  The majority require school policies aimed at curbing incidents and supporting victims. Despite the encouraging decline in traditional bullying, schools and communities must remain vigilant and develop ways to address new forms of bullying as they arise.

Nansel TR, Overpeck MD, Haynie DL, Ruan WJ, Scheidt PC.  Relationships Between Bullying and Violence Among U.S. Youth.  Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2003;157:348-353.

Wang J, Iannotti RJ, Nansel TR. School Bullying Among Adolescents in the United States: Physical, Verbal and Relational, and Cyber. Journal of Adolescent Helath. 2009;45:368-375.

National Center for Education Statistics.  Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010.  November 2010. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2010/ind_11.asp.

Wang J, Nansel TR, Iannotti RJ. Cyber and Traditional Bullying: Differential Association With Depression. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2011;48:415-417