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The Health of Canada's Young People: a mental health focus

Bullying and fighting

by Wendy Craig and Heather McCuaig Edge

What is bullying?

Bullying is a relationship problem. It is a form of repeated aggression where there is an imbalance of power between the young person who is bullying and the young person who is victimized. Power can be achieved through physical, psychological, social, or systemic advantage, or by knowing another's vulnerability (e.g., obesity, learning problem, sexual orientation, family background) and using that knowledge to cause distress. As a relationship problem, the young people who bully learn to use power and aggression to control others, and the young people who are victimized become increasingly powerless and find themselves in a relationship where they are being abused. With each repeated bullying incident, the young person who is bullying increases in power and the young person who is being victimized finds their power reduced.

Why do bullying and fighting matter?

Bullying puts young people at immediate and long-term risk for many emotional, behavioural and relationship problems. These risks affect young people who bully others, young people who are victimized, and young people who both bully others and are victimized. Lessons of power and aggression learned through childhood bullying can lead to sexual harassment (McMaster et al., 2002) and dating aggression (Pepler et al., 2008) and may later extend to workplace harassment, as well as marital, child, and elder abuse perpetrated in other types of relationships. Victimized youth may also carry the hurt and fear from bullying forward into adult relationships. Perhaps the highest costs arise from the destructive dynamics found in bullying relationships, because relationships are the foundation for healthy development and well‑being throughout the lifespan. Furthermore, research on bullying has identified an intergenerational link: parents who bully in childhood are likely to have children who also bully their peers (Farrington, 1993).

Being safe in relationships is a fundamental human right (UNICEF, 2007). Every child and youth has the right to be safe and free from involvement in bullying. Bullying affects the safety and welfare of children and youth who are bullied, those who bully others, and those who know it is going on. Negative effects for all parties involved (i.e., those who bully others, those who are bullied, and those who know it's going on) include a lack of confidence in oneself and in others, which hurts relationships across the lifespan, thereby increasing risk for mental disorder, poor academic and vocational achievement, and criminality. Further, victimized young people are at risk for anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms (Due et al., 2005). There is also reason to be concerned for young people who perpetrate bullying and harassment. Research has shown that these young people are at risk for long-term problems such as antisocial behaviour, gang involvement, and substance use (Farrington et al., 2011; Pepler et al., 2008). To prevent these negative long-term outcomes, we need to support youths' healthy development and protect their welfare.

Similarly, fighting is an aggressive behaviour that puts young people at significant risk for harm. Fighting can often lead to physical injuries requiring medical treatment. Some researchers suggest that fighting represents a problem behaviour that is related to later delinquency and antisocial behaviour (Centers for Disease Control, 2010).

What are we reporting in this chapter?

To assess bullying and victimization, we provided a definition of bullying for students. The definition stated that bullying occurs when another student, or a group of students, says or does nasty and unpleasant things to a student. It was also considered bullying when a student was teased repeatedly in a way he or she did not like or when he or she was deliberately left out of things. But it was clarified that it was not bullying when two students of about the same strength or power argued or fought. It was also not bullying when the teasing was done in a friendly and playful way.

Students were asked to indicate how many times they had been bullied at school in the past two months and how often they had taken part in bullying another student(s) at school during the same time period. Possible responses were: never, once or twice, two or three times a month, about once a week, or several times a week. Those who reported being bullied once or twice were classified as victims of bullying. Those who reported taking part in bullying once or twice were classified as perpetrators. Those who reported both experiences were classified as bully-victims.

In addition, there were questions about the types of victimization experienced by students. There were seven distinct types of bullying assessed. (1) physical: have you been hit, kicked, pushed, shoved around, or locked indoors? (2) verbal: have you been called mean names, made fun of, or teased in a hurtful way? (3) indirect: have you been left out of things on purpose, excluded from a group of friends, or completely ignored? (4) sexual harassment: have other students made sexual jokes, comments, or gestures to you?; (5) racial: have other students made fun of your race or colour; (6) religious: have other students made fun of your religion?; and (7) electronic: have you been teased using a computer or e-mail messages or a mobile phone?

To explore fighting behaviours, students were asked: "During the past 12 months, how many times were you in a physical fight?" and "with whom did you fight?" Students were also asked: "During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a weapon, such as a gun, knife or club?" and "what type of weapon was it?"

In this chapter we report the percentage of students involved in three mutually exclusive categories of bullying for 2010: youth who bullied others; youth who were victimized; and youth who both bullied others and were victimized. These responses were aggregated into three categories: once or twice, once or twice a month, or once a week or more. We also report the patterns in types of bullying among students who were victimized, the frequency of fights, and the associations between mental health measures (emotional well‑being, prosocial behaviours, emotional problems, behavioural problems) and bullying others, being victimized, and fighting. We try to avoid using labels such as: bully, victim, and bully/victim. Bullying unfolds within the context of relationships, in part, as a function of group dynamics, rather than arising solely from an individual's personal characteristics.

The bullying problem in Canada

11.1 Involvement of students in the three categories of bullying in 2002, 2006 and 2010 (%)

Figure 11.1 - Involvement of students in the three categories of bullying in 2002, 2006 and 2010 (%)

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Figure 11.1 represents the overall prevalence of Canadian students with involvement in bullying in 2002, 2006, and 2010. The percentages reporting that they have been bullied, that they bully others, or that they both bully and are bullied remain largely unchanged across cycles. Having approximately 40% of adolescents with bully-victim status is concerning as these adolescents are at the highest risk for negative emotional, physical, and behavioural outcomes. It should be noted that these categories of children are mutually exclusive and represent all students surveyed.

11.2 Students who are victimized by grade, gender, and frequency (%)

Figure 11.2 - Students who are victimized by grade, gender, and frequency (%)

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Figure 11.2 presents a general decline in reported victimization from Grade 6 to 10, among both boys and girls. A fairly consistent proportion of students across grades reported being occasionally victimized (about once or twice in the past couple of months). Notably, more girls than boys reported occasional victimization across all grades, while the prevalence of frequent victimization (once a week or more) was relatively similar for boys and girls. Between 3 and 8% of students reported being victimized once a week or more, with higher proportions of frequent victimization in younger grades than older grades.

11.3 Students who bully by grade, gender, and frequency (%)

Figure 11.3 - Students who bully by grade, gender, and frequency (%)

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There was an increase in the reporting of bullying others from Grade 6 to Grade 10 (Figure 11.3). Boys reported bullying others more than girls reported bullying, and this was equally true for occasional bullying and frequent bullying. For boys, the prevalence of bullying others peaked in Grade 10 at 21%, while it rose and stayed relatively consistent for girls, peaking in Grade 8 at 11%, and remaining at that level in Grade 9 and 10. Similar to the victimization results, the majority of students indicated that they engaged in bullying behaviour occasionally. A small minority (1 to 4%) of students who participated, however, reported bullying others frequently, once a week or more.

The pattern associated with increasing levels of reporting bullying others and decreasing levels of reporting victimization across middle and high school is consistent with other literature (Due et al., 2005; Smith, Madsen, & Moody, 1999). Younger students tended to report higher levels of victimization than older adolescents (Brown, Birch, & Kancherla, 2005), while different forms of bullying emerged as young people underwent puberty, school changes, and the development of social skills, all of which can provide the opportunity for both positive and negative interactions (Smith et al., 1999).

11.4 Students who both bully others and are victimized, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.4 - Students who both bully others and are victimized, by grade and gender (%)

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A substantial number of students in the HBSC sample reported that they both bully others and are victimized (Figure 11.4).

For boys, the prevalence of students engaging in both bullying others and being victimized was fairly consistent across grades, with a slight decrease in Grade 10 and an average level of both bullying others and being victimized across grades for boys of 40.6%. For girls, the prevalence of bullying others and being victimized by others peaked in Grade 8 (at 47%), and then consistently declined in Grade 9 and 10. In Grade 6, the prevalence of bully-victim status was higher for boys than girls; however, in the upper grades (8, 9, and 10), girls reported a higher prevalence of being both bullies and victims than boys.

How young people are victimized

Figures 11.5 to 11.11 display data only for students who reported being victims.

11.5 Teasing in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.5 - Teasing in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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11.6 Indirect bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.6 - Indirect bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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Bullying takes many forms, with the two most common forms being teasing (Figure 11.5) and indirect bullying such as excluding or spreading lies about the victim (Figure 11.6). More boys than girls reported being teased in 2010, especially in older grades; but, overall, more than half of victimized boys and girls in all grades reported being teased. In contrast, more girls reported being victimized by indirect bullying (Figure 11.6). Indirect bullying decreased for girls from Grade 6 to 7 (from 76% to 71%), and then remained relatively stable through to Grade 10 (68-71%). In contrast, indirect bullying decreased for boys from Grade 6 to 10, from 65% in Grade 6 to 53% of Grade 10 boys reporting experiencing it. Thus, for boys, this form of bullying is decreasing with age.

11.7 Physical bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.7 - Physical bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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Figure 11.7 shows that more boys who were victims of bullying reported physical victimization (up to 41%) in 2010. Among both boys and girls, there was a decline in physical victimization from Grade 6 to Grade 10.

11.8 Sexual harassment in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.8 - Sexual harassment in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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Reports of sexual harassment increased with age for girls from 28% in Grade 6 to 45% in Grade 10, while there was a slight increase for boys from 31% in Grade 7 to 38% in Grade 10. Girls reported significantly more sexual harassment in all grades, except in Grade 6, where more boys than girls reported being sexually harassed.

I think the most dominant form of bullying right now is cyber bullying, because youth think that they won't get caught.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

11.9 Racial bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.9 - Racial bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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11.10 Religious bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.10 - Religious bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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Racial or religious bullying occurred less frequently than all the other types of bullying (Figures 11.9 and 11.10), ranging from 8% to 24%. Boys in all grades reported more racial bullying compared to girls, and substantially more religious bullying than girls in Grade 8 through 10. Racial bullying for boys increased from 18% in Grade 6 to 24% in Grade 10, while racial victimization appeared to decrease for girls from 16% in Grade 6 to 13% in Grade 10. Across all grades, reports of religious bullying among boys remained fairly consistent, while for girls, this type of victimization decreased from 14% in Grade 6 to 8% in Grade 10.

11.11 Electronic bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 11.11 - Electronic bullying in victimized students, by grade and gender (%)

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The HBSC survey asked students about electronic, or cyber-bullying, including computer postings (e.g., on social networking sites), emails, digital photos, or cell phone harassment. Although rates of reported electronic bullying were low in both boys and girls across grades, girls reported that they experienced more cyber-bullying than boys in Grades 6 to 9 (Figure 11.11). Rates of reported electronic bullying remained fairly consistent across grades (between 17% and 19%) for girls, but increased slightly for boys from 11% in Grade 6 to 19% in Grade 10.

Fighting

Frequency of fights among Canadian students

11.12 Number of physical fights in the past 12 months, by grade and gender in 2002, 2006 and 2010 (%)

Figure 11.12 - Number of physical fights in the past 12 months, by grade and gender in 2002, 2006 and 2010 (%)

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Physical fighting, like bullying, is an extreme form of aggression and merits serious attention. Figure 11.12 shows that involvement in physical fights appeared to peak in 2006, though rates in 2010 were still higher than in 2002. Substantially more boys than girls in all grades reported physical fighting behaviour. For boys, fighting behaviour decreased with age, while girls' fighting was more consistent across grades. Despite the decreasing levels of physical fighting across grades in 2010, substantial proportions of students were involved in physical fights over the past 12 months.

People who are fighting can get hurt in many different ways.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

Bullying and mental health

Bullying and victimization are related to several indicators of mental health for all parties involved in bullying, including young people who bully, those who are victimized, or both. As bullying takes on several forms, consequences of bullying can involve physical injuries, but can also involve social and emotional injuries that may lead to poorer mental health across the lifespan.

Young people who were involved in both bullying others and being victimized tended to have elevated levels of both emotional problems (34% of boys and 51% of girls; Figure 11.13) and behavioural problems (47% of boys and 39% of girls; Figure 11.14), with this group of young people having the highest levels of emotional problems and the second highest level of behavioural problems. This suggests that negative outcomes are differentially associated with types of bullying involvement, with young people who both bully others and are bullied being at a particularly high risk for emotional and behavioural problems.

11.13 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by bullying involvement, by gender (%) 1

Figure 11.13 - Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by bullying involvement, by gender (%) *

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Figure 11.13 depicts emotional problems associated with different types of bullying involvement. Across genders, young people who neither bully nor are victimized have the lowest levels of emotional problems. In general, girls have more emotional problems than boys. Young people who are victimized tend to have high levels of emotional problems (30% of boys and 42% of girls). Bullying is clearly related to these emotional health problems.

11.14 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

Figure 11.14 - Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

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Figure 11.14 describes behavioural problems associated with different types of bullying involvement. Young people who neither bullied nor were victimized reported the lowest levels of behavioural problems, while those who bullied tended to report the highest levels (48% of boys and 42% of girls). Boys reported more behavioural problems than girls.

11.15 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

Figure 11.15 - Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

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Being bullied makes you feel useless, you're consuming what the bully tells you ... can lead to suicide.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

From a positive mental health perspective, young people who were not involved in bullying or victimization reported the highest levels of emotional well‑being of all groups across both genders (Figure 11.15). Young people who bullied others tended to also have higher levels of emotional well‑being than young people who were victimized or who were both bullies and victimized. Young people who bullied others and were victimized tended to have the lowest levels of emotional well‑being of all groups across genders. In general, girls had lower levels of emotional well‑being than boys across all groups. This suggests that there is an association between victimization and reduced emotional well‑being, with an amplified effect when young people engage in both bullying and victimization.

11.16 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

Figure 11.16 - Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by bullying involvement, by gender (%)

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The two groups of young people who engaged in high levels of prosocial behaviour were young people who were not involved in bullying, and young people who were victimized, with the highest levels reported by girls (Figure 11.16). Young people who were victimized exhibited the greatest levels of prosocial behaviour of those young people involved in bullying. Young people who bullied and young people who both bullied and were victimized engaged in the lowest amount of prosocial behaviour.

Although prosocial behaviour was high in young people who did not bully or who were not victimized, the highest level of prosocial behaviour was reported by those who were victimized. It may be that these young people tend to act more prosocially towards others because they know what it feels like to be victimized, or it may be that their prosocial behaviour unfortunately makes them vulnerable to bullying and harassment. There is clearly an association between positive outcomes and bullying involvement, with prosocial behaviours engaged in least by those who perpetrate bullying.

Fighting and mental health

11.17 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

Figure 11.17 - Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

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Figure 11.17 describes reports of emotional problems associated with frequency of fighting in young people. There was an increase in high levels of emotional problems as the frequency of fights increased for both boys and girls. As with bullying, girls reported more emotional problems than boys regardless of the frequency of fighting.

11.18 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

Figure 11.18 - Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

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Higher levels of behavioural problems were strongly associated with increased frequency of fighting in the last 12 months (Figure 11.18). Proportionally more girls than boys who were involved in one or more fights reported high levels of behavioural problems.

11.19 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

Figure 11.19 - Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

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People who are fighting aren't doing well in school, don't have good friend ... not living their life right.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

Echoing the results in the bullying section of this chapter, young people who did not engage in fighting behaviour tended to have more positive indications of mental health overall than young people who got into one or more fights (Figure 11.19). Levels of emotional well‑being were relatively stable for all boys (from 44% for boys who never fought to 41% for boys who got into three or more fights). At the same time, girls who did not engage in fighting had the highest levels of emotional well‑being (though lower overall than for all boys), followed by girls who engaged in three or more fights, followed by girls who engaged in one or two fights. This suggests that the relationship between emotional well‑being and fighting is not as straightforward for girls as it is for boys.

11.20 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

Figure 11.20 - Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by frequency of fighting, by gender (%)

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Regarding prosocial behaviour, a pattern in levels of prosocial behaviours appeared for girls. As girls engaged in more fighting behaviours, levels of prosocial behaviour decreased (Figure 11.20). Boys did not show this same relationship. Instead, boys who engaged in the most fighting had higher levels of prosocial behaviour than boys who only engaged in one or two fights. Levels of prosocial behaviour were relatively even for all boys (from 31% for boys who never engaged in fighting to 28% for boys who engaged in 3 or more fights), suggesting that prosocial behaviour is not as closely associated with fighting for boys as it might be for girls.

What young people thought about these findings

Comments that were recorded at the youth engagement workshop reflected that young people had an understanding of the consequences of being victimized, bullying others and/or engaging in fighting behaviours. The youth communicated well that these aggressive and antisocial forms of behaviours have significant consequences on mental health, academic success, the ability to engage in successful relationships, as well as increasing the risk of future problems or injury.

Acknowledgement by youth of the significant consequences of involvement in bullying and fighting is important. First, it conveys their perceived understanding of the potentially long lasting effects of bullying (Farrington & Ttofi, 2011; Pepler et al., 2008). Second, it highlights the need to address bullying and fighting more effectively than we currently do. Bullying is a relationship problem, characterized by a power imbalance. Youth require sustained support from adults to address this power imbalance and to ensure that the bullying has stopped, thereby preventing the potential negative consequences. Third, youths' understanding of the problem does not match their current actions as bystanders when bullying happens. Thus, given youths' concern and understanding of the problem, we need to more effectively engage them in addressing bullying because they are present when it happens (Craig & Pepler, 1997) and they are effective when they do intervene (Hawkins et al., 2001). Youth engagement in the prevention of bullying and fighting may enhance our effectiveness in eliminating these behaviours.

Summary and implications

Key issues of concern

  1. The prevalence of peer victimization due to bullying is on the rise.
  2. Bullying is associated with increased behavioural problems, while peer victimization is associated with increased emotional problems.
  3. Being a bully-victim is associated with both emotional and behavioural problems.
  4. Increased fighting behaviour is associated with increased emotional and behavioural problems.

Key issues to celebrate

  1. The trends indicate that the prevalence of children reporting bullying others is decreasing.
  2. The prevalence of fighting has decreased since 2006.

Commentary

The trends for bullying since 2002 indicate that bullying and victimization are significant problems for Canadian children and youth. While the number of children who report bullying others is decreasing, the number of children who are victimized remains at about one in four students. Furthermore, 41% of students report both bullying others and being victimized.

Bullying is an early marker for significant mental health problems throughout the lifespan. The consequences of failing to protect children from bullying and support them in developing healthy relationships are costly and lifelong (Centers for Disease Control, 2010). From these data, it is evident that children involved in fighting, bullying others, being bullied, or both, are reporting higher levels of emotional and behavioural problems and lower levels of emotional well‑being. Bullying at age 14 predicts violent convictions at age 15 to 20, violence at age 15 to 18, low job status at age 18, drug use at age 27 to 32, and an unsuccessful life at age 48 (Farrington & Ttofi, 2011). Bullying, violence, mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, school drop-out, and unemployment are all outcomes rooted in experiences within violent relationships (Centers for Disease Control, 2010). Poor social relationships are as big a contributor to early death as smoking, drinking, and obesity (Holt-Lunstead et al., 2010). By preventing violence and promoting relationships, we can optimize children's physical and mental health.

In order to effectively address bullying and fighting, we need to ensure that the evidence-based knowledge, strategies, and programs are reaching those adults who are responsible for youth where they live, learn, work, and play. Current scientific knowledge is not getting into the hands of the right people – those involved in young peoples' lives such as parents, teachers, recreation leaders, and youths themselves. Adults are the primary socialization agents for children and youth, shaping their development through moment-to-moment interactions as well as through programs in homes, schools, and communities. For adults to be effective in preventing violence, they require evidence-based knowledge about: healthy and unhealthy development and relationships, how development varies by age and gender, how to identify risks for youth violence, and what to do to support young people who are developing behaviours that may lead to violence. Similarly, in order to effectively address bullying and fighting behaviours, we need to engage youth themselves, as they are frequently witness to these aggressive interactions. Peers require knowledge and training to prevent violence and promote healthy relationships (e.g., respectful communication, positive use of power in relationships, intervention strategies, and non-violent problem solving).

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Adverse Childhood Experiences Reported by Adults. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 59:1609-1613.
  • Due, P., Holstein, B.E., Lynch, J., Diderichsen, F., Gabhain, S.N., et al. (2005). Bullying and symptoms among school-aged children: International comparative cross-sectional study in 28 countries. European Journal of Public Health, 15:128-132.
  • Farrington, D. (1993). Understanding and Preventing Bullying. Crime and Justice, 17:381.
  • Farrington, D. & Ttofi, M. (2011). Bullying as a predictor of offending, violence and later life outcomes. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 31:90-98.
  • Holt-Lunstead, J., Smith, T.B. & Layton, J.B. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. Public Library of Science Medicine, 7(7):e1000316. doi:10.1371
  • McMaster, L., Connolly, J., Pepler, D.J. & Craig, W.M. (2002). Peer to peer sexual harassment among early adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 14:91-105.
  • Pepler, D., Jiang, D., Craig, W. & Connolly, J. (2008). Developmental trajectories of bullying and associated factors. Child Development, 79:325-338.
  • Smith, P.K., Madsen, K.C., & Moody, J.C. (1999). What causes the age decline in reports of being bullied at school? Towards a developmental analysis of risks of being bullied. Educational Research, 41:267-285. As cited in Peterson, J.S., & Ray, K.E. (2006). Bullying and the gifted: Victims, perpetrators, prevalence, and effects. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50:148-168.
  • Stein, J.A., Dukes, R.L.,& Warren, J.I. (2007). Adolescent male bullies, victims, and bully-victims: A comparison of psychosocial and behavioral characteristics. Journal of Paediatric Psychology, 32:273-282.
  • UNICEF. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well‑being in rich countries. Innocenti Report Card 7, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.

  1. 13% of boys who are neither bullies nor victims report relatively high levels of emotional health problems, compared with 20% of girls who are neither bullies nor victims. A full explanation of how to interpret the figures that relate to mental health is provided in Chapter 1.