Newspapers often capture the most horrific incidences of bullying in their headlines, and report high (and verifiable) levels of bullying and peer victimisation.
An important motivation for my research is reducing the level of bullying and peer victimisation, particularly in schools. So when I
stare, confused, at near-blank Word documents write research papers, I like to report the current levels of these phenomena in the population I’m writing about. Newspapers often report on single surveys or events – in research, I need a fuller picture.
With this comes a perennial problem. There are so many ways of trying to get at the big picture. This time around, the most recent figures I could find were given on 23 May, 2013, in a Guardian DataBlog. This piece is fantastic, not least because it makes a timely point on what we actually know about bullying, but because it links to the original data file.
I could go with that. But, as Ami Sedghi points out, this is child helpline data – and helpline calls don’t tell us about the actual level of bullying going on. The alternatives then, are self-reports of bullying, where all children are asked to say what has been happening to them within a given time-frame, like the example below from Owens, Daly, and Slee (2005):
or peer reports – where other children are given a class list, and “nominate” children in their class according to whether they are bullied, like in Fox and Boulton (2006):
These measures yield different outcomes, with peer report usually leading to slightly lower levels of reported bullying, that are nonetheless correlated with the levels of self-reported bullying (in our ESRC School Bullying and Humour Project research, we used both measures, to get the best of both worlds).
So – the way in which bullying is measured affects its apparent prevalence. But it’s more complicated than that. Researchers over the past 40 years have been unable to agree on what counts as bullying. This is important because a paper by Olweus (2012) demonstrates that the reported prevalence of cyberbullying depends upon whether it is asked about in the context of a definition of bullying or not. In reality, there are myriad definitions, which are often dependent on culture, age, and schooling, as Dorothy Espelage and her colleagues note in the first chapter of a recent research report.
Espelage goes further than this. She suggests that we should stop using the word bullying altogether, and instead research ‘peer victimisation’. Since bullying by (most) definition(s) involves repetition, she argues, schools wait too long to act in cases of one-off severe nastiness, so they can act in accordance with school’s bullying policies. I could add to her argument – a lot of definitions of bullying don’t take account of the child who is called names repeatedly, but where each name is coming a different child.
Add to this, that what one child perceives as peer victimisation, another may perceive and/or receive as banter, that more passive forms victimisation (e.g., ignoring others) are difficult to disentangle from innocent non-attention to a person, and that targets and witnesses are reluctant to report what is happening, and it becomes obvious why we struggle to research what is going on.
Discerning the prevalence of bullying at a set time, is rather like, as Rogers and Hammerstein put it, trying to keep a wave upon the sand – bullying is difficult to get hold of. Reports of past events are relied upon. To try and reduce bullying, we must nonetheless try to work out what is happening.