A new study finds surprising consistency in teen bullying rates across the globe and shows that it harms both victim and perpetrator suffer in similar ways.
The findings, published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, show that victims and bullies are more inclined to consume alcohol and tobacco, more likely to complain of psychosomatic problems and both tend to suffer from similar social problems.
For the study, researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in Germany set out to discover whether there were any differences in the way various countries’ cultures handled being bullied and whether boys dealt with it in a different manner than girls.
To do this, they analyzed data provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), who had asked approximately 3,000 adolescents from each country about their lives as part of an extensive study conducted over a number of years.
The researchers specifically looked at the responses from adolescents living in Germany, Greece and the U.S. because they believe these nations exhibit different types of social structures: the U.S. as rather individualistic, Greece as very collectivist and Germany as somewhere in between.
The data included information on any bullying the adolescents had experienced from other students, but also details of alcohol and tobacco consumption, psychosomatic complaints, how easy they found it to talk to their friends and how they viewed the social support of their classmates.
The analysis revealed that adolescents’ behavior and problems are similar in all three countries, as approximately nine percent of boys and girls had repeatedly experienced physical or psychological attacks from other students.
“None of the three countries can be used as a model for dealing with the problem. We were shocked by this stability that transcends cultures and different periods of time,” said Dr. Anett Wolgast, an MLU educational psychology scientist.
The researchers also investigated the association between student bullying and various other factors: Here, they focused on the adolescents’ risk behaviors, especially their alcohol and tobacco consumption, and whether they had suffered or were still suffering from psychosomatic complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches, back pain or depression.
The study also looked at how perpetrators and victims interacted with their social environment: Did they find it easy to talk to friends? How did they view support from within their class in their social environment?
The findings suggest that boys and girls are just as likely as each other to consume alcohol and smoke cigarettes when they have been the victim of verbal or physical attacks. “Girls are slightly more inclined to internalize problems and therefore have more stomach aches or headaches,” said Wolgast.
Another surprising finding was that perpetrators and victims reported similar social problems. Both groups found it difficult to talk to friends and classmates, and they also both felt they had little support from their environment.
“The fact that perpetrators and victims experience similar problems to each other is remarkable,” said Wolgast. “These findings could be used to devise new prevention strategies.”
In other words, current interventions should target communication between adolescents to improve the classroom atmosphere. One way of encouraging this could be asking students to adhere to rules that they have come up with themselves. Mutual support would play a major role here, Wolgast said.