Young girls are far more prone than boys to getting stuck in the role of bullying victim. That’s according to a new investigation by psychologists who studied hundreds of children at 17 primary schools in Hertfordshire and North London.
Dieter Wolke and his colleagues interviewed the children when they were aged between six and nine years and then surveyed them again two or four years later once the children had reached year six. The researchers were interested in the individual and situational factors predictive of whether a child would remain or become a bulling victim.
Of the 663 children who initially took part, 432 were available at the follow-up session. Among the girls, the 44 who were victims of so-called “direct bullying” (physical and verbal abuse) at baseline, were two and a half times more likely than their classmates to also be a victim of direct bullying at follow up. By contrast, boys who were victims of direct bullying at baseline were no more likely than their classmates to be a victim at follow up. In other words, young girls seem particularly prone to getting stuck in the victim role. The researchers said that girls’ “tightly knit” friendship networks could make it difficult for them to “escape the victimisation role”. Unsurprisingly perhaps, boys and girls with fewer friends were also at greater risk of direct bullying.
Wolke’s team also looked at so-called “relational bullying”, when children deliberately outcast a class mate. Although rates of relational bullying had increased by the follow up session (probably reflecting the children’s growing skills of manipulation), neither boys nor girls who were victims of this kind of bullying at baseline were more likely than their peers to still be a victim at follow up. The researchers said this could be because friendship groups are still in flux at primary school, thus making it possible to escape earlier social exclusion. However, caution is needed here because the children who dropped out of the study, mostly because they had changed schools, were disproportionately likely to have been the victim of relational bullying at baseline, so it’s possible their absence skewed the results. Overall, children with emotional problems and children in classes with rigid social hierarchies were at greater risk of relational bullying.
Whilst cautioning that their reliance on children’s self-report was a weakness of the study, Wolke’s team said their findings had important implications for teachers and other professionals. “These findings call for the development and implementation of intervention programmes that tackle victimisation at an early age in primary school,” they said.
Wolke, D., Woods, S., & Samara, M. (2009). Who escapes or remains a victim of bullying in primary school? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (4), 835-851 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X383003