The behavior of bullying carries a direct, significant social, medical and financial cost for its victims and perpetrators. Bullying can also cause an indirect harm to our social progress, a cost that is much harder to measure. Data demonstrates that bullying is a highly prevalent behavior, with powerful and long-lasting psychological and social impact on its victims and perpetrators (1). Interestingly, the behavior of bullying crosses sociodemographic categories of age, gender, ethnicity, level of academic achievement and professional environment. It has been abundantly observed by teachers and parents in elementary schools, but has also shown its negative presence in corporate boardrooms (2–4).
Any involvement in bullying can impair the quality of life in victims, as well as for perpetrators of this reprehensible behavior. For example, Connolly and colleagues (5) have demonstrated that children who bully are at higher risk of developing severe relationship problems as adults. The trauma of bullying has been shown to be associated with severe and chronic psychiatric pathology, including mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and drug abuse, as well as personality disorders (6). The most alarming sequelae of bullying, however, is its significant association with suicidal behavior (7). Thus, given the high social, personal and medical cost of bullying, these social behavioral phenomena should be conceptualized as a source of severe trauma that can lead to psychiatric conditions. Thus, it should be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective involving teachers, parents and mental health professionals (7).
There is a lack of consensus on exactly what comprises “bullying”, and academic arguments continue reshaping the surface if its definition. A general framework of bullying, however, has been established and accepted by the community of researchers involved in this subject matter. Olweus (8) defined bullying as a specific form of intentional, repeated aggression, that involves a disparity of power between the victim(s) and perpetrator(s). The aggression can take physical, verbal or gestural forms. It can also be enacted through intentional exclusion of a person from a group, without apparent provocation on the part of the person being excluded. What sets bullying apart from other forms of abuse or violence is the social context in which it occurs and the imbalanced power relationship of the parties involved (8).
Demographics of bullying behavior
Wang and colleagues (9) have recently shown that, among USA adolescents, the prevalence of having bullied others or having been bullied at school for at least once in the past 2 months were 20.8% physically, 53.6% verbally, 51.4% socially and 13.6% electronically. Males were more involved in physical and verbal bullying, whereas girls were more involved in relational bullying. Boys were more likely to be cyber bullies, whereas girls were more likely to be cyber bullying victims. Compared with 6th graders, 9th and 10th graders were less involved in bullying for physical (as bullies, victims or bully-victims), verbal (as victims or bully-victims), relational (as victims or bully-victims) and cyber (bullies) forms.
African-American adolescents were involved in more physical, verbal or cyber bullying, but were found less likely to be victims of bullying. Higher parental support was associated with less involvement across all forms of bullying, and having more friends was associated with more bullying and less victimization for physical, verbal and relational forms. However, this did not have a protective effect for cyber bullying. Lemstra et al. (10) investigated bullying in 4197 youth subjects in which 23% reported being physically bullied at least once or twice in the previous 4 weeks. They demonstrated that being male, attending a school in a low-income neighborhood, perception of having unhappy home life, arguments with parents and the desire to leave home have been found to be factors that may leave youth vulnerable to bullying.
It is also important to recognize that bullying occurs outside of middle and high school settings. Mukhtar and colleagues (2) found that almost 70% of medical students had experienced some form of bullying in the past 6 months. Balducci et al. (3) demonstrated that bullying is a prevalent behavior in the workplace, and a study of the Norwegian workforce by Nielsen and colleagues (4) demonstrated that, even in egalitarian Norway, almost 5% of people see themselves as victims of bullying, with nearly 7% reporting that they are exposed to a high degree of bullying behaviors and 1% reporting that they are exposed to severe bullying.
Bullying and suicidal behavior
As previously mentioned, the direst outcome of bullying, for both victims and perpetrators, is an increased risk of suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts and completed suicide. A study that involved 838 9th–12th graders attending public high school demonstrated that subjects involved in bullying as a perpetrator, victim or victim-perpetrator were more likely than controls to report having seriously considered or attempted suicide within the past year (11). Fisher and colleagues (12) demonstrated in twin studies that exposure to frequent bullying predicted higher rates of self-injurious behavior, even after controlling for premorbid emotional or behavioral problems and environmental risk factors. A study by Winsper et al. (13) showed that preadolescence subjects involved in bullying, especially in the role of being both a bully and a victim, were at increased risk for suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts and self-injurious behavior. Brunstein and colleagues (14), however, suggested that bullying behavior in the absence of depression or suicidality is not an independent risk factor, but rather amplifies inherent risk of suicidal behavior associated with depression.
Bullying and psychiatric pathology
Regardless of whether bullying increases the risk of suicidal behavior independently of psychiatric pathology, it is important to understand that bullying is, in fact, associated with a number of psychiatric conditions, all with inherent risk for suicidal behavior. Kumpulainen (6) has shown that young subjects involved in bullying are more likely to struggle with disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and personality disorders.
Bullying and depression
Multiple studies have demonstrated a clear correlation between involvement in bullying and a higher risk of developing a depressive disorder. Lemstra and colleagues (15) showed that children who were physically bullied multiple times per week were 80% more likely to develop symptoms of depression in comparison to controls who never experienced bullying. A retrospective study by Rikke et al. (15) claimed that adult men with a self-reported history of being bullied at school were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a depressive disorder later in life. A prospective study that looked at 2348 young boys (16) demonstrated that subjects who were both perpetrators and victims of bullying were at higher risk for developing depression and suicidal behavior later in life.
Bullying and PTSD
Bullying, although not considered to be a form of acute trauma, has been shown to be associated with symptoms of PTSD. Positive correlations between symptoms of PTSD and exposure to bullying were also demonstrated among subjects who experienced bullying at work (17). Another study that attempted to assess prevalence and intensity of PTSD symptomatology among victims of bullying at work demonstrated that more than 70% of bully victims developed symptoms of PTSD and displayed a moderate or severe impairment in social functioning (18).
Bullying and anxiety disorders
People involved in bullying also appear to be at a higher risk of anxiety disorders other than PTSD. One study demonstrated that social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder were all positively associated with severe teasing and bullying experiences (19). Kumpulainen et al. (20) showed that, among children, victims of bullying, anxiety symptoms were as frequent as 8.7%, significantly higher than controls. Another study demonstrated that being a bully, victim of bullying or having a role of being both a bully and victim in preadolescence (ages 10–12 years) (21) significantly predicted development of anxiety symptoms in adolescence (ages 10–17 years) (22). Data also supports a strong, positive correlation between involvement in bullying and development in anxiety symptoms in younger children, those in grades 5–8, and students aged 12–17 years (23).
Bullying and substance and alcohol abuse and dependence
Finally, research has consistently demonstrated that subjects involved in bullying are more likely to use alcohol and illicit psychoactive substances. In one large sample, it was shown that substance use and bullying behaviors co-occurred among 5.4% of adolescents in the USA (24). A nationally representative survey of 6th–10th graders in the USA found that alcohol use was associated with increased odds of bullying (25). A study of adolescents ages 12–17 years who were admitted to inpatient psychiatry units showed that the use of any substance (e.g., tobacco, alcohol and drugs) was generally more common among bullies (26). Finally, a large study based on schoolchildren demonstrated that students who were engaged in bullying were more likely to be smokers and to have had a history of alcohol use (27).
“Bullying” is a term that describes the nature of some “cruel” action (taking place primarily, but not exclusively, in the school environment), as the term “child sexual abuse” perpetrated by relatives is the new, scientific word currently used when referring to “incest”. Cruelty, although not always violent, is always aggressive. Moreover, it is a phenomenon linked to human nature. It happens when one inflicts pain on the other with apparent provocation (as opposed to “revenge” or even “justice”). Most importantly, cruelty happens in asymmetric relationships: a “master” (who possess and exerts the power) uses physical and/or verbal violence against a “slave” (the victim) who is always in a weaker position and has no or insubstantial defense (28). Sometimes the “master” is not represented by a single individual but by a group, and the nature of this relationship is not stable and may change in the future. Victims may be cruel to other victims, or they may engage in cruel behavior to a former master if a former master “falls” in the social order.
In any case, the gratuitous nature of cruel actions and their independence from sexual gratification make them different from “sadomasochism”. It also differs from revenge as it has not been motivated by any previous harm. From an evolutionary perspective, we could add that it has no relationship with self-defense and/or with the “struggle for life”. The German philosopher Schopenhauer (1788–1860) said that the unbearable suffering of living leads to those expressions of violence, following the fantasy of being able to “master” that life anguish through the exercise of power against another human being (29).
From a philosophical point of view, we can either follow the Hobbesian view, according to which cruelty is an innate characteristic of all human beings (“homo homini lupus”) (30), or we can share Rousseau’s thesis (mankind is a good and innocent species that has been spoiled by society) (31). Some philosophers underline the role of the individual, and others the role of the nature of the relation (i.e., the “systemic” approach).
Nevertheless, cruelty (and bullying, as one of its manifestations) breaks the basis of morality. We, as mental health professionals, usually treat the victims of those actions unfortunately long after they have been exposed to the harm. Perpetrators of bullying generally (but not always) must bear with the sanctions society has developed to control violence, and they are often reluctant to participate in psychological interventions. In any case, the evidence does not support the idea that the majority of cruel actions are intrinsically “pathological”, in the sense of being motivated by “mental disorders”, but a human phenomenon related to the nature of our condition. Therefore, only moral rules (expressed, for instance, in educational models) and legal dispositions – but not psychiatric or psychological interventions – may dissuade humans from this form of cruelty.
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