Sexual Harassment May Be Common Part of Bullying

-Rick Nauert, PhD

Sexual harassment is a prevalent form of victimization that most antibullying programs ignore and teachers and school officials often fail to recognize, according to bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D.

The recent teen suicide of Brandy Vela, a teen in Texas City, Texas, is a case in point. According to Vela’s parents, the teen fatally shot herself following months of bullying and sexual harassment, perpetrated in part through text messages and social media.

Espelage recently led a five-year study that examined links between bullying and sexual harassment among schoolchildren in Illinois.

Nearly half — 43 percent — of middle school students surveyed for the study reported they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment such as sexual comments, jokes, or gestures during the prior year.

Researchers followed 1,300 Illinois youths from middle school to high school, examining the risk factors associated with bullying and sexual harassment and the characteristics of the perpetrators.

Students from four middle schools completed the surveys, and some of the youths and their teachers also were interviewed by the researchers.

Investigators discovered that while verbal harassment was more common than physical sexual harassment or sexual assault, 21 percent of students reported having been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way, and 18 percent said peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.

Students also reported being forced to kiss the perpetrators, having their private areas touched without consent and being “pantsed;” having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone else in public.

About 14 percent of the students in the study reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and nine percent had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.

According to Espelage, “sexual harassment among adolescents is directly related to bullying,” particularly homophobic bullying.

Homophobic name-calling emerges among fifth- and sixth-grade bullies as a means of asserting power over other students, Espelage said.

Youths who are the targets of homosexual name-calling and jokes then feel compelled to demonstrate they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.

About 16 percent of students in the study reported that they had been the targets of homophobic name-calling or jokes, and nearly five percent of youths reported that this harassment happened to them often.

On the surveys, youths were asked an open-ended question about their most upsetting experience of sexual harassment.

Fourteen percent of students who reported being victimized negated their experiences by writing that their peers’ behaviors were “not really sexual harassment” because the incidents were “meaningless” or intended as jokes.

“What was most surprising and concerning was that these young people were dismissive of these experiences, even though they described them as very upsetting,” Espelage said.

“Students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them. Prevention programs need to address what is driving this dismissiveness.”

Youths who were dismissive of sexual harassment experiences also were more likely to perpetrate homophobic name-calling, the researchers found.

While students reported that large proportions of these sexual harassment incidents occurred in places such as school hallways, classrooms, gym locker rooms, or gym classes where faculty and staff members ostensibly might witness them, the researchers found that many teachers, school officials, and staff members failed to acknowledge that sexual harassment occurred in their schools.

Many of these adults also were unaware that they were mandated by school district or federal policies to protect students from sexual harassment, Espelage said.

“These findings highlight the importance of making sexual harassment prevention efforts a priority in U.S. school districts, and that will require the efforts of students, faculty and staff members, school administrators, and practitioners such as school psychologists,” Espelage said.

“Schools need to have a consistently enforced policy that clearly defines sexual harassment and establishes regulations against engaging in such behavior. School officials also must provide guidelines for faculty and staff members on how to address these incidents and how to respond appropriately to student reports of sexual harassment.”

Sexual harassment experiences varied across socio-demographic groups, depending on students’ age, race, and sex. For example, females were at greatest risk of sexual harassment, while African-American girls and boys were at greatest risk of being victimized by romantic partners, the researchers found.

Cyberbullies Likely to Be Former Friends or Romantic Partners

-Janice Wood

Cyberbullying is more likely to occur between current or former friends and dating partners than between students who were never friends or in a romantic relationship, according to a new study.

“A common concern regarding cyberbullying is that strangers can attack someone, but here we see evidence that there are significant risks associated with close connections,” said Dr. Diane Felmlee, the lead author of the study and a professor of sociology at The Pennsylvania State University.

“The large magnitude of the effects of close relationships on the likelihood of cyberbullying, even after controlling for many other factors, was particularly surprising.”

The study found that the likelihood of cyberbullying — which the researchers also refer to as cyber-aggression, defined as electronic or online behavior intended to harm another person psychologically or damage his or her reputation — was approximately seven times greater between current or former friends and dating partners than between young people who were not friends or had dated.

“We believe that competition for status and esteem represents one reason behind peer cyberbullying,” Felmlee said. “Friends, or former friends, are particularly likely to find themselves in situations in which they are vying for the same school, club, and/or sport positions and social connections.

“In terms of dating partners, young people often have resentful and hurt feelings as a result of a breakup, and they may take out these feelings on a former partner via cyber aggression. They might also believe they can win back a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, or prevent that person from breaking up with them or dating someone else, by embarrassing or harassing him or her.”

For the study,  published in Social Psychology Quarterly, researchers analyzed survey results from nearly 800 eighth- to twelfth-grade students in 2011 at a public school in a suburb of New York City. The survey collected data about the students’ social networks, dating history, and cyberbullying experiences.

Felmlee and co-author Dr. Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis, found that approximately 17.2 percent of students had been involved with cyberbullying within a week of their having been surveyed — 5.8 percent were purely victims, 9.1 percent were solely aggressors, and 2.3 percent were both.

In most cases, the cyber-aggression occurred over Facebook or text message.

The researchers also found that certain types of students were much more likely than others to be victimized. For example, girls were twice as likely as boys to fall victim to cyber-aggression.

“In spite of societal progress regarding gender inequality, there remains a tendency to attribute lower levels of esteem and respect to females in our society, including within schools,” Felmlee said.

“Males tend to dominate powerful positions within schools, and traditional, male sports often gain greater attention than those in which females participate. Cyber-aggression towards girls may be in part an attempt to keep girls ‘in their places.’”

The survey results also showed that LGBTQ youth were four times as likely as their heterosexual peers to be victims of cyberbullying.

“We were not surprised that non-heterosexuals were more likely to be victims than heterosexuals,” Felmlee said. “However, the size of the effect was alarmingly high. The finding reflects the social norms in our society that continue to stigmatize non-heterosexuality, norms that are likely to be reinforced within the walls of middle and high schools.”

In a section of the survey that allowed students to describe the nature of their cyber aggressive interactions, LGBTQ students reported being called homophobic slurs and, in at least one case, unwillingly having their sexual identities revealed to others.

Overall, incidents of cyber-aggression ranged from threats and the posting of embarrassing photos and nasty rumors to criminal activities, such as identity theft and physical relationship violence that the attacker posted about online.

“Our study calls attention to the role of cyber-aggression within close relationships, and we hope that bullying prevention programs will incorporate these findings into their curricula, particularly through the development of interventions to help heal or resolve toxic, abusive relationships among teens,” Felmlee said.

In addition to efforts in schools to stop cyberbullying, Felmlee said parents can also take steps to mitigate cyber aggression in their children’s lives.

“Many people may be unaware that current or former friends and romantic partners are the most likely perpetrators of cyberbullying, at least among school-aged teens,” Felmlee said. “We hope parents turn a watchful eye to their teenager’s closest associates, and pay attention to his or her online activities for signs of abuse.”

Source: American Sociological Association

Victims Of Bullying At Increased Risk Of Anxiety Disorders And Depression Later On

Children who are bullied are at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression when they become adults, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study identified that bullying is not simply a ‘harmless rite of passage’, as it can also cause serious adverse health outcomes in the victims and perpetrators, in the form of depression, physical health problems and behavior and emotional problems, psychotic symptoms, and loss of motivation.

The researchers, led by William E. Copeland, Ph.D., of Duke University Medical Center, evaluated the impact that childhood bullying can have on both the victim and the perpetrator in later life. They wanted to determine whether it can be predictor of psychiatric problems in adulthood.

A total of 1,420 people participated in the study, they were assessed regularly from the age of 9 until they turned 16. They were categorized as either bullies, victims, a combination of both, or neither.

The authors said:

“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood. Bullies/victims are at highest risk and are most likely to think about or plan suicide. These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society.”

The results showed that victims, as well as bullies/victims, were more likely to have psychiatric disorders in adulthood and experience family hardship and childhood psychiatric problems.

Factoring in family hardship and childhood psychiatric problems, the researchers found that victims of bullying had a high rate of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder. In addition, they found that bullies/victims were at high risk of depression, panic disorder and suicidality. Bullies were only at risk for antisocial personality disorder.

The authors concluded:

“Bullying can be easily assessed and monitored by health professionals and school personnel, and effective interventions that reduce victimization are available. Such interventions are likely to reduce human suffering and long-term health costs and provide a safer environment for children to grow up in.”

It should be noted that teens suffering from depression tend to be more at risk of being bullied because of difficulties making friends. This could suggest that the victims themselves are more prone to being bullied because of pre-existing psychiatric problems.

Teaching About Social Meanness In Middle School

Developmental insecurity in early adolescence can cause cruelty at school.

Several books ago I wrote one, Why Good Kids Act Cruel, to help parents help their early adolescents in middle school deal with mistreatment from social cruelty in any of the five forms it commonly takes: teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up.

Why is social meanness more prevalent at this time? I believe the answer is because developmental insecurity from early adolescent change makes for a very vulnerable age. Pushing against and pulling away from parents, the young person begins separating from the sheltered and simpler life of childhood. Not only does fitting into family becomes more difficult to do as relationships with parents become more abrasive, but the young person must face the challenges of making a more independent way through a much larger, more complex, more daunting, and less caring world.

Now there is more sadness at the loss of childhood, more anxiety from feeling out of control, and experiencing less confidence and competence that both conspire to lower self-esteem. The early adolescent knows they can’t go back home to childhood again and that their only choice is to somehow, some way, find an adequate belonging place among their peers, all of whom are struggling to adapt to the same overwhelming sense of change. So making and maintaining friends, establishing and holding social position, can become a ruthless competition where social survival feels at stake, peers doing to peers what they feel they must to secure themselves, frequently resorting to social meanness to gain this end.

This is no age for adults to abandon adolescents to their own social devices, to figure out independently what are the rules of getting along with each other. Allow that social freedom and you risk young people generating some degree of a Lord of the Flies scenario that can play out to an extremely formative and destructive end, both for those who are given hurt and for those who learn to inflict it.

What to do? As the most significant adults, parents and middle school teachers can use their influence to help young people moderate the incidence of social cruelty and practice a more socially considerate way.

First, consider what parents might do. They can weigh in at home by stating that they are in the know. Specifically, they communicate understanding that this is a more socially aggressive age, that in middle school more teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up is likely to occur. Then they can request to be informed should any of this mistreatment come their child’s way so they can offer emotional and coaching support, and that failing, and with the young person’s permission, state a willingness to speak to the authorities at school to get the cruelty stopped. They also declare their wish that their son or daughter does not participate in these harmful behaviors.

Second, consider what the primary authorities at middle school might do, the classroom teachers. I suggest three influential actions they can take: define and openly discuss the five common forms of social cruelty; explain and discuss the larger social correlates of social cruelty in the adult world; and declare and discuss rules for communication and treatment among students in the teacher’s classroom.


Define social cruelty in terms of its five component behaviors. TEASING makes fun of or puts down some human characteristic or difference, usually by calling the person a negative name. EXCLUSION ignores or sets someone apart, isolating them as outsider to be left alone. BULLYING threatens, injures, or coerces so one person can dominate and control another. RUMORING spreads lies and damaging information through gossip to hurt someone’s social standing. GANGING UP unifies the greater number to hurt a single individual or a chosen few. When the teacher can bring these behaviors up for general discussion, then students are more likely to see them as a matter of choice.

This discussion raises the question: would they rather choose to create a student community ruled by social cruelty or by social consideration?


Relate the five acts of social cruelty to larger societal dynamics to which they can lead.

Teasing can lead to social labeling and prejudice—the use of stereotyping and name-calling. “He’s worthless like all of them!” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people label other people in prejudicial ways, how does it feel to be so labeled, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Exclusion can lead to social selection and discrimination—the use of refusing membership and denying opportunity. “They don’t belong with us.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people exclude others in discriminatory ways, how does it feel to be left out and kept out, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Bullying can lead to social harassment and coercion—the use of threats and acts of harm. “It’s fun to push her around.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society how do people subordinate others in threatening ways, how does it feel to be so intimidated, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Rumoring can lead to social defamation and libeling—the use of lies to slander. “I’ve heard a lot about them and none of it is good.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people defame others, how does it feel to have one’s reputation attacked, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Ganging Up can lead to social persecution and oppression—the use of domination and might. “We get our way with them because there are more of us.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society how do people use their majority against a smaller group, how does it feel to be in that minority, and what kinds of damage can be done?

This discussion helps students understand that social cruelty behaviors are not limited to school, but can contribute to larger and more damaging issues in the larger society.


The classroom is a community, and its leader is the teacher who is empowered to say: “As your teacher, this is my classroom. I am responsible for what goes on in here so I make the rules. These are five kinds of rules for how people treat each other and communicate with each other that I expect to be observed.

No Teasing: Only call people by the name they want to be called. Don’t use names or labels that hurt people’s feelings. The point of teasing is to wound other people with mean words. In this classroom, everyone has a right to be spoken to kindly.

No Exclusion: If you see someone being left out or sitting alone, invite them to join you. Don’t shun people or try to keep them out. The point of exclusion is to show other people they don’t belong. In this classroom, everyone has a right to belong.

No Bullying: Don’t push anyone around to get your way. Don’t try to threaten or scare anyone. The point of bullying is to intimidate others. In this classroom, everyone has a right to feel safe.

No Rumoring: If mean gossip comes your way don’t pass it on. Don’t make up and tell stories about people that you know can be hurtful if believed. The point of rumoring is to damage someone’s reputation. In this classroom, everyone has a right to their good name.

No Ganging up: Don’t join a group to torment someone else. Don’t play the game of greater numbers against anyone. The point of ganging up is to use the force of many to hurt a few. In this classroom, everyone has a right to be treated as an equally valued part of the whole.”

Discussing and posting these rules of classroom conduct can remind students about how not to mistreat each other.

The greater the incidence of social cruelty in middle school, the more the well of student relationships becomes poisoned, the more students grow concerned with personal safety at the expense of academic focus and classroom learning. In this sense, social cruelty is usually the enemy of academic achievement.

Since it is rooted in the developmental insecurity of early adolescent change, social cruelty in middle school should not be treated as a problem to be fixed and done away with by a one-time intervention, but treated as developmental adolescent reality that must be continually addressed by ongoing adult attention.

Incidents of social cruelty are never going to go away in middle school. For this reason, I believe that parents, and particularly teachers, have a pivotal role to play in helping students keep the incidence of these harmful behaviors down.

-Carl E Pickhardt, PhD