Giving a Voice to Victims of Middle School Bullying: A Qualitative Study
Authors: Caroline I.B. Robertson, Paul R. Smokowski, Katie L. Cotter, Shenyang Guo, & Martica Bacallao
Background/Purpose: Much of the research on bullying is quantitative and uses surveys. This enables researchers to collect data on large, nationally representative samples, which has led to increased understanding of the bullying dynamic. However, bullying is a unique and individual experience and qualitative research is an important addition to the existing bullying literature. One advantage of qualitative methodology is the ability to collect more in depth data. For example, quantitative surveys are often limited to researchers’ definitions of bullying. This is problematic due to discrepancies between youth and adult definitions of bullying. The current study seeks to answer the following questions: 1) How do bullying victims define and experience bullying in a rural, ethnically diverse, low socioeconomic community? 2) What are the effects of bullying on victims? and 3) How do school personnel respond to the problem of bullying and what do victims think the school should do?
Methods: Ten adolescents participated in individual, semi-structured interviews. Questions included definitions of bullying, personal experiences with bullying, school responses to bullying, and victims’ suggested solutions. Participants were also asked to draw a picture of a time when they were bullied and a second picture depicting how they felt when they were bullied. Participants were recruited through flyers distributed at the local Boys & Girls Club and Teen Court Office. The interviews lasted between 30 and 60 minutes and were audio recorded with digital recorders and then transcribed using the computer program Express Scribe. The researchers individually created coding categories, coded each interview thematically, and then collaborated to finalize coding. In addition, 20 drawings and 19 essays that were entered into a middle school contest were analyzed. The following prompt guided contest entries: “what are my thoughts, actions, and feelings about bullying.”
Results: In terms of defining bullying, participants referred to physical and verbal attacks, but did not mention other hallmarks of bullying noted by researchers (i.e., power imbalance, repetition, intention to cause harm, and lack of provocation).However, when participants discussed their personal experiences being bullied, they mentioned repetition. Participants offered insight into why they were bullied (e.g., physical appearance, academic ability) and discussed the lack of school responsiveness to their requests for help with bullying situations. Participants offered a number of suggestions for how school personnel should respond to bullying such as putting up anti-bullying posters and orchestrating a discussion with the bully and victim. Many participants noted that being bullied made them want to bully others. The drawings and essays from the contest displayed similar themes.
Conclusions/Implications: Findings suggest that the anger generated by victimization may fuel the desire for victims to bully. This illuminates a possible path from victim-only status to bully-victim status. The youth in the current sample felt unsupported by their schools and offered suggestions of how school personnel should combat bullying, indicating the need for school-based bullying interventions.