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Bullying in school: are short pupils at risk? Questionnaire study in a cohort

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7235.612 (Published 04 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:612
  1. Linda D Voss (linda.voss{at}phnt.swest.nhs.uk), senior research fellow,
  2. Jean Mulligan, data manager
  1. University Child Health, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO21 16YD
  1. Correspondence to: L D Voss
  • Accepted 1 November 2000

Bullying is still prevalent in schools and is clearly stressful for victims. 1 2 It may also have undesirable consequences for bullies, with antisocial behaviour persisting into adulthood. Victims are generally reported to be weaker than the bullies. 2 3 This would suggest that very short pupils are more likely to be victims and less likely to be the aggressors. The Wessex growth study allowed us to examine the prevalence of bullying, as experienced or perpetrated by pupils of different heights.

Subjects, methods, and results

Ninety two short normal adolescents who had been below the third centile for height at school entry4 and 117 controls matched for age and sex completed a bullying questionnaire, derived from work by Whitney and Smith.5 There were no refusals or any significant differences in sex or social class between the groups. Mean age (range) was 14.7 (13.4-15.7) years. Mean height SD scores were: short pupils −1.90 (−3.53 to −0.01), controls 0.31 (−1.41 to 2.15). Additional data on bullying, collected the previous year, were available from teachers' written reports and parental interviews.

The table summarises the data. More short pupils than controls claimed to have been bullied at some time in secondary school. This difference remained significant after logistic regression controlled for social class. Short boys were more than twice as likely as control boys to be victims and much more likely than control boys to say that bullying upset them. Significantly more short pupils than controls said that bullying had started in junior school. Short pupils had as many good friends as did controls (72/92 (78%) v 95/117 (81%)), but significantly more spent break time alone at least once a week (9/92 (10%) v 2/117 (2%), P=0.032). In many cases bullying had stopped, but significantly more short pupils than controls, regardless of sex, reported current bullying.

Numbers of victims of bullying and bullies among short pupils and controls of average stature (pupils', parents', and teachers' reports). Figures are numbers (percentages) of respondents

View this table:

Teachers also reported that significantly more short pupils than controls were victims of bullying. Parents reported more bullying, generally, than either teachers or pupils, and parents of controls were as likely as parents of short children to say that their children were bullied. According to teachers, bullies were to be found in both height groups, but whereas significantly fewer control girls than control boys were bullies, short girls were as likely to be bullies as both short and control boys.

Comment

This report suggests that short children are more likely to be bullied than their taller peers. More short pupils also report a degree of social isolation—the result, or possibly even the cause, of their victimisation. These data are important since the Wessex growth study has previously found few significant psychosocial problems that could be attributed to short stature. The data need, however, to be interpreted with caution: it is possible that shorter pupils are simply more likely to mistake the normal rough and tumble in the playground for bullying. The data could also be accounted for by the fact that significantly fewer control than short boys admitted to being bullied. Even when they did, few confessed to being upset.

Around one in four short victims, girls as well as boys, were both victims and bullies; from the reported association between bullying, physical size, and sex, it might have been expected that few short pupils and even fewer short girls would bully others. 1 3 Are some of these the so called provocative victims for whom any reaction, however painful, is preferable to being ignored?3 Pupils do not always tell parents or teachers when they are being bullied, and this report may serve to alert parents and teachers to potential bullies as well as victims. As Olweus reminds us, “Every individual should have the right to be spared oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation, in school as in society at large.”3

Acknowledgments

We thank Drs A D Roberts and R Stratford, department of psychology, and Dr R Pickering, department of medical statistics and computing, University of Southampton, for their help and advice and Bruce Downie for interviewing all the parents.

Contributors: LDV designed the protocol, revised and administered the questionnaires, and wrote the paper. JM carried out the statistical analysis and contributed to the interpretation of the results. LDV will act as guarantor for the paper.

Footnotes

  • Funding The Wessex growth study has been supported by a research and development grant from the South and West regional office of the NHS Executive and by a grant from the Child Research Fund, Liverpool, and see below.

  • Competing interests The Wessex growth study has been supported by a grant from Pharmacia Upjohn to the Wessex Medical Trust.

References

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