Review of national and international research



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Chapter 2

Covert bullying: A review of national and international research

2.1 Introduction


2.2 Covert bullying as an emerging social phenomenon
2.3 Definitions and behaviours linked with covert bullying
2.4 Covert bullying as a developmental, peer group process
2.5 Individual student factors associated with covert bullying
2.6 The impact of the school on covert bullying
2.7 Family and community factors associated with covert bullying
2.8 The growth of information and communication technologies and their impact on covert bullying
2.9 Early interventions to reduce covert bullying
2.10 Summary of findings
2.11 References

It is the moral responsibility



of adults to ensure children’s rights

are honoured and that healthy

development and citizenship

are promoted.”

(Kandersteg Declaration, Switzerland, June 10, 2007) [1]

2.1 Introduction

The safety of all school members is an essential prerequisite to promote effective schools that enhance the academic, emotional, social development and well being of young people. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [2] reinforces the importance of protecting children’s quality of life and their rights to be educated in a safe environment, free from all forms of violence, victimisation, harassment and neglect. In line with this basic right, the Australian community has become increasingly aware of the prevalence, seriousness and negative impacts of school bullying – a form of aggression considered to affect the greatest number of students [3]. Research in Australia has indicated that approximately ten percent of school students reported being bullied most days or even every day at school, with almost one half reporting they were bullied at least once during the past term at school [4]. These rates of bullying between students are among the highest in the world [5].


In 1994 the Commonwealth Government of Australia launched a national inquiry into school violence [6] which concluded that school bullying represented a significant national problem and called for the development, implementation and evaluation of programs aimed at reducing school bullying. In response to this inquiry, the National Safe Schools Framework (NSSF) was endorsed in 2003 by all Australian Ministers of Education, on behalf of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) [7]. The NSSF was guided by a vision that Australian schools should provide a safe and supportive environment. In 2004 legislation was passed that required all schools to align their policies with these eleven guiding principles of the NSSF:

  1. Affirm the right of all school community members to feel safe at school.

  2. Promote care, respect and cooperation, and value diversity.

  3. Implement policies, programs and processes to nurture a safe and supportive school environment.

  4. Recognise that quality leadership is an essential element that underpins the creation of a safe and supportive school environment.

  5. Develop and implement policies and programs through processes that engage the whole school community.

  6. Ensure that the roles and responsibilities of all members of the school community in promoting a safe and supportive environment are explicit, clearly understood and disseminated.

  7. Recognise the critical importance of pre-service and ongoing professional development in creating a safe and supportive school environment.

  8. Have a responsibility to provide opportunities for students to learn through the formal curriculum the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed for positive relationships.

  9. Focus on policies that are proactive and oriented towards prevention and intervention.

  10. Regularly monitor and evaluate their policies and programs so that evidence-based practice supports decisions and improvements.

  11. Take action to protect children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

To support schools in the development and implementation of effective programs addressing these guidelines, the Australian Government made available in 2004 $1 million for the implementation of the Best Practice Grants Programme. From this perspective, the NSSF represented a highly innovative, positive approach aimed at addressing growing national concerns regarding both the extent [8-11], as well as the serious deleterious implications [3; 12] of youth aggression and particularly bullying among Australian students. The National Safe Schools Framework (NSSF) served to heighten awareness of the importance of achieving a shared vision of physical and emotional safety and well-being of all students in Australian schools. In addition it assisted in the identification of guiding principles and strategies to inform practice and assist school communities to build safe and supportive environments. The NSSF was a collaborative effort by the Commonwealth, and State and Territory Governments, as well as non-Government school authorities and other key stakeholders. The shared commitment to the NSSF’s goals and policies has been echoed through State Government plans [13]. For instance, the Australian Government and all States and Territories are funding the collaborative initiative known as the Safe and Supportive School Communities (SSSC). The SSSC project, and the associated Bullying. No way! website are nationwide mechanisms for sharing information, resources and successful practices to counter bullying, harassment and violence in Australian schools. The NSSF has also fostered a series of whole school programs [14], many of which have shown the potential for significant positive impacts on the overall social and emotional health and well-being of school children [15-19]. Hence, the NSSF fomented Australia’s place internationally, alongside some European countries, at the forefront of bullying research. More importantly, Australia was one of the first countries to produce an integrated national policy for the prevention and early intervention of bullying and other aggressive behaviours.


While the concept of school bullying is hardly a new phenomena (with references to it in books like Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)), modern research into the topic began with Olweus’ pioneering book on Aggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys (1978). In later studies, Olweus defined bullying [20] as a specific type of aggressive behaviour that is “intended to cause harm, through repeated actions carried out over time, targeted at an individual who is not in a position to defend him/herself”. This definition of bullying, as a form of unprovoked, intentional behaviour characterised by a power imbalance, has gained wide acceptance both nationally and internationally [21-25].
Since then, a growing body of research has indicated that both bullying and being bullied can have extensive physical, social and mental health consequences, with a notable impact on academic achievement and social development [11; 20; 26-32]. Young people who are bullied tend to have a dislike of [33] and want to avoid school [34-36], have lower academic competence [37] and have higher absenteeism [37-39]. Students who are bullied are also more likely to have low self-esteem [40-42] and poor assertiveness skills [40] and this can affect their psychological and mental health, and result in academic difficulties due to social exclusion, peer rejection, depression, and negative self-perceptions [11; 26; 28; 29; 43-48]. They are also more likely to have poorer health [11; 49] and more somatic complaints [50-53]; more interpersonal difficulties [38; 54]; higher levels of loneliness [33-35]; suicidal ideation [31]; and increased anxiety [55]. Alternatively, students who bully others are more likely to be aggressive, impulsive, insecure, lack empathy, and have poor personal and social skills [51; 56-58].
While the ramifications of bullying may not be experienced until adolescence or even adulthood, the developmental pathways to such outcomes are in place by early childhood [20; 59-61]. What has become evident is that youth aggression and behavioural maladjustment are not issues that appear suddenly in adolescence [62], but rather are learned or acquired behaviours [63] that follow a trajectory from lower level childhood bullying and aggression, to higher level youth violence [30; 64; 65]. Recent longitudinal data has highlighted the on-going consequences of such anti-social behaviour [25; 59; 66; 67], and have contributed to the theory that bullying is an intra and inter-generational phenomenon, with children who bully others at the age of 14 years likely to still engage in aggression at the age of 32 years and to have children who themselves engage in bullying and aggression [68; 69].
In light of this growing evidence on the harmful long term effects of bullying on young people and on society in general, as well as data on the extent of bullying among Australian students [8-11], it is evident that the National Safe Schools Framework has served as a vital first step in promoting Commonwealth and State investment in preventative whole school programs. Despite their proliferation, the majority of these school based bullying prevention programs in Australia, as elsewhere, have to date tended to focus primarily on direct, face-to-face overt bullying, such as hitting, punching, kicking and teasing which is easier for teachers and parents to detect and therefore understand [8; 17; 70-74].

More recently, however, research and meta-analyses of the outcomes of large-scale interventions to prevent school bullying both within Australia and internationally have shown varied results [75-77], with an important component in successful interventions being related to the degree of commitment and training on the part of teachers [78]. These findings, together with growing media coverage of extreme cases of school violence, youth suicides, and cyber safety infringements, has heightened public awareness and forced policy makers and researchers to re-examine and broaden their definitions of bullying, and to take a closer look at the changing nature of bullying among students today [23; 59; 76; 79].


Within this context, the present study has focused on covert bullying, a less direct form or ‘hidden’ bullying, that arguably is becoming more prevalent and insidious among students both as a result of the implementation of improved school policies to deal with overt bullying, and with the advent of new forms of information and communication technology (ICT). Covert bullying may take a number of forms such as spreading gossip, hurtful stories or rumours; deliberately excluding or enforcing social isolation; and even bullying using cyber communication technology, an emerging trend which will be discussed in greater detail later. While the general concepts and theories underlying covert bullying, including definitions of indirect, relational, and social aggression, are not new [80-82], research into how to address covert bullying is still in its infancy, due in part to the fact that in the past it has been erroneously perceived as an unpleasant but generally less harmful form of childhood behaviour [83; 84]. Nevertheless, emerging research indicates that covert bullying has the potential to result in more severe psychological, social, and mental health scars than overt bullying [21; 66; 85-89], that are not only more difficult for schools and parents to detect, and also have the capacity to inflict social isolation on a much broader scale [90-92].
The recent digital media revolution has provided today’s young people with an extra platform and communication culture upon which covert bullying can operate [93-95]. And, while initial research emerging from this study indicates that ‘traditional’ forms of covert bullying, including gossiping, ignoring, and teasing are still the most prevalent forms of covert bullying in Australian schools, the incidence of cyber bullying is likely to rise in future years. Further, the Australian Labor Government’s pledge to invest $1 billion over four years in capital grants to school systems to provide ‘world class information and communications technology (ICT) for every secondary student in Years 9 to 12’ [96], means that without the ‘right’ levels of education, support and constraints in place in schools and homes, young people may become even more vulnerable to technology-based harm. Australian schools will also be receiving broadband connections, which will deliver internet speeds around 100 times faster than most current speeds in schools [97]. While this technology will help to maximise the benefits offered by online curriculum content it will also provide an environment that can potentially fester harm to young people through their own or others’ misuse of this technology [85; 94; 98-105]. Unless the Government adopts an equally proactive approach to researching, developing and implementing coherent whole of school policies to assist teachers, parents, children and the broader community to address covert bullying, we are likely to see an escalation in this form of aggressive behaviour. From this perspective, the current report represents a first step in understanding and tackling this emerging phenomenon. 2.2 Covert bullying as an emerging social phenomenon

The nature of all forms of bullying means that it tends to occur where adult supervision is low or absent. Studies conducted in various countries have found it to be one of the most under-reported of all abuses [79], and although under reporting has generally been viewed as a result of the shame associated with victimisation, Olweus et al. [106] suggests that the inconsequential or inappropriate response of teachers and/or parents was another reason why only a small proportion of young people report bullying.

Policies introduced in most schools across Australia as a result of the National Safe Schools Framework have attempted to change the views and responses of principals and teachers to bullying, from one that in the past treated problems and managed crises, to one based on the promotion of positive social environments and behaviours [58]. To this end, the National Safe Schools Framework incorporates a comprehensive mandate that requires changes to: policy and practice; classroom management and curriculum; school ethos; school, home and community links; student teams; and the physical environment. In practice, however, schools have finite resources and capacity to address bullying. Consequently, they must adopt policies and practices that are most appropriate to their situations. Past national research indicates approximately 50 per cent of reported bullying happens during school break times [4; 107]. The most widely adopted responses by schools have emphasised: improving active supervision by duty staff; increasing their visibility and consistency of response; modifying teacher duty areas to cover ‘hot spots’ of high bullying prevalence; encouraging understanding of social rights and responsibilities among all bystanders; and using student supporters to encourage bullied students to seek help from a trusted adult.

While these policies and practices have served to reduce the cases of ‘visible’, physical school yard aggression, evidence is emerging that where they have been implemented in isolation of broader policies aimed at improving the overall behaviour and ethos of the whole school environment, inadvertently, they may have had an isogenic effect, forcing students to find more covert forms of bullying [108]. Borkqvist [109] used the term the ‘effect-to-danger ratio’ to suggest that in inflicting harm on another person or group of people, individuals look for forms of bullying that will have the greatest effect while minimising their risk of being caught or placed in danger. Similarly, Craig, Pepler and Atlas [110] found that bullying generally reflects the constraints of the situation, with covert bullying being more common in the classroom, whereas overt bullying is more common in the school yard. In a detailed study of the content of antibullying policies in the UK, Woods and Wolkes showed a significantly higher incidence of relational bullying, as opposed to overt bullying, in those schools that had detailed and comprehensive anti-bullying policies, compared with schools that had less thorough policies [108]. Interestingly, their study found that despite schools with strong policy scores showing higher incidences of relational bullying, they also had the fewest children reporting being bullied in the playground, implying that a shift had taken place towards the use of more covert bullying and less noticeable bullying behaviour, as a result of better playground supervision. In line with these findings, Archer and Coyne [111] have surmised that where schools’ policies and practices have increased the costs of overt aggression, without simultaneously implementing strategies to increase the costs of indirect forms of bullying, they have unintentionally created fertile grounds for the emergence of covert bullying.



Similarly, Ferrell-Smith [88] points out that many American school harassment policies have focused primarily on curtailing physical and direct aggression, and have placed less emphasis on establishing school-wide policies to address indirect bullying (e.g. rumour spreading, isolation and social seclusion which is more hidden). While this may in part be due to teachers’ lack of training and awareness of how to recognise covert forms of bullying [112], a recent study by Bauman and Del Rio [83] also found that teachers have tended to treat covert bullying as a less serious issue and have less empathy for children who are bullied through relational means rather than through overt physical and verbal bullying, and as such are less likely to intervene to prevent it. Equally, other studies noted that teachers were less likely to include relational or covert forms of bullying in their definitions of bullying behaviour [113-115] and considered it to be less problematic [116]. Moreover, in a modified version of the Bullying Attitude Questionnaire [110] aimed at rating primary school teachers’ attitudes and reactions to physical bullying, verbal bullying, and social exclusion, Yoon and Kerber [117] found significant differences in teacher reactions across all three bullying types, with teachers showing significantly less empathy towards, and involvement in, dealing with relational aggression.
The importance of school personnel and adults’ reactions to covert bullying cannot be emphasised enough. Studies are increasingly indicating that students are less likely to report incidences of covert bullying than overt physical or verbal aggressive behaviour [84; 116; 118], because they felt they could not count on teachers and administrators intervening to stop the bullying, suggesting that instead teachers tended to ignore or dismiss the behaviour [83; 112; 119].
When developing and evaluating comprehensive programs for the prevention of school bullying, like the National Safe Schools Framework, it is imperative that they implement all components of the package [120]. Teachers are essential to intervention efforts [121] and it is crucial to address both their attitudes to different forms of bullying, as well as their awareness of, and confidence in, how to deal with more covert forms of bullying [83]. With the growing data indicating that, for both boys and girls, covert forms of bullying are likely to ‘cause the greatest amount of suffering, while they have a greater chance of going unnoticed by teachers’ [122], it is clear that the old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me’ is not only inaccurate, but is also dangerous in that it has marginalised the importance of covert bullying in the context of school bullying policy and teacher awareness. As Hazler et al. [116] observed, the mistaken notion that physical and/or overt bullying is more serious than relational bullying needs to be reversed. School anti-bullying programs need to address the issues underlying the reasons why young people are bullying or being bullied, using whole-school approaches aimed at developing a positive school ethos and culture through teaching pro-social values, such as acceptance of differences and compassion [16; 77; 123; 124]. Unless they do this, they run the risk of simply managing the immediate symptoms of the problem rather than developing long-term solutions. While there is growing agreement that covert bullying needs to be integrated into school policies and practices [78; 83; 116; 117], there has been to date only minimal attention given to the definition and understanding of covert bullying.




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