The findings of our study give insight into the peer perceived behavioral profiles of children who were bullies or victims for a restricted period of time and those who were involved over a period of three years. They show that stable bullies and victims displayed a behavioral pattern in childhood and adolescence that clearly distinguished them from the children whose bullying or victimization was restricted to childhood. The latter did not show social adjustment problems later in adolescence, while the former did. Children who were victimized only in adolescence showed similar signs of social maladjustment in adolescence as children who were consistently victimized.
Our study shows that half of the childhood bullies turned into stable bullies, and half of the childhood victims into stable victims. In contrast to stability in victimization, continuity in bullying was very gender specific: Whereas only one out of 12 girls continued to bully in adolescence, this held true for almost half of the boys. An explanation for this gender specificity in stability may be that bullying behavior in our study referred more to overt aggression, which is more typical for boys, than to relational aggression (cf. Crick & Bigbee, 1998
), which is more typical for girls. It is also possible that for girls, in contrast to boys, bullying may be more related to specific social situations rather than to an individual characteristic reflecting an underlying antisocial and aggressive personality pattern (Salmivally et al., 1998
With respect to the behavioral profile of bullies
, this investigation revealed that, compared to Childhood Only Bullies, the Stable Bullies were less liked and more disliked, were less often nominated as a friend, were more aggressive and disruptive, and scored lower on help seeking in childhood. This finding supports our hypothesis which states that, because of their socially deviant behavioral profile, children who will continue to bully over time could already be distinguished in childhood from those who will desist after some time (Loeber & Hay, 1997
). This negative behavioral pattern may result in accumulation of negative social consequences such as continued peer rejection and fewer opportunities to acquire adequate coping skills. Through this interactive continuity (Caspi et al., 1987
) the deviant behavioral pattern is likely to be maintained into adolescence. This was reflected in finding that the Stable Bullies showed signs of peer perceived social maladjustment that distinguished them from Adolescence Only Bullies, which was in line with our hypothesis. Olweus’ (1991
) notion that bullying reflects a stable aggressive and antisocial, rule-breaking personality pattern predisposing children to social maladjustment and delinquency in adolescence only matches the behavioral profile of the Stable Bullies. Given that Childhood Only Bullies did not differ much from the Non-involved children in adolescence in their peer perceived social adjustment, an important conclusion of our study is that half of the children who bully in childhood, may not constitute a group at risk for later social problems.
The possible role of friends in relation to bullying deserves closer attention. In childhood, Stable Bullies were less often nominated as a friend than the Childhood Only Bullies and Non-involved children. Although we do not know whether these nominations were reciprocated, they might suggest that Stable Bullies have fewer reciprocal friends or at least fewer peers who consider them to be friends. The explanation may be that because of their behavioral profile, these bullies are less attractive as a friend, which is in line with studies showing a negative association between socially deviant behavior and positive peer relations (Rose & Asher, 1999
). However, caution must be taken in interpreting these findings, because the differences between the childhood only and stable bullies in the number of received friendship nominations were no longer present after the male only classes were removed. This finding might indicate that in male only classes stable bullies receive fewer friendship nominations than childhood only bullies, while this may not be true for classes where boys and girls are equally present. Because it is not yet clear why this is the case, further study is warranted.
In adolescence, although Stable Bullies (and Adolescence Only Bullies) were still more disliked than all other adolescents, they had similar number of peers who thought of them as friends, given that no differences existed between them and other adolescents in number of received friendship nominations. Recently, Cillessen and Mayeux (2004
) showed that in adolescence antisocial behaviors including bullying are increasingly linked to social status, suggesting that bullying may become more accepted. Consequently, associating with and becoming friends with bullies may also become more accepted. Since friends may passively or actively encourage bullying (cf Salmivalli et al., 1996
) bullies may feel reinforced and continue with their behavior (cumulative continuity, Caspi et al., 1987
). The fact that Stable Bullies are as often nominated as a friend as other adolescents may reflect bistrategic orientations as described by Hawley (2003
; Hawley, Little, & Pasupathi, 2002
). That is, they display antisocial behavior but at the same time seem to be able to somehow convey to certain peers that they are their “friends” even if the bully him or herself does not necessarily consider that person a friend. This suggests that these bullies are more likely to be skilled manipulators rather than to be socially inadequate (Sutton et al., 1999
). The environmental influences, combined with the Stable Bullies’ behavioral pattern, may make them relatively resistant to behavior change.
Regarding the victims, Stable Victims showed a pattern of peer perceived social maladjustment in childhood that clearly distinguished them from the Childhood Only Victims. They were more disliked by their peers and were more likely to be perceived as seeking help from others. As the study by Boulton and Smith (1994
) suggests, a pattern of consistently seeking help may signal that these children lack social self confidence. This, rather than the lack of prosocial behaviors such as cooperation or offering help may predispose children to remain victimized from childhood to adolescence (Boulton & Smith, 1994
; Egan & Perry, 1998
). This feature may prevent them from successfully interacting with peers in childhood and adolescence (interactive continuity, Caspi et al., 1987
), depriving them of positive peer experiences. It may also affect the way they create their own environment (Caspi et al., 1987
; Scarr, 1985
; Scarr & McCartney, 1983
) in that they may be more inclined to withdraw from social interactions and make them prone to be targeted by bullies in the group throughout their school life.
We found that Stable Victims did not have a more problematic social behavioral profile in adolescence than Adolescence Only Victims did. This is in contrast to our expectation that the longer the victims experienced victimization, the more impaired their social behaviors would be (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Wardrop, 2001
), and thus that Stable Victims would show the most problematic social adjustment. Because adolescents who are victimized only in adolescence show the same social adjustment problems as the adolescents who have been victimized for a long period of time, this finding might indicate that the duration of victimization is relatively unrelated to the severity or magnitude of peer reported social adjustment problems in adolescence. Our findings showed that in general, victimized or noninvolved boys were less shy than girls, however, those who were stably victimized scored higher on shyness in adolescence. This is consistent with other findings of negative social implications of shyness for boys (Kerr, 2000
) and suggests that being shy in adolescence may place boys at particular risk for being victimized for a prolonged period.
One of the positive findings of the present study seems to be that Childhood Only Victims may become normally adjusted children in adolescence, at least in terms of their peer reported social adjustment. This suggests that victimization experiences that are restricted to childhood do not necessarily translate into impaired social functioning observed by the peer context. This finding does not support the widely held assumption that being a victim of bullying in childhood is related to social adjustment problems in adolescence (e.g., Kumpulainen & Räsänen, 2000
; see also Parker & Asher, 1987
). It extends more recent studies because it shows that victimization is not only concurrently associated with psychological adjustment (Juvonen et al., 2000
; Smith et al., 2004
) but also with social adjustment. Like the findings in these other two studies, our findings may lend support for the cessation hypothesis (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Wardrop, 2001
) and might indicate that social problems can disappear once the victimization is over. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that we assessed social adjustment as perceived by the peer group, and that findings might have been differed when more subjective experiences of feelings would have been used. Finally, the Adolescence Only Victims did not differ from the Non-involved children in their peer reported childhood social adjustment. This implies that children who will become victims later in their school career do not necessarily show specific social behavioral patterns that are salient to their peers and on the basis of which they could already be identified in childhood. An alternative explanation might be that becoming a victim in adolescence may actually have little to do with social behavior per se. Rather than because of their specific social behavior, adolescents may become victimized because of how they dress, how they look etc, which becomes more salient at this age. As the present study showed, these victims do have social adjustment problems in adolescence, but these problems may have resulted from being victimized rather than caused it.
The present study has a number of positive features. It is among the first to longitudinally examine stability in bullying and victimization in relation to peer perceived social adjustment, during the transition from primary to secondary education. Bullying and victimization have been studied in a cultural context (i.e., the Netherlands) that has not been reported on extensively. This issue may bear some importance given that dimensions of peer relations can have differing connotations by culture (e.g., Schneider, 2000
). For example, a recent study revealed that large variations existed between western counties such as England, Spain, Italy, and Ireland not only in the prevalence of bullies and victims but also in how bullying and victimization were related to social relations (Eslea et al., 2003
). This indicates that findings from one western country may not be generalized to another. Our findings revealed that in general the behavioral profiles of bullies and victims in the Netherlands were similar to those reported in studies in other western cultures such as the USA (Hodges & Perry, 1999
; Pellegrini & Long, 2002
) and Great Britain (Boulton & Smith, 1994
Nevertheless, several caveats should be kept in mind. First, we only examined bullies and victims, but not bully-victims. This latter group turned out to be very small in our sample (ie., 2%, n
= 9), comparable to other studies (Boulton & Smith, 1994
; Olafsen & Viemerö, 2000; Solberg & Olweus, 2003
). Additional exploratory analyses that we conducted on the bully-victims showed that the only feature that distinguished them from the other victims was their aggressive and disturbing behavior in class, on which they scored higher than all other victims, both in childhood and adolescence. In fact they were as aggressive as the Stable Bullies in childhood and adolescence. Nevertheless, due to the small sample size these results are only exploratory, and more research seems warranted to further describe the social correlates of bully-victims. Second, because the Stable Bullies contained only one girl, gender interactions could not be examined in analyses comparing this group of bullies with all other groups of bullies and the findings regarding Stable Bullies may thus not generalize to female bullies. Third, although this study was longitudinal in nature, causality in terms of victims’ social behavior triggering bullies bullying behavior or vice versa was not implied. Fourth, this study used peer reports to classify children and adolescents, and to assess the dependent variables. Using one source of information increases the risk of shared-method variance and inflated associations between independent and dependent variables. In addition, several behaviors assessed in our study were based on single items, which may raise some concerns about the validity of these behaviors. Finally, we have focused on the social adjustment of the bullies and victims as it is perceived and reported by their peer environment. Even though the use of peer reported social adjustment measures was informative, we could not identify which of the children who were not victimized in childhood became victims in adolescence. We did not examine children’s subjective experiences such as self-esteem, social insecurity, and loneliness. Exploring these individual subjective experiences may prove more valuable in predicting who is at risk to become victimized in adolescence and may add to our understanding of the consequences of being a bully or victim.
Despite these caveats the present investigation shows that it is highly relevant for future scientific research on bullying, victimization, and adjustment to distinguish between children who are only involved in childhood or adolescence, and those who are chronically involved from childhood into adolescence. The positive message of our study is that many of the childhood victims and bullies did not seem to show social adjustment problems in adolescence, as perceived by their peers. The more troublesome message is that between 40 and 50% of the childhood bullies and victims will continue to be involved in bullying in adolescence. These children are the ones who are likely to display peer perceived social behavioral problems in adolescence. However, while this study is among the first to examine the behavioral profiles of stable and transient bullies and victims, this suggestion may be premature, and more research on the stability of bullying and victimization is needed.