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A child can be bully, victim and defender within the same classroom

25 November 2014

Primary schoolchildren can play the role of bully, victim and ‘defender’, all at the same time. This is because a class consists of different groups of children, in which children will defend within their own group, may be seen as a bully by another group, and perhaps may even be bullied by children in yet another group. These different roles of children stem from their involvement in lots of different, dynamic relationships. This conclusion was drawn by sociologist Gijs Huitsing in his PhD research on bullying, for which he will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 4 December.

Huitsing studied the behaviour and relationships of hundreds of primary schoolchildren (5-12 years) in the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland. He used social network analysis, a method that provides detailed information about the relationships within a group. In the past, social network analysis was mainly used to study positive networks, such as friendships. Huitsing used it to study negative networks: relationships between children who reject or bully each other.

Power inequality

According to Huitsing, the role of power inequality in bullying emerges when children become older. Younger children tend to bully each other more equally – ‘I bully you today and you bully me tomorrow’. Power inequality does not play a role. Bullying among older children is often more one-sided and the roles of bully and victim more clearly defined. Children are usually victimized by a child from their own class or a class one year above them. Few children are bullied by a younger child or a child who is much older.

Teachers and pupils have different views on bullying

Teachers and pupils tend to see bullying differently. For example, teachers report less bullying between boys and girls than the pupils themselves, but more bullying between girls. Pupils report that boys bully both boys and girls, and girls bully mainly other girls. Children and teachers usually agree about whether a child is being bullied or bullying other children, but they do not necessarily agree on the names of those involved in specific victim-bully relationships. There is more agreement on bullies than victims.

Defending others can be risky

Studies of social networks over a longer period show that a child who stands up for a victim of bullying runs the risk of being bullied him/herself, says Huitsing. The same applies to a child who defends a bully: defenders of bullies can turn into bullies themselves when they decide to ‘help’ the bully. It appears that both bullies and victims can rely on support and protection from their fellow bullies or victims. Network data shows that very few children remain neutral: nearly all of them are involved in at least one victim/bully relationship, boys more frequently than girls.

Curriculum vitae

Gijs Huitsing (Warffum, 1984) studied sociology and completed a Research Master’s degree at the University of Groningen. He carried out his PhD research at the Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology (ICS), a joint research centre of the University of Groningen, Utrecht University and Radboud University Nijmegen. The research was funded by the Research Talent programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). His supervisors are Professor René Veenstra, Professor Tom Snijders and Marijtje van Duijn, and his thesis is entitled A social network perspective on bullying.

Note for the press

Contact: Gijs Huitsing

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.49 p.m.
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