Universiteit Leiden

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5 questions about bullying

From sleep problems to suicide attempts: the consequences of bullying can be very serious. The National Day against Bullying (in the Netherlands 19 April) is the opportunity for Leiden psychologist Mitch van Geel to share some recent insights from his research.

1. What one person sees as bullying is for another teasing. Is there a scientific definition? 

‘It's a type of aggression where a stronger perpetrator or group of perpetrators repeatedly harasses a relatively weaker person. Bullying can take different forms, such as hitting or taking something from the victim, but it can also be verbal, as in insulting or ridiculing them.' 

2. What kind of research are you doing, and what are your most recent insights?

‘We have carried out several meta-analyses in Leiden in recent years, where we have compared dozens of international studies on the effects of bullying. The findings show that people who have been bullied as children think significantly more often of suicide and - more than the average - actually make attempts at suicide.  What we also see is that people who are bullied have poorer sleep patterns and often commit self-harm. International studies have shown that both victims and perpetrators are more likely to carry a weapon. To put it simply: bullying is a major problem that can have serious consequences.' 

3. Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon. Is it as harmful as offline bullying? 

‘Victims of cyberbullying consider suicide even more often. We don't really know why, but if I were to hazard an educated guess, I would say that because it is online victims are able to relive the painful event more often. And their humiliation can be witnessed by a much bigger audience - in their eyes, probably the whole world.'

4. How effective are anti-bullying programmes in school?

‘They differ widely; some are effective and others not. The newer anti-bullying programmes are generating some hopeful results. We are conducting research at secondary schools on the personality traits of both perpetrators and victims. Once we know more about these characteristics, we can tailor treatment methods mor effectively. The study is still running, so I can't yet present any conclusions.' 

5. What advice would you like to give to victims of bullying?

‘The most iportant thing is to talk about it; that can be the start of finding a solution. Many victims feel isolated because they don't dare to talk about it. My advice is to discuss it with a parent or teacher and together work out a plan for dealing with it. We need to bear in mind that bullying isn't restricted to children; adults can also suffer bullying at work, for example. I would advise them to talk to a confidential adviser or their immediate supervisor. It's really important that a person who is being bullying isn't left to deal with it alone.'  



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