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Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

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3 Violence between peers

3.1 Bullying – children as victims

In countries of the North, much of children's daily life is divided between home and school. It is therefore in schools that many children experience violence between their peers, from either being bullied or themselves bullying.

Click here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   to view Reading A


In Reading A (above), Dan Olweus, a psychologist specializing in children and bullying, looks at typical bullies and their victims in Sweden, although what he writes of Sweden is equally applicable to non-Scandinavian countries and North America. Read the extract, looking in particular at the links between home life and school behaviour, and noting the particular characteristics of those who are bullied and those who bully.


This extract indicates that there is no clear division between violence between peers at school and violence at home. Olweus makes the point that ‘Violence begets violence’ – children who are exposed to violence at home are more likely to be violent at school. They are also likely to have had insufficient warmth and love from their parents. Later on in the article, Olweus claims that bullies are more likely than others to commit acts of violence later in life. He therefore sees a continuum between aggression at home, bullying at school and later criminality. However, this ‘cycle of abuse’ theory can be contested. Not all commentators agree that children who experience violence go on to commit it. Indeed, their experiences of violence may make them more empathetic and less likely to inflict violence on others. It would also be interesting to speculate on how far these findings could apply to the Yanamamo in Venezuela. Clearly, by Olweus's criteria, Yanamamo male children are very likely to grow up to be bullies but, in a society which encourages fierceness, this may well be seen as positive.

Much of Reading A is about what Olweus calls the typical characteristics of victims and bullies. It is important not to exaggerate these characteristics, implying that some children will inevitably either be bullied or become bullies. This runs the risk of overlooking the fluidity of roles that children take – they can be both victim and bully, depending on the circumstances. There is also a danger of overlooking the other roles that children may play in bullying, such as those of witnesses, peacemakers or colluders (those children who do not actively take part in bullying but encourage it to occur).

Activity 3 The effects of bullying

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

After reading Olweus's article, think about the effects of bullying. Make two lists – one of the possible physical effects and one of the psychological effects. In his article, Olweus concentrates largely on boys, but think back to the previous section where the differences between girls' and boys' experiences and ways of showing aggression were mentioned. Do you think that there would be any differences between the effects on boys and girls? To what extent do you regard bullying as a form of violence against children?


When children are bullied, they may experience physical violence in the form of being hit or threatened. On the psychological level, they can be ostracized from their group, teased, humiliated, belittled or simply ignored, and can suffer loss of self-esteem and confidence. You may have written down other forms of violence present in school bullying.

In general, both boys and girls are subject to all these forms of bullying. However, there are some gender differences. Boys are more likely to commit physical acts of bullying while girls resort to emotional bullying. Girls are at less risk of direct attack from other children but are more subject to indirect attacks in the form of exclusion or ostracism from the group.

Bullying can have very damaging consequences for children. The quotes below are taken from a problem page of the charity Bullying Online. In them, children express their fears of bullying and clearly do see it as a form of emotional, as well as physical, violence.

Dear Liz

I'm 14 in March and I'm being bullied constantly. In nearly every class I sit by myself because nobody wants to sit next to me. One of my few friends hangs around with other people because I think he is frightened if he is with me he will get bullied. Please help me. I'm sick to death and sometimes I feel like killing myself. I wish I was dead. I have been to the doctor.


Dear Liz,

I go to a village school where there aren't many other children. Some of them are being very spiteful and not letting me play with them. They call me names and hit me when they think the teacher isn't looking. I'm aged 10 and my mum has been trying to get it stopped.


(Bullying Online, 2002)

For some children, going to school can be a violent and alienating experience. One survey carried out anonymously in Sheffield, UK, found that 27 per cent of the 6,758 junior and middle school children surveyed were bullied ‘sometimes’ or more often and 10 per cent faced bullying once a week or more (Smith et al., 1999, p. 121). It is further claimed that sixteen children commit suicide in the UK each year as a result of bullying (Marr and Field, 2001). Yet it is only fairly recently that bullying has been recognized as a serious problem and seen as a form of violence against children. There has been a tendency among adults to see it as playing or teasing which occasionally gets out of hand or to see it as an inevitable fact of playground life out of which children will eventually grow (Smith et al., 1999).

Bullying in schools is not only a problem for the North. Although there is little research on the subject, studies from Ethiopia suggest that it is also a serious problem in the South. A study of one classroom in Addis Ababa reported:

Bullying and snatching objects (books, bags, etc.) are the most frequently occurring forms of violence, followed by physical violence (hitting, kicking, etc.). Attempts of rape at school are frequent among students, particularly among high school students (20 per cent of the total violence counted) …

A study in eight schools around Addis Ababa revealed that … [n]early 90 per cent of students reported that they have either repeated classes or dropped out of school due to violence.

(Ohsako, 1999, pp. 363–4)

Within schools, violence may also come from teachers, who bully or humiliate children or use physical punishment. This is especially common where teachers' methods of discipline are subject to few regulations. Many children find school a hostile and violent environment with its rigid hierarchies and punitive sanctions for breaking rules.

The following quotations come from a study of children in countries of the South, many of whom try to combine working with going to school.

[Teachers] pinch us … throw erasers at us … pull our hair … hit us with big sticks … make us kneel, hands raised and put books on our hands. (Philippines)

They beat us with a cane or a bamboo stick on our palms or back … At times they also push our head under a table and hit us on the buttocks. (Bangladesh)

When my parents did not buy exercise books, the teacher beat me. (Ethiopia)

(Woodhead, 1999, p. 42)