Often dismissed as a normal part of childhood, bullying behavior can actually have devastating consequences. Although tragic events like those at Columbine High School in 1999, which took the lives of 12 students and a teacher, are extremely rare, recent school shootings have sharply focused the attention of students and adults on the problem of bullying.

It is estimated that 30% of the children in the US are bullies, the target of bullying, or both. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, bullying is when a person or group of people tries to harm someone perceived as more vulnerable. Bullying can be either direct (e.g., hitting, threatening, or intimidating; teasing and taunting; name-calling; making sexual remarks; and stealing or damaging belongings) or indirect (e.g., spreading rumors or encouraging others to exclude someone).

In recent years, researchers have found that a child’s early home environment may play a role in the development of bullying behavior. A new study in the April 2005 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine examined the home environment of four-year-olds as a predictor for bullying behavior at ages 6–11 years. The researchers found that early cognitive stimulation, emotional support, and television viewing influenced the likelihood that children would exhibit bullying behavior in grade school.

About the Study

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79). The NLSY79 was a nationally representative sample of about 12,700 people who were ages 14-22 years in 1979. In an outgrowth of this survey, information was collected on more than 11,000 children of female NLSY79 participants every two years from 1986 to 2000.

For the current study, researchers focused on the 1,266 children who were 6–11 years old in 2000. The researchers assessed the cognitive stimulation and emotional support of the children at age four. Cognitive stimulation scores were based on reported activities such as outings, reading, playing, and parental teaching of the child. Emotional support scores were based on behaviors such as eating meals with both parents, parents talking to the child while working, and spanking.

For television exposure, the parents reported the average number of hours their child watched television on a typical weekday and a typical weekend day. The researchers used these numbers to calculate a daily average.

When the children were 6–11 years old, the researchers classified them as having bullying behavior or not, based on their mothers’ response to the following statement: “[Name of child] bullies or is cruel or mean to others.” The possible responses were “often true,” “sometimes true,” and “not true.” The “often true” and “sometimes true” responses were classified as positive for bullying status, and the “not true” responses were classified as negative.

The researchers controlled for factors that may influence bullying, including the children’s age, sex, race or ethnicity, and parents’ income and education. Since it is possible that a child predisposed to bullying might lead parents to reduce emotional support and cognitive stimulation, and increase television viewing, the researchers also controlled for bullying at age four in a subset of 641 children.

The Findings

Approximately 13% of the children in this study were classified as having bullying behavior, which is similar to the estimated 19% prevalence of bullying behaviors among US youth.

The cognitive stimulation and emotional support scores at four years were significantly higher for children who did not bully at 6–11 years than those of children who bullied. Furthermore, the children who exhibited bullying behavior in grade school watched an average of 5.0 hours of television at age four, compared to 3.2 hours for the children who did not bully.

When the researchers controlled for bullying at age four in the subset of 641 children, the effect of emotional support and television viewing was similar, but the effect of cognitive stimulation became non-significant (this may be due to the smaller sample size).

These findings are interesting, but may be limited because classification of bullying was based on mothers’ reports, and some mothers may be less willing to classify their children as bullies. Furthermore, the term “bully” was not defined, and mothers’ interpretation of the term may have varied.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that the home environment during early childhood may be a significant factor in determining bullying behavior in grade school. In addition, as the authors of the study point out, bullying can now be added “to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing, along with obesity, inattention, and other types of aggression.”

Why do these factors influence the likelihood of bullying behavior? This study cannot say for sure, but the authors put forth some theories. First, early cognitive stimulation may lead to an increase in a child’s academic confidence in grade school, making the child less inclined to disrupt the learning process by bullying others. Second, emotional support by parents may teach a child positive socialization behaviors, leading to more positive relationships with teachers and peers. Finally, excessive exposure to television programming, of which 60% contains violence, may influence children to act aggressively and bully their peers.

Parents have a tremendous influence over their young children. According to the results of this study, encouraging your child to participate in mentally stimulating activities and providing him or her with consistent emotional support can reduce his or her risk of bullying behavior. It is also important to limit the amount of television your child watches—for many reasons—and monitor the types of shows he or she is watching. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children younger than two years old and limited television thereafter.