Purpose: Despite ongoing anti-bullying efforts, teen bullying continues to persist and remains a significant challenge. Anti-bullying campaigns have tended to focus on changing individual behavior at an interpersonal level. However, such approaches fail to account for the ways in which bullying is taken up and enacted in young peoples’ day-to-day lives within particular contexts. The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of the range of narratives young people use to describe their experiences and perceptions about bullying, with the goal of informing more effective public health approaches that account for the psychological, interpersonal and contextual dimensions of bullying behavior.
Methods: We used a narrative inquiry approach to analyze 27 interviews with 14 girls and 13 boys aged 14 to 18 years living in a rural community in British Columbia, Canada. Interviews focused on generating rich stories of youth’s perceptions and experiences with bullying. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. NVIVO qualitative software was used to facilitate coding and analysis. Transcripts were analyzed for the ways that young people tell stories about their experiences and understandings of bullying.
Results: Several prominent narratives about bullying were identified within the interviews: denial, bullying as ‘normal’ and at times justified, and bullying as fueled by notions of ‘race’. While we were aware that bullying was a significant issue in this community, some youth maintained that bullying was not occurring or that they “don’t really see it”. For many youth, bullying was perceived as a ‘normal’ part of growing up and often framed as widespread and inevitable because “it’s just always been like that”. These narratives highlight the hopelessness youth have experienced in dealing with experiences of bullying and how “nothing stops it”. Other stories framed bullying as justified and as a mechanism for righting a wrong. In this way, bullying was seen as self-defense and acts of aggression as ‘deserved’. One young woman recalled an incident in which she was being teased and ‘made fun of’ by another girl and in retaliation she “threatened to cut her throat.” Lastly, a powerful set of stories linked instances of bullying to highly racialized social divisions. When asked about bullying and social context, many young people shared stories about racism and the social as well as physical drivers of ‘race’-based divisions wherein “skin color and where you live is a huge separation”. Their narratives framed experiences of bullying as shaped by long-standing dynamics between ‘Whites’ and ‘Natives’ within this community, “which isn’t a good thing, but it happens”.
Conclusions: Findings from this study contribute to understandings of the contextual nature of adolescent bullying. Adolescent health clinicians and educators need to be mindful of the different narratives that youth may use to describe their experiences of bullying. Policies and programs that are responsive to the social, historical and political factors shaping adolescent behavior within particular contexts represent an important addition to anti-bullying approaches focused solely on individual behavior.
Sources of Support: Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Hilario, C.T., Jenkins, E.K., Ng, C., Haines-Saah, R.J. & Johnson, J.L. (2014). “It’s just always been like that”: A deeper understanding of social context and adolescent bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 54(2), S17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.10.049