As highlighted in the recent UN Secretary General’s report, Protecting children from bullying, rates of bullying among children are high across the world. The social costs of bullying are also high: bullied children face a greater risk of poor health, internalized stress, and suicidal thoughts.
Negative outcomes of bullying have been reported not only in high-income countries, where the majority of research is conducted. Findings in the UNICEF Innocenti Discussion Paper Experiences of peer bullying among adolescents and associated effects on young adult outcomes, show that among adolescents in four low- and middle-income countries, being bullied by peers at age 15 tended to be associated with negative effects on self-esteem, self-efficacy, parent and peer-relations at age 19.
Altogether, these findings strengthen the view that bullying is a serious global problem, negatively affecting the lives of children throughout the world.
The wide diffusion of bullying and the seriousness of its consequences on victims were the main catalysts for our research on the factors that increase the risk of bullying among children of special vulnerable groups. The recent European immigration crisis – in particular the situation in Italy and Greece – called our attention to the problem of bullying among migrant and refugee children attending Italian schools.
Bullying of migrant and refugee children, similar to victimization of children of a particular ethnic group, is a form of bias-based bullying, that is, of a peer because they belong to a specific social or ethnic group. While some forms of bias-based bullying have been better analysed, studies on victimization of migrant and refugee children are still few in number.
Starting from this background, we conducted a survey of 771 children attending Italian primary and secondary schools. The survey sample consisted of 598 children, including 173 from a migrant or refugee background. To obtain an objective estimation of the rates of involvement in bullying of children, we used peer-report measures and asked children for anonymous nomination of classmates who were victims, bullies, defenders of the victims, outsiders, assistants or reinforcers of the bully.
Classmates reported that 17.9 per cent of migrant and refugee children compared to 11.4 per cent of other children had been victimized, providing evidence that migrant and refugee children face a higher risk of bullying.
Furthermore, we found that the risk increased if classmates of the bullied child self-justified bullying of migrant and refugee children (e.g. thinking that such children deserved to be bullied) in order to avoid guilt feelings. Indeed, in classrooms where migrant and refugee children were bullied, support or reinforcement of perpetrator actions among classmates was associated with higher levels of these self-justification, or prejudicial, thoughts.
In a second study, 692 students in Italian secondary schools, including 142 migrant or refugee children, filled in questionnaires on their bullying experiences and on prejudices. Thirty-five pupils (19 from migrant or refugee background) were also interviewed. We found that prejudicial beliefs against migrants and refugees were associated with the likelihood of migrant and refugee children being victimized by bullying.
Therefore, the existence of anti-immigrant prejudice was found to play an important role in driving bullying. Adolescent interviews revealed that the phenomenon was often explained as caused by prejudicial beliefs toward migrants and refugees.
Findings from these surveys are among the first to shed light on this phenomenon. They further indicate that additional factors such as negative perceptions and prejudice toward migrants and refugees at the society level need to be addressed in efforts to design interventions to tackle bias-based bullying against migrant and refugee children.
Finally, we still do not know enough about the social and psychological drivers of bullying against migrants and refugees. Indeed, in the scarce literature on this topic a higher risk of migrant and refugee children being victimized was not consistently observed. This could be due to several factors: 1. differences among host country contexts, 2. differences among groups of migrants and refugees, in terms of their ethnicity and origin, 3. whether children are recent migrants or refugees or born in the host nation.
The dramatic influx of migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe, with the related increase in social tension this has caused, suggests that we need to continue to monitor the phenomenon of bias-, or prejudice-based bullying involving these groups. We need to better understand how it is developing and how we can address this problem effectively. The rise in global migration, likely a long term phenomenon not limited to one region or corridor, could well drive an increase in bias- or prejudice-based bullying of children and adolescents in numerous countries.
Simona C. S. Caravita, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology with the Department of Psychology (CRIdee) of Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. She has contributed to work on violence affecting children at UNICEF Innocenti.
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