The Bullying Pathway

Dorothy Espelage is a pioneering and prolific researcher in the study of school-based bullying, rapidly growing the field and protecting kids along the way.

Dorothy Espelage in a school hallway
Dorothy Espelage has been studying school-based bullying for more than 30 years. (photo by Alyssa LaFaro)
September 21st, 2023

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Dorothy Espelage would characterize her childhood as unpredictable and chaotic. Her stepdad was an active-duty U.S. Navy officer who served in Vietnam. He was often gone for six months at a time. Her mom was a waitress who struggled with depression. She goes so far as to admit that when she was just 5 or 6 years old, she knew her mom wouldn’t be able to take care of her the way that she really needed. And she was right, spending much of her youth in and out of foster care.

School became Espelage’s safe space. She was often getting detention to avoid going home, but she was also athletic and precocious — qualities noticed by her coaches and teachers.

“People ask me how I’m successful,” she says. “The answer is school. I would have sports in the morning. I was in every club. I’d get detention every day. I would do everything to not go home.”

What would have happened to Espelage if school wasn’t a safe space? She often wonders about that. For many students today, it’s not.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, one out of every five students has been a victim of bullying — and that’s exactly what Espelage, a researcher in the UNC School of Education, studies.

Today, school-based bullying is defined as physical, verbal, or social aggression toward one’s peers. It emerges through complex interactions among youth and the systems around them — including school, family dynamics, and social media — and functions on a continuum, meaning the bullied can become bullies and vice versa.

When Espelage began researching this topic in the early 1990s, this information didn’t exist. And the field barely did.

“In 1993, researchers thought bullying was just a male phenomenon,” she says. “And there were only three U.S. papers on bullying.”

Today, the world of bullying research has exploded — in large part thanks to Espelage’s efforts. She was the first scholar to empirically show that bullies are often well-liked and popular, that LGBTQ youth and children with disabilities experience bullying more, and that bullies are more likely to engage in intimate partner violence and sexual assault later in life.

She has published over 275 journal articles, 75 book chapters, and eight books. In 2018, she was elected to the National Academy of Education, and the American Psychological Association has recognized her with two of its biggest honors: the Lifetime Achievement Award in Prevention Science and the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy.

“I can’t imagine if I had to go to school and the other kids were jerks,” Espelage reflects. “School was the only place safe in my life. We need to create a safe space for every kid.”

A group effort

Espelage landed her first full-time faculty position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1997, and started delving into the world of bullying in an innovative way.

“What really differentiates it from other forms of aggression is its likelihood to be repeated,” she says.

School-based bullying studies from the early 1990s focused more on the individual characteristics of the youth involved, with researchers categorizing students as either bullies, non-bullies, or victims. But Espelage observed the phenomenon as something much bigger than that.

Dorothy Espelage

Dorothy Espelage (photo by Alyssa LaFaro)

She began several social network studies, where she would interview middle school students and track their friendships over time. She discovered that they experience homophily — a concept in sociology where like-minded individuals are attracted to one another.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” Espelage says. “If you hang out with kids who do their homework, you’re going to do your homework. If you hang out with kids who use substances, you’re going to use substances. And if you join a group of kids who engage in bullying, over time you become more like them.”

Through this work, Espelage found that bullying rarely occurred in isolation. Instead, it happened among groups of students. Similarly, when someone would attempt to stop the bullying, other kids would see that and help intervene.

Bullies aren’t merely social outcasts. In fact, they’re often quite popular and well-liked — perhaps not a surprise to those of us who experienced the hard knocks of middle school, but Espelage was the first to put it on paper and prove it. And the media took notice. Outlets like CNN, USA Today, and The Huffington Post have highlighted her work.

She also caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who interviewed her in 1998 when she was 29 years old. And that was just the first of four times she went on the talk show.

Much of Espelage’s work has led to the development of bullying prevention programs. Some are peer-led, which involves training student leaders to guide others by example. Others focus on building social-emotional learning skills like self-awareness, self-control, and communication.

“It comes down to relationships,” she says. “If you have strong relationships among students and peers and between students and the administrators and students and the teachers, you have less bullying. And I’ve shown that in my multi-level studies.”

An online phenomenon

The late-1990s marked a turning point for Espelage’s field. After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, people began to speculate bullying might be involved, and state legislatures pushed schools to develop prevention programs. At the time, Georgia was the only state with an anti-bullying law. Now, all 50 have some form of legislation.

And then there’s the internet. By 2002, it had more than 600 million users. Myspace launched in 2003, with Facebook following in 2004. That same year, Canadian educator Bill Belsey coined the term “cyberbullying” and defined it as “the use of information and communication technologies […] to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.”

“Cyberbullying was like the flip of a switch,” Espelage says.

As the online community expanded and cell phones grew in popularity, bullies were no longer contained to the walls of their schools — and a slew of teen suicides followed. In 2007, 13-year-old Megan Meier took her own life after neighbors harassed her using a fake Myspace account. A few years later, 18-year-old Jessica Logan died by suicide after her boyfriend sent nude pictures of her to local high schoolers who proceeded to bully her online and through text messages.

Meier and Logan are just two of numerous tragedies that would follow. By 2022, nearly half of U.S. teens reported they’d been bullied or harassed online.

Espelage began including cyberbullying measures in her studies in 2000. In the last two decades, she and her collaborators have made numerous discoveries. Face-to-face bullying is linked to cyberbullying — and she even helped develop a computer game to compare the two. Child cyberbullies and their victims often receive less parental monitoring and support than their peers. And just like traditional bullies, cyberbullies are more likely to engage in sexual harassment.

In 2016, she published one of the first meta-analyses on cyberbullying. At the time, only 22 states had anti-bullying laws that included cyberbullying, and prevention programs specifically addressing the phenomenon were just beginning. A 2022 meta-analysis on interventions to decrease cyberbullying found that the average program is successful at reducing the act by up to 76% within schools.

While 48 states include cyberbullying in their legislation today, more needs to be done. Espelage has turned to leveraging technology with BullyDown — a text message-based bullying prevention program focused on developing social-emotional learning skills. Students in Chatham County schools helped create the program’s messaging, and 150 Durham and Chatham County students have enrolled in the nine-week pilot study.

Launched in August 2023, the control group receives daily messages of encouragement: Try to be positive when you talk to yourself. What you say on the inside stays within you, even if others don’t hear it. Texts for the experimental group unpack topics like empathy, perspective-taking, anger management, and bullying and bystander intervention.

A precursor to sexual and dating violence

In 1997, during one of her longitudinal studies with middle-schoolers, Espelage couldn’t help but feel intrigued by the seventh-grade boy in front of her. He was intelligent and likeable. But he was seemingly the most controversial student in the entire school — of the 421 kids she interviewed, 375 named him as the biggest bully.

“He was so fascinating to me,” she remembers. “He told me he was bullied as a sixth grader and now, as a seventh grader, he was paying it forward. I remember turning to my graduate student and saying, ‘Are you hearing this? This is a group process, and this works for him.’ He had this need for control and dominance that reminded me of sexual violence perpetrators — and that guided me to the bully-sexual violence pathway.”

The bully-sexual violence pathway is a theory developed by Espelage that suggests bullying acts as a precursor to sexual violence later in life. For a 2012 study, she interviewed nearly 1,400 middle-school students over three years. More than half of the bullies identified — about 90 students — reported making sexual comments to their peers. Twenty others spread sexual rumors, and 10 pulled at someone’s clothing.

In 2018, Espelage showed that homophobic name calling in middle school increased the odds of sexual violence perpetration in high school. A recent meta-analysis she conducted between 2010 and 2021 suggests not only that the pathway exists, but that social dominance, exposure to sexual education, and alcohol use aid bullies in these actions.

This work has led to the implementation of discussions about sexual harassment in bullying prevention programs within U.S. middle schools and drives policies at state and national levels.

A global problem

While the world of school-based bullying research has exploded since Espelage first began working on the topic in the 1990s, prevention efforts in schools remain insufficient and teacher burnout is spreading like wildfire.

“We have 40% of kids now saying they don’t have a single trusted adult in the school that they can talk to,” she reports. “That went up from 25% in our studies since COVID. If you look at the national data and the data in North Carolina, it’s extremely problematic.”

Whoever is in the White House directly impacts funding for this work, according to Espelage, and leadership over the last decade has led to a series of ups and downs for the field.

Nevertheless, Espelage surges onward like she always does. This October, she and UNC-Chapel Hill are hosting the World Anti-Bullying Forum (WABF) in downtown Raleigh. Launched in 2017 by a Swedish nonprofit called Friends, WABF seeks to end violence against and between children. This is the first time the conference will be held in the United States.

The Triangle is a powerhouse for bullying research. Carolina, Duke, NC State, North Carolina Central University, and Fayetteville State University have been engaged in the field for decades. Additionally, UNC-Chapel Hill is a national leader in the related fields of public health, social work, and psychology.

But the U.S. lags behind its international partners in anti-bullying efforts, according to Espelage. While bullying rates across the nation are down 10-12%, our collaborators across the world are seeing reductions of 20-50%.

“We led in the beginning but have gone backward because of the political climate around bullying and social-emotional learning,” she says. “As we begin to recover from several years of isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to create safe spaces in our schools, families, and communities for youth to be situated in environments that are protective, supportive, equitable, and free of bullying.”

Dorothy Espelage is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education within the UNC School of Education.