So when do kids first start to experience bullying? What age groups are most at risk for bullying? These are important questions for parents and educators alike. Since bullying varies widely from case to case, there is no definitive age at which children first start to bully each other, and children can experi-ence bullying behavior at just about any age. However, there are clearly discernible peaks and trends that tell us which age groups experience the most bullying, and at what age children are most at risk.

The ages when children are most at risk for bullying

The National Mental Health and Education Center states that direct bullying of the physical variety gradually increases in elementary school, peaks during middle school, and then declines some what in high school. Nansel et al. (2001) found that in their sample of students, bullying occurred most frequently in sixth through eighth grade. However, they also noted that for a sizeable proportion of children, bullying can begin in elementary school. This is similar to the results from a Kidscape survey, which found that “for the overwhelming majority of the bullied respondents, the bullying started between the ages of 7 and 13. The highest peaks seem to correspond with the ages of children entering secondary school, ages of 11 or 12. A significant minority related bullying starting at a very young age — 5 or 6, as soon as they entered primary school.” (Kidscape, 1999, p. 3) Summarizing the research, Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004) write that

1. There is a steady decrease in bullying and victimization between the ages of 12 and 18. 2. Bullying tends to be at its worst at the beginning of secondary school. 3. While bullying decreases as a whole as children get older, within this, direct physical aggression becomes less prevalent and direct or indirect verbal and other methods increase. 4. But if bullying does continue into older adolescence, it can become more severe. 5. Adolescents show less empathy towards their victims than younger children. (p. 8)

Trends toward bullying at younger ages

There is also some research showing that bullying is trickling down to younger kids, who are learning such behavior by watching the torment that older siblings engage in, or by mimicking the cruel behavior they see on TV. (Colino, 2010) So there is a general trend towards more severe types of bullying at younger ages. Some children may experience significant problems as early as first or second grade.

At what age does bullying start to decline?

Most research shows that bullying gradually declines throughout high school. However, it’s important to note that this decline is not dramatic, and hardly renders the problem obsolete. Such declines are modest; for example, it may drop from a peak of around 18-20% of kids being bullied on a regular basis during junior high school, to perhaps 12-15% by the end of high school. Since some research has found that even though the numbers of kids who experience bullying may drop off slightly, among those that are bullied the torment becomes more severe, this is hardly something to celebrate. Furthermore, for a substantial minority of youth, bullying can continue right into college and beyond.

The length and duration of bullying

One aspect of bullying that advocates often neglect in their research is the length or duration that children experience bullying. Much like child abuse of any type, the longer children are bullied, the more harmful it becomes, and the larger the impact it will have on their identity.

The aforementioned Kidscape survey found that on average the bullying reported in this survey went on for between 2 and 6 years, but noted that some kids were bullied throughout their entire time at school, spanning a period of nine to eleven years. (Kidscape, 1999, p. 3) Children who become targets of bullying early on in their life tend to endure it for the longest duration of time, since the very act of bullying tends to render one an outcast, which paves the way for further bullying. Bullied children have a difficult time making friends in an environment where they take on the role of a social pariah, and so this lack of good social connections can stunt their social development among peers. On top of this, the torment they experience tends to make them antisocial, further inhibiting their social growth and digging them into an ever deeper hole. In this way bullying can follow children from grade to grade, and sometimes even across schools, making it difficult to near impossible to escape.

The next sections will discuss the nature of bullying that children encounter at different ages: