Middle school is the time when bullying becomes most rampant. Not only does it surge in prevalence and become far more common, but it generally grows more sophisticated and malicious as well.
The social shift during adolescence
Adolescence marks the start of an important social milestone – the shift from parents to peers as a primary source of love and approval. Teenagers are instinctually designed to start pulling away from their parents and other adults in order to establish a new identity and place in the world among their peers. So social acceptance at school suddenly becomes far more important than it was in the earlier years. This can pave the way for bullying behavior, as youth begin jockeying for social prominence or status among the group. It also unfortunately makes children far more vulnerable to the effects of bullying, so that the same teasing can hurt worse than it did before.
Puberty & its effects on bullying
Puberty can be an awkward time for adolescents, as we all know. Voices are changing and bodies are morphing before our very eyes. Things like body odor and facial hair suddenly emerge as issues. Sexual interest surges, and kids must learn how to deal with these suddenly profound issues and new priorities amidst a sea of developmental turmoil.
Hormonal changes can also fuel the bullying problem. Testosterone, which is also associated with aggression, spikes to levels up to 18 times higher in adolescent boys compared to what it was during childhood. More aggressive boys can amount to more aggressive bullies. Girls’ hormone levels are more stable, with a much smaller comparable difference in estrogen levels between childhood and adolescence. (Aronson, 2001) But since they also experience increases in testosterone, they can also become more aggressive.
How developmental differences contribute to middle school bullying
Another aspect of middle school bullying that can come into play is that there is a wide differential between the development of some children as compared to others. At around 12 or 13-years-old, some girls may have just begun to enter puberty, whereas others started to sexually mature four or five years earlier. There is less of a range between the onset of puberty in boys, yet when it exists, the physical differences may be even more pronounced. One boy who added 8 inches of height and quite a bit of bulk to his frame during a growth spurt may tower over another boy in the same grade who’s smaller and looks like he could still be in elementary school. The different rates of physical development among children can become especially pronounced during the middle school years.
This developmental difference can contribute to bullying in several ways. First, the exaggerated differences between one child and another can make it so that certain kids stick out like a sore thumb. Prejudice thrives on differences, and so these observable differences can add fuel to the bullying problem. Second, when the biggest kid in the class inhabits a 6 foot 1, 180 pound frame that towers over the 4 foot 11, 90-pound kid who hasn’t grown more than a few inches in the last several years, it creates an enormous power differential that can create serious problems if exploited.
And since personal insecurity plays a big role in driving bullying behavior, these developmental differences also contribute to bullying from the other side of the coin. The more different a child feels, the more insecure they can become, and the more insecure they become, the more likely they are to bully others.
When Technology & Bullying Collide
Cyber-bullying also tends to really take off during the middle school years, largely because it’s a time when children are becoming more technologically wired. “The thing about middle school is that it’s a time when kids are getting access to technology – cell phones, social media accounts – so we’ve really seen a rise in cyberbullying in middle school,” says Mathew Kaplan, founder of the Be One Project. (D’Andrea, 2015) So parents need to be hyper-vigilant about cyberbullying at this age.
Sexual bullying in middle school
Sexual bullying often begins in elementary school, but it absolutely explodes in middle school. Every child is surging with sexual feelings, and every youth is also deeply and profoundly insecure when it comes to aspects of sexual identity, most having grown up in environments where they endured a childhood filled with emotional abuse and unrelenting shaming over sexual aspects of themselves. (See our section on sexual bullying for more details on this.) So naturally, attacking sexual identity becomes the primary way to injure others, and sexual bullying now moves to the forefront to become the primary topic of bullying.