The bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more likely kids will get bullied at school. It’s a psychological phenomenon, says psychology Prof. Frank Elgar, that explains rates of homicide, life expectancy, prison population, obesity, and drug use as well as school bullying.
Since his post-graduate study days, Elgar, who created the university’s Social Capital and Health Laboratory, has been examining income inequality in dozens of countries, particularly as it relates to children’s health.
By studying the results of a survey of nearly 67,000 11-year-olds in 37 countries in North America, Europe and Asia, Elgar has determined that bullies are more rampant in nations with wide gaps in income.
“The percentage of respondents who bullied others was four to five times greater in countries with high income inequality, for example Turkey, the Russian Federation and the United States, than in countries with low income inequality, such as Sweden, Denmark and Japan,” explains Elgar.
His study, which will be published in the October issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, could offer a better understanding of the socioeconomic context of school bullying and go a long way to planning prevention policies and interventions, he suggests.
“This research points out that the subtle jabs we get, the repeated teasing and being left out have powerful effects. If we are going to have effective policies that reduce school bullying and crime rates, educators need to look at these income inequalities and class differences.”
Income inequality is also negatively associated with family and school support and positively associated with peer support, Elgar writes in his article. “This result underscores that social support is context dependent, and suggests that inequality may have a detrimental effect on schools while strengthening bonds in peers, for example. Bullies actually have normal peer support, high self-esteem, and feel well-liked and respected.”
Canada sits in the middle of the pack in terms of income inequality and bullying, says Elgar. “We have less school bullying than the United States and Russia, but about twice as much as the Scandinavian countries.” That means nearly 40 per cent of children in Canadian schools are involved in bullying, and more than one in three are victimized by bullying.
Two earlier studies have examined associations between income inequality and bullying, including the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, which is carried out in 41 countries every four years. Elgar is a co-investigator in Canada’s HBSC study, which is co-ordinated by the World Health Organization.
Elgar says his research also reflects the university’s key themes of health, environment and globalization.
“This kind of research is very multi-disciplinary. It speaks to the interest in environment and health and brings a very practical message.”