Adolescents sometimes use attention-seeking language, which may involve abusive expressions (Ang, 2015). The main purpose of using abusive words is to express anger or frustration or to harm others. Because swear words are more memorable to adolescents than neutral words, individuals who are targeted perceive such words as aggressive and abusive (Hymel & Swearer, 2015). Researchers have defined verbal bullying as repeatedly occurring verbal behaviors intended to hurt or demean others (Naidoo, Satorius, de Vries, & Taylor, 2016). Victims of verbal bullying usually experience amplified emotional problems such as depression and suicidal ideation. The phenomenon of verbal bullying has existed in every society throughout history (Hymel & Swearer, 2015). However, verbal bullying tends to occur more among adolescents than other age groups (van Noorden, Haselager, Cillessen, & Bukowski, 2015).
Researchers began investigating verbal bullying in the early 1970s in northern Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia (Hui, Tsang, & Law, 2011). In Japan, a form of verbal bullying that involves collective violence is called ijime, or collective aggressive behavior by those with power in a group intended to cause physical or emotional pain to other group members (Hui et al., 2011). A characteristic of verbal bullying is the repeated nature of the unjust offenses. Offenders are usually perceived to be stronger than the victims. In other words, verbal bullying results from strength imbalances in interpersonal relationships that prevent victims from effectively defending themselves or resisting offenders (Zych, Baldry, & Farrington, 2017).
Some studies have identified aggressive actions as responses to earlier received aggressions (Simmons & Blythe, 2017; Stephens, Spierer, & Katehis, 2018). For example, a bully can be a victimized aggressor motivated by his/her past experience of being bullied. Thus, it may be difficult to label a bully solely as an aggressor (Jara, Casas, & Ortega-Ruiz, 2017). In addition, aggressive behavior of offenders is not inborn but learned from direct or indirect experiences— namely, acquired through observing or imitating (Bandura, 1978). Seeing the ease with which their stronger peers insult their weaker peers makes adolescents more likely than adults to expect bullying to produce successful results (Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster, 2003). If verbal bullying occurs inside the organized community of a school, many students will be exposed to aggressive behavior and may come to accept verbal bullying as the norm within the group (Salmivalli, 2010). If verbal bullying becomes the norm, students may align themselves with the bullies and participate in bullying. This verbal bullying learning process may eventually result in many students simultaneously becoming victims of bullying and bullies (Salmivalli, 2010).
Social Bond Theory
Although researchers have identified numerous bullying predictors, few studies have examined the correlations and causes of adolescent verbal bullying. In the current literature, Hirschi's (1979) social bond theory of crime is regularly used to account for various forms of verbal bullying (Peterson, Lee, Henninger, & Cubellis, 2016).
Hirschi's social bond theory has become one of the most influential and widely tested perspectives on juvenile delinquency in the field of criminology. According to Hirschi's Causes of Delinquency (1969), individuals are hedonistic and innately motivated to engage in delinquent behavior. Under this theoretical framework, the dominant factor that constrains individuals' intrinsic criminality is how bonded they feel to conventional society. Social bonding, including attachment to significant others (e.g., family, peers), is hypothesized to constrain delinquent behavior. Central to the theory is the belief that delinquent behavior is a result of inadequate socialization and failure to conform to conventional values and norms in the early stages of childhood. However, social bond theory has methodological limitations for explaining adolescent delinquency, as quantitative research limits respondents' ability to provide in-depth answers regarding their responses. In addition, prior research has failed to examine how intra- and interindividual variation in social bonding influences delinquency (Peterson et al., 2016). Despite these limitations, Yun, Kim, and Kwon (2016) found that Hirschi's hypothesis was largely supported for typical delinquent harassment behaviors among South Korean adolescents.
Another aspect of verbal bullying includes using derogatory or swear words to insult another individual, and induces a reaction of the nervous system similar to that associated with addiction (Stephens et al., 2018). For many individuals, swearing in response to acute pain eases the pain or has a hypoalgesic effect (Stephens et al., 2018). Swearing is an extreme form of emotional language that has been shown to increase individuals' heart rates and skin conductance; research has identified a causal path by which swearing triggers an emotional response, activating the sympathetic nervous system and facilitating a stress-induced analgesia that is mediated by sympathetic nervous system activation (Stephens & Umland, 2011).
Due to the different socialization processes boys and girls undergo, gender also plays an important role in the relationship between individuals' emotions and swearing (Jamal, Bonell, Harden, & Lorenc, 2015). For example, cultural norms related to the expression of aggression vary according to gender, and women and men use swear words differently. Men are more likely than women to swear when frustrated or angry, whereas women are more likely than men to view swearing in anger as a loss of control and believe that swearing might jeopardize their relationships with others (Hashamdar & Rafi, 2018).
Current Verbal Bullying Tendencies in South Korea
Adolescents with internet addictions are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior, which is positively correlated with verbal bullying (Lee, 2012). Various studies have found positive associations between the amount of time adolescents spend on computers or in internet-mediated environments and verbally aggressive behaviors such as insulting and swearing at others (Chun, Choi, Cho, Lee, & Kim, 2015).
Verbal bullying often involves sexually ridiculing victims' mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, or other family members (Lee, 2012). The spreading of such ridicule in online and offline spaces amplifies the insults and inflicts greater shame on victims. Given that adolescents tend to value their parents highly and consider them important in their lives, verbal bullying that involves sexual ridicule of their parents is considered more destructive and serious than other types of bullying, including swearing (Jay & Janschewitz, 2008).
According to a survey regarding adolescents' language use conducted by the National Institute of Korean Language (Jung, 2017), 78% of adolescents swear every day and more than one half of adolescents engage in verbal bullying. Individuals exposed to verbal bullying may develop extreme anxiety and hostility that may lead to timidity. Research has indicated that adolescents who are verbally bullied experience increased symptoms of depression and higher suicide risk (Kodish et al., 2016). Research has also shown that violent emotions can trigger physical violence and even precipitate brutal crimes such as murder, turning victims into offenders (Hymel & Swearer, 2015).
Previous Studies on Verbal Bullying
Previous studies of verbal bullying have focused on personal characteristics (e.g., anxiety, depression, aggressiveness) and parent-related factors (Zych, Ortega-Ruiz, & Del Rey, 2015). Studies of victims have focused on their physical weakness, anxiety, submissive tendencies, and unstable attachment to parents (Patton, Hong, Patel, & Kral, 2017). Currently, the factors underlying the initial acquisition of swearing-based verbal bullying remain largely unknown (Peterson et al., 2016).
The current researchers therefore conducted a descriptive phenomenological study using Giorgi's (1997) approach to explore the context and characteristics of gender-based experiences of verbal bullying among South Korean adolescents.
Giorgi's Descriptive Phenomenological Method
The philosophies underlying phenomenological research methods were developed in the scholarship of the major philosophers Heidegger (1962), Husserl (1962), and Merleau-Ponty (1962). The existential phenomenological concept of “lifeworld” sheds light on “lived experience,” a precise phenomenological term stemming from Husserl's (1976, p. 56) philosophy (Carr, 1977, p. 203). Giorgi's (1997) approach was used to describe the lived experience, which involved identifying the respective and shared valuable meanings among participants and establishing relationships between the found meanings (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2003; Willis, Sullivan-Bolyai, Knafl, & Cohen, 2016). Following the suggestion of Giorgi and Giorgi (2003), the current researchers implemented various process features of descriptive phenomenological research in their examination of adolescents who participated in verbal bullying behaviors to illuminate the defining features of the bullying experience.
Sixteen adolescents, eight female and eight male, who engaged in verbal bullying as aggressors participated in the current study. Researchers explained the aims and methods of the study, and all individuals voluntarily consented to participate.
In the current study, researchers did not intend to pose danger to participants and undertook various measures to ensure participants' human rights were protected. All participants and their parents consented in writing to participate in the study. In addition, researchers assured participants that all collected data would be treated with full confidentiality and that researchers would not disseminate participants' personal information or use it for any purpose other than the express purposes of the study. Participants were informed that they could withdraw from the study at any time.
Before conducting the study, approval was granted by the Institutional Review Board of the respective university.
The method of analysis used in the current study followed the general approach used by Giorgi (1997). The stages of Giorgi's (1997) analysis included: (a) reading participants' descriptions of the phenomenon to acquire a sense of their general experiences; (b) rereading and analyzing transcripts to break down the larger explanations into common elements or “constituents”; (c) transforming participants' language to frame the described experiences conceptually in relation to the phenomenon of interest; and (d) combining and synthesizing these meaning units or themes into a final general description reflecting the lived experience of participants. In addition, to ensure that the study met all necessary standards for rigor, researchers managed research quality by taking into account the concepts of factual value, applicability, consistency, and neutrality as articulated by Lincoln and Guba (1985). Researchers ensured the credibility of analyses by obtaining three expert evaluations of the results and engaging in a consultation process.
The mean age of participants was 15 years. All stated that they had observed or experienced verbal bullying as aggressors since elementary school and that their bullying behaviors started in eighth or ninth grade. All but two indicated that they had strong, positive attachments to their parents. All indicated that they were dissatisfied with their school lives. Four themes were identified and are outlined below.
Theme 1: Egocentric Relational Violence
Male participants started bullying for fun. When peers around them responded by laughing and jeering, they began verbally bullying more actively. One participant said that he started verbal bullying along with swearing for “fun” and because he wrongly believed that doing so would “express closeness” with the victim. Regarding this behavior, he also said: “My friends followed me.” Another participant said that he began verbal bullying out of “curiosity and [for] fun.” This participant went on to say that after learning that his victims disliked or were troubled by the bullying, he felt “a sense of superiority as a strong human being.” Another participant stated:
It is a joke among men. Isn't swearing a speech habit? Using abusive words, I say, “You are motherless, aren't you? Your mom ran away…or you are a bastard… Where are your mom and dad?” Then, other kids are amused and laugh loudly. Some of them take my swearing and continue it.
Furthermore, another stated:
I do it because all the others do the same. If I am stopped by the victim, I become more aggressive…Then, I see the victim perplexed and scared of me… When I show myself like that to my friends, I feel puffed up…Doesn't it look great?
Female participants' verbal bullying tended to focus on harassing or alienating specific targets who “stood out” because of their unique personalities or behaviors. Participants mentioned several reasons for engaging in verbal bullying. These reasons included: “because I hate people who are arrogant or haughty”; “because she behaves differently than me”; and “because she is somewhat unusual.” Whereas male participants' verbal bullying happened both inside and outside of schools, female participants' verbal bullying occurred mainly in social network service chat rooms. Both the frequency and degree of verbal bullying among female participants were lower than among male participants, as female participants recognized that “swearing may be destructive” to the victim. One female participant stated:
We pick girls receiving people's attention. We hate somebody behaving haughtily. Whatever it is, hairstyle, dresses…If she is too conspicuous, she is isolated naturally not just by me but by everyone. In group chats, we gossip about her openly. Sometimes, we drive her out of the chat room…or don't invite her from the beginning.
Some children are very strongly against verbal bullying. They are too good for it...Then, we say, “Your mom has died, hasn't she? I promise to go to the funeral.” Then, she is most likely to burst out crying or leave the chat room. Actually, this is what we expect to happen.”
Theme 2: Learning Through Observation and Imitation
Male participants reported being exposed directly or indirectly to aggressive role models who engaged in swearing-based verbal bullying since elementary school. They said that “playful hitting,” “use of abhorrent nicknames,” and “making fun of appearances” were common in elementary school. Participants said that when students physically fought each other in middle school, other students would stand around and watch the fights as if they were watching a sports game. They would cheer for the aggressors and shout “Don't stop!” One participant also reported being forced to run errands for his classmates in elementary school, stating that in revenge, “Sometimes I took other peers' bags and shoes.”
Regarding the increased incidence of bullying after observing other bullies, one participant stated:
In elementary school, each class had one or two victims of verbal bullying. It was unclear why...but other kids hit them playfully…knocked their heads… pulled down their pants...or called them nicknames that ridiculed their names or appearances. Often, the victims' nicknames were associated with genital organs.
In addition, another participant stated:
When I was an elementary school child, I was transferred from another province, and my classmates began to tease me because of my dialect. They often took away my bag and threw away my shoes so that I couldn't find them, saying that my style was rustic. A few children forced me to run errands, to get water, to buy snacks, or to carry their bags, and so on.
Female participants said that they started to imitate the behavior of boys with whom they associated in elementary school. One participant reported that hearing her friends swear made her excited, so she used “the learned swear words” on other girls. Another participant said that she heard her elementary school friends swearing—calling a victim or a victim's mother, for example, a “prostitute” or a “barmaid.”
Regarding learning through observation/imitation, one participant stated:
Isn't an elementary school a coeducation school? They [boys] curse and swear openly. They become comfortable with it because they would always swear when communicating. And girls follow boys. Children gather around to hear that kind of swearing because it is thrilling.
Another participant stated:
It seems easy to bully a girl. In elementary school, a group of girls would gather and chat intentionally loudly so that the victim could hear the gossip that she looks like a prostitute and her mother works at a bar. Then, the victimized girl is soon isolated in the class.
Theme 3: Synchronization of Stigma and Aggression
Male participants who engaged in verbal bullying did not feel poorly connected to their parents. They reported that they did not have negative feelings such as anger or hatred against their parents. However, they said that they were highly frustrated by their school lives. One participant said that being called an “underachiever who could not enter a good university” was his biggest stressor. He stated:
It was determined whether or not I could enter a university in middle school. I could not get into a university. The school divided us into two groups in terms of school records—good students and bad students. That was the most frustrating thing. I usually vent my anger by swearing. It makes me feel somewhat relieved.
Female participants also said that school life was “boring.” They said that the stresses generated by grades and entrance examinations were unbearable. One participant said that she was inclined to engage in verbal bullying when she was compared to peers who were from “rich families” or “succeeded academically.” The participant stated:
The teacher compared friends without hesitation. Then, rumors run around the group in online chat rooms. “They say her mom is a rich man's mistress.” The stories spread. Then, the victim is excluded from school team activities. Still, she will go to a good university.
Another participant said, “I do swearing habitually. Probably I cannot stop it until I die. If I fail to enter a university, my life will go on in this way.”
Theme 4: Dilemma of Deviance and Habituation
In male participants' experiences, verbal bullying in offline spaces could occasionally develop into physical violence. However, such incidents were usually prevented by the possibility of legal punishment or teacher intervention. Instead, in online spaces such as games and internet portal sites where anonymity is guaranteed, anyone could become the victim of verbal bullying at any time. One participant stated:
These days, students report everything to their teachers, parents, and even to the police, so we cannot continue bullying. But it is totally different in portal sites or games. There are no restrictions at all. Sometimes I feel that this is too much. The level of swearing grows worse, for example, saying “Your mom, prostitute!” or “May your mom die! Then, let's play games with the insurance money.” There is an anti-parent café where members can swear back and forth.
Female participants indicated that their verbal bullying usually happens “under plan” and “single-shot” through online chat spaces with a strong tendency toward “exclusion.” However, such exclusion often occurred after unfavorable stories about a specific victim had already been spread in offline spaces in school, resulting in a negative perception of the victim and psychological conflicts among the students involved. One participant stated:
It is quite simple to bully somebody. Not inviting her to the chat room, inviting her to the room but ignoring her, swearing. But it is more common to spread rumors. Bullying is an example of an 'on purpose' action because it involves intention. They [the aggressors] meet or talk over the phone…even about sexual things…swearing against the victim's mother. Sometimes I feel bad about these things.
Initially, the current phenomenological study examined adolescent aggressors' experiences with verbal bullying, focusing on bullying using swearing. Participants in this study were in adolescence, a transitional period that involves considerable challenges and growth (Ang, 2015). The changes involved with adolescence may lead to social anxiety and excessively narcissistic responses. Participants in the current study also regarded verbal bullying as a type of play culture, without recognizing it as relational violence. In addition, they perceived verbal bullying as being somewhat provocative. Participants thought that engaging in verbal bullying was fun as long as it was not directed toward them.
Furthermore, findings on verbal bullying differed based on gender. Through verbal bullying, male participants reported feeling a sense of superiority, or occupying a position of strength within a group hierarchy. By establishing a position in the group hierarchy, an individual prevents others from challenging him (Jamal et al., 2015). In contrast, female participants engaged in verbal bullying to exclude victims they perceived as provocative. Among female adolescents, intimacy within a peer group is often the starting point of individual growth and development (Thornberg, Pozzoli, Gini, & Hong, 2017). Facing a socially complicated world, young women are influenced by the rules of specific groups (Thornberg et al., 2017). Accordingly, they must define themselves by embracing particular fashions, ways of communication, and specific leisure activities. Groups engage in deviant behaviors toward those who violate these rules in an effort to reinforce them.
In the current study, all participants who committed verbal bullying offenses learned their behaviors directly or indirectly through observation and imitation. In this regard, some studies have highlighted that verbal bullying among schoolchildren takes the form of role play in which students intentionally participate, alone or with others (Virués-Ortega, 2010). Prior student participation in bullying situations, either as victims or especially as aggressors, also increases students' likelihood of becoming bullies. Belonging to a class in which bullying is frequent or in which students encourage or allow bullying is also a risk factor. The diffusion of responsibility in the crowd, mutual reinforcement, attempting to gain status by participating in bullying and avoiding associations with victims, trying to imitate bullies perceived as cool, attempting to be accepted by bullies, or attempting to be included in a group by adopting its abusive behavior are among reasons researchers have proposed to explain this process of social influence (Salmivalli, 2010).
In the current study, both male and female participants showed low levels of satisfaction with school and academic life. The point of stress as a source of their aggressive behavior was often the result of academic scores that did not allow acceptance to universities. Previous studies (Kim & Fletcher, 2018) have likewise identified low academic achievement and lack of interest in academic studies as relevant risk factors for bullying behavior. Academic stress among Korean adolescents is related to high risk of suicidal ideation (Park & Jang, 2018). In fact, most Korean individuals believe that entering top ranked universities is necessary to live a successful and happy life (Park & Jang, 2018).
Research has shown that adolescents who verbally bully others as a way of finding their own identities become more aggressive and their language becomes more immoral (Patton et al., 2017). Consequently, they may have psychopathic tendencies or motivations, including emotional and interpersonal patterns such as the inability to empathize or feel guilt, limited emotional expressiveness, and manipulation of others to achieve one's own purposes (Frick, Ray, Thornton, & Kahn, 2014). In addition, the current study showed the process through which verbal bullying can become habit. Furthermore, it showed that participants faced dilemmas resulting from offline or online deviance and the habituation of violence.
According to a previous study (Kim & Fletcher, 2018), the crime rate soars dramatically among male adolescents, reaching its peak when individuals are between ages 16 and 18. This finding suggests that adolescents' age is a strong explanatory factor for their deviant behaviors. In addition, the recent expansion of internet communities has led to the increasing habituation of deviance. The current findings also indicate that male adolescents learn verbal bullying or swearing in online games or internet communities. Prior research (Kim, Song, & Jennings, 2017) has reported that the anonymity of online environments makes swearing-based verbal bullying more severe and common. Furthermore, online games are popularly perceived as male spaces: male gamers are afforded higher statuses and higher perceived competence than female gamers (Jamal et al., 2015). Recognizing this issue, female adolescents in the current study understood that their social identities and self-identities were constructed via the specific rules of their peer groups regardless of the characteristics of online or offline spaces. They showed stronger emotional attachments to their peer groups than to their families. Simmons and Blyth (2017) suggested that the patterns of deviant behavior differ between male and female adolescents, with female adolescents tending to support and reinforce the deviant behaviors of their peers in the classroom. Female participants in the current study were routinely involved in deviant behaviors aimed at excluding victims from same-sex peer groups.
Findings of the current study suggest that swearing-based verbal bullying among adolescents is a complex construct impacted by the confluence of numerous factors that depend on gender. The current trend is to implement school-wide approaches that embed bullying interventions into other school initiatives designed to promote social and emotional learning and engage all members of the school community, including students, staff, and parents (Thomas et al., 2016). As such, to prevent verbal bullying, the psychological and environmental variables could be considered the influencing factors of offenders. Nurses, who provide care for the mental health of adolescent bullies and victims, must recognize the critical role of connecting the community, home, and school. In addition, nurses should address bullying by identifying the existing and emerging mental health needs that result from verbal bullying among adolescents.
The current study had some limitations, as researchers assessed only certain factors related to adolescent aggressors; they did not examine the influence of family relationships, parent attachment, or individual characteristics such as self-esteem and aggressiveness.
Researchers found that the patterns of verbal bullying differed based on gender, and that these differences stemmed from the fact that male and female individuals are subject to different developmental factors. Findings of the current study have the following implications: in response to verbal bullying between adolescents, one needs to consider not only the victims, but also the offenders; and the fact that victims can be offenders depending on the situation makes it critical to examine offending adolescents' internal motivations and psychological states. Nursing interventions should focus on solutions for these problems by recognizing the close connection between sociocultural and gender characteristics.
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