Bullying in South Korea: A Long-Lasting Burden to Carry

In South Korea, suicide is the most common cause of death among individuals between 15 and 24 years of age. Researchers believe that this high suicide rate is connected to the fiercely competitive academic environment and the proliferation of bullying behaviors in South Korean schools. Bullying arises in places where there is an imbalance of power and where there is a tendency to demonstrate peer group status. Thus, schools are a perfect place for bullying to emerge. Being bullied or being a bully is associated with lower educational attainment and lower wages later in life. Despite these serious consequences, there is not much economic research that estimates the total cost of bullying to society.

In their research, Miguel Sarzosa and Sergio Urzúa examine how cognitive and non-cognitive skills influence the occurrence of bullying, and how these skills can exacerbate the effects of bullying on future outcomes such as depression, school attainment, satisfaction, and health. They use the Korean Youth Panel Survey (KYP) to gather data on life path choices, academic performance, personality traits, and social relations. Through the KYP, they follow a group of second year, junior high school students between 2003 and 2008 (the students and their parents were interviewed once every year). The sample covers 12 regions of South Korea and is representative of the proportion of second year, junior high school students in each region. In the social relations section of KYP, 11.07 percent of students self-reported that they had been bullied.

The researchers’ first step was to estimate initial cognitive and non-cognitive skills. They developed three scales of non-cognitive skills: (1) control, the extent to which the individuals believe that their actions affect their destiny, as opposed to luck or chance; (2) irresponsibility, negatively associated with perseverance; and (3) self-esteem, an estimate of self-worth that acts as a proxy for popularity. In addition, to estimate cognitive skills, the researchers used scores from tests in math and science, language, and social studies, as well as school grades for each year. Controlling for gender, family structure, father’s educational attainment, income per capita, and age, they find that students from wealthier and more educated families tend to be more responsible and have higher levels of self-control, levels of self-esteem, and cognitive scores.

Their second step was to analyze the determinants and impact of bullying on students’ health and educational attainment outcomes in 2008, conditional on their estimates of initial cognitive and non-cognitive skills. They were able to conduct this analysis because the students who were followed self-reported whether they had been bullied in 2003. As for the determinants of bullying, while cognitive skills do not influence the likelihood of being bullied, non-cognitive skills seem to be reliable predictors. An increase of one standard deviation in non-cognitive skills reduces the probability of being a victim of bullying by 37 percent.

The researchers’ results for the average treatment effect of being bullied show that it has deep consequences on education and health outcomes. Indeed, being bullied at age 15 increases the incidence of feeling sick three years later by 75 percent and the incidence of mental health issues by 50 percent. The authors also find that other negative effects on health (higher incidence of depression, levels of stress, and feelings of being physically and mentally ill) are more acute for bullying victims with lower non-cognitive skills. Being bullied reduces the likelihood of attending college by 10 to 18 percentage points for individuals in the lower half of the non-cognitive skills distribution. This effect could possibly be explained by the extent to which bullying fosters a dislike for school and related activities.

Based on their results, Sarzosa and Urzúa argue that strategies to mitigate bullying should be focused on the development of non-cognitive skills. As previously mentioned, non-cognitive skills such as responsibility, self-esteem, and self-control reduce the likelihood of being bullied. Not only that, their development helps in mitigating the effects of having been bullied—one of this study’s major contributions has been to show that there are differential effects that depend on non-cognitive skills. Students with lower non-cognitive skills are less satisfied with their lives and are more prone to end their education at the high school level. Being victimized at age 15 has major consequences for an individual’s health, education, and labor outcomes. From absence in high school to foregoing higher education, and from higher levels of stress and depression to suicide, the long-lasting social costs of bullying are too large to be ignored. While these results apply to the South Korean context, the evidence clearly shows that victims of bullying may carry a very heavy weight, sometimes for life.

Article Source: Sarzosa, Miguel, and Sergio Urzúa, “Bullying among Adolescents: The Role of Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills,” The National Bureau of Economic Research. No. 21631 (2015).

Featured Photo: cc/(Tomwang112, photo ID: 72338979, from iStock by Getty Images)

Marlene Saint Martin
Marlene ('17) is a staff writer for Child & Family. She is interested in education, family policy and evaluation.

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