30 June 2022

Robert Thornberg, professor at Linköping University, still has strong memories of a fellow school pupil who was subjected to bullying. Today, he understands that it was first then he realised that children both bully and are bullied. Now, he is ranked as one of the world's foremost experts on bullying research.

Robert Thornberg is sitting on a large staircase.
Robert Thornberg, professor of educationalresearch at Linköping University, is ranked as one of the world’s foremostexperts on bullying research. Annica Hesser

Everybody knows it is wrong – but children are still bullied every day in schools all over Sweden. And only a few pupils intervene to support the victims. In order to prevent bullying, we must understand it better. This is what has driven Robert Thornberg, professor of educational research at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning.

“Ever since becoming involved with educational research, I have been interested in questions of values and social relationships”, he says.

He has over 100 research articles in the Web of Science database, and several of these articles are about bullying in schools. He is one of the most cited researchers in this area, and his research is discussed both nationally and internationally.

I meet him in his office at Campus Valla, where he has worked since 2001. The walls around his desk are bursting with well-filled bookshelves. He has a system, he says. The books are organised according to different themes or areas of knowledge. On one of the walls, the books are mixed with old magazine files, the outdated appearance of which he apologises for.

School shootings and bullying

Just a few days before we meet, a school shooting has taken place at a primary school in the American state of Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers were killed by a lone perpetrator. Subsequently, it turned out that the perpetrator was an 18-year-old man who had lived in isolation from society, and suffered from substance abuse. Robert Thornberg has especially strong feelings about this kind of event:

“I can't speak to every single case, but many such instances are about pupils who have a long history of exclusion and vulnerability. When it comes to school shootings, they are a very extreme case. But there are other studies that show what being subjected to bullying entails. It leads to an increased risk of mental ill health, suicidal thoughts and/or suicide, school absence, worse results, psychosomatic problems, drug use and substance abuse. There's also a risk of aggression and violent acts.”

Interest piqued

Initially, Robert Thornberg studied to become a primary school teacher. But after working as a teacher for 1.5 years, he felt that he wanted to learn more, and so he studied educational research, psychology and sociology. Several years later, he was the holder of a master’s degree in educational research. In his PhD thesis, he examined in detail teachers’ work with values and norms in daily school work.

“At that time, I began to get interested in that which is one of the greatest challenges in values-based education – pupils’ vulnerability to bullying. That was when the seed of my interest in researching bullying was sown. During the process of writing my dissertation, I met pupils, and even encountered cases of bullying.”

Robert Thornberg has since performed several studies on the subject, in order to increase understanding of bullying from social and moral processes. He uses both qualitative and quantitative methods, which is somewhat at odds with the tradition in research of choosing one or the other. But he regards it as a toolbox of methods that can be used on different occasions.

The classroom climate is crucial

In later studies, which Robert Thornberg has performed together with colleagues, he has investigated why bullying is more common in some classes than in others. The results show that bullying is more common in classes where pupils tend to seek to justify bullying, and think that it’s mostly just a bit of fun. Other relevant factors include pupils dehumanising and blaming the victim(s), or reasoning in ways which reduce the violation and individual responsibility of the perpetrator(s) or witness(es). In Robert Thornerg’s research, the phenomenon is called “moral disengagement”.

“This involves regarding what is happening as neither serious nor wrong. It may involve justifying a nasty action. It may involve telling yourself that it is okay to go after someone in order to protect the atmosphere in a group, or that it’s someone else’s fault, or that the responsibility is distributed over the whole group. It might also be that you sugarcoat what happened, and give the action a name that sounds more acceptable – for example, that what is happening is mostly a joke. If you believe these things, then there are no reasons to react to what is happening.”

It might also involve “victim blaming”, which means that you place the blame on the victim, and dehumanise them, characterising them as not as worthy as others, or as self excluding.

“But, in reality, people rarely want to be completely isolated.”Portrait of Robert Thornberg. Photo credit Annica Hesser

Memories of events at school

Robert Thornberg’s research goes hand in hand with events from his own childhood home in Uddevalla. During the first three years of his schooling he never heard anything about bullying. But, around the age of 10, when he started at a new school, he found out that a girl and a boy in the class had for a long time been subjected to bullying.

“I was told that it had been taken care of. But now, afterwards, I realise that the girl continued to be bullied, albeit in a more indirect and subtle way.”

A specific event

He relates a story about a time they had a class party and played the game which, at the time, was called “Russian post”. This was a game in which one person acted as the postperson and knocked on the door to give out “post” to people on the other side. But this “post” actually consisted of the acts of holding somebody's hand, or hugging, pecking or kissing them – a person chosen by the others. In this case, somebody pointed to the girl who was a victim of bullying.

“When the postman came in and saw who he was to kiss, he said ‘Oh my god!’ and refused, while everybody else laughed. She ran out of the room and some of us followed her. It looked like she had been crying when we found her, but she said that she was happy to have been chosen. I believed it at the time, but I now understand that it was just something she said. As a young boy, I didn't realise the wider implications of it at the time. Instead, I thought of it as just a little bit of a joke. But that is an incident which has remained with me afterwards, and I have thought about it a lot.”

Bullying on the up in Sweden

Several earlier international comparisons have shown that bullying has been low in Swedish schools. But in the last ten years, the trend has turned, and building is now on the rise instead, says Robert Thornberg:

“We have no explanation as to what might be causing this. But what we can say for sure is that bullying is on the way up in Swedish schools, which is worrying.”

In order to prevent, discover and handle bullying, the schools must regularly map pupils’ vulnerability. Bullying often happens under the adults’ radar, because it often takes place when adults aren't around, and because those involved often don’t tell school staff about it.

“One way of mapping bullying is to use a ‘behaviour form’ with concrete questions, where pupils can anonymously indicate whether they have been subjected to bullying, or have subjected others to such negative actions. Pupils should fill in this kind of form once a term. To avoid underreporting, you can use this kind of form without the word ‘bullying’, since it’s such a loaded word.”

Why is “bullying” such a strong word?
“Because most people know that it’s wrong, and because people maybe don’t want to see themselves as ‘victims of bullying’ or ‘bullies’.”

Can teachers do anything to prevent bullying?
“Research done up until now shows that teachers who are able to create and maintain warm, positive and supportive relationships with pupils can bring a protective factor to the classroom – one which is both encouraging and preventative. These teachers tend to be better at both teaching values and disseminating knowledge. Clear leadership is also an important component – included in this is the ability to create discipline and a relaxed study climate, work with rules and norms and affect the development of the group in the classroom. Classes which have a better social climate tend to have fewer instances of bullying.”

This picture has, for example, been strengthened by large American studies where the leadership qualities of teachers were compared between schools. Robert Thornberg is now working together with a PhD student and other researchers to do a similar comparative study between teachers in different classes in Sweden.

“We can see the same thing in our data – that the occurrence of bullying is lower in classes where pupils say that their teacher is warm, supportive and good at listening to them, at the same time as being good at creating discipline and a relaxed study climate in the classroom. This is interesting and exciting, because it gives us guidelines as to how we can work against bullying in preventative and encouraging ways.”

Robert Thornberg is sitting on a fenced outhouse on the university campus. Photo credit Annica Hesser

Facts in brief: More about Robert Thornberg

Age: 53

Title: Professor of educational research at Linköping University.

Lives: In a house in the Malmslätt neighbourhood outside of Linköping, with his wife and two children.

In the spotlight because: Of his many years of research on bullying in schools.

Background: Born in Uddevalla, studied to become a primary school teacher at Karlstad University – at that time a university college – and later a behavioural scientist with a master's degree in educational research from Linköping University.

Misses: In the summer, the sea where he grew up.

Outside work: Working with my wife on the logistics of getting our children to their sports! Otherwise, I enjoy spending time with my family, watching a film at the cinema, and writing.

As a child: I loved to draw, and when I was a young schoolchild I thought I would become either an artist or an astrophysicist. Physics was my favourite subject late in secondary school. I’m still fascinated by space and atoms.

First publication: Perhaps a bit unexpected, but... a humorous cartoon over two and a half pages in an issue of the Swedish comic Lilla Fridolf in 1983.

Robert Thornberg on his other projects

Robert Thornberg is sitting at his desk.
Robert Thornberg began working at LiU in2001. Annica Hesser
Robert Thornberg is holding a book in the office room.
He has already published one book, andhopes to write a second. Annica Hesser
Robert Thornberg has been awarded prizesfor his efforts as a researcher in bullying research. Annica Hesser

Three things you probably didn’t know about me:

“As a child I was a huge fan of comics, and above all superhero comics like Spiderman, Batman and Superman. At that time, they had different names in Sweden.”

“I was a synthesist during the first half of the 80s, and still make a bit of electronic music at home with a digital studio on my computer. Those who are curious can listen to the track “Wayne’s Destiny” (a playful reference to my own childhood: Batman’s real name is, of course, Bruce Wayne) on Spotify.”

“I also like to write non-academic things. I’ve previously had a young adult book, Svarta Skuggor (“Black Shadows”) published by the publisher Rabén & Sjögren.

His young adult book “Black Shadows” waspublished in 2002.

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