Let's be clear: Peer bullying is awfully cruel, and its effects can be devastating to children and adolescents. Research has shown that the prevalence of school bullying (when only observational cameras are watching) is remarkably high. Even more surprising, the proportion of incidents that lead to adult intervention or reprimand is remarkably low. See the excellent work by Dr. Wendy Craig and her colleagues for more details. Lately, a month barely passes in the media without another painful and tragic reminder of how hurtful bullying can be to its victims, and how vulnerable youth may manifest horribly extreme reactions of pain.
So we can all agree that the world would be a better place if peer bullying were to end. It also is critical that our schools be safe havens where we may send our children without fear of harassment, discrimination, or threats of physical and emotional maltreatment. This is a shared goal among parents, school administrators and staff, local, state, and federal governments, and of course youth themselves.
It is especially frustrating to report, therefore, that our current approach for eliminating peer bullying has little chance of being very effective. This is due to a simple reason that plagues so many areas of our society: a poor integration between scientific findings, the generation of social policy, and the training needed to implement effective interventions. Yes, you have heard this before. Nearly every sector of our society, at least with respect to social issues (e.g., education practices, mental/physical health care, obesity prevention), suffers from the same communication problems. The American Social Policy Machine requires tri-lingualism in three domains of expertise, and no one is offering translation.
I certainly am not qualified to serve as such a translator. But I can at least do my part to attempt to explain some findings in psychological science, especially in an area that so deservingly needs our attention.
What does science tell us about peer bullying?
In developmental and clinical child psychology circles, "peer bullying" may refer to a variety of ways in which peers are aggressive towards one another. Lots of press recently has focused on how aggression may take many different forms (hitting, gossiping), and many pop psychology books and even humorous movies (e.g., Mean Girls) have gotten mileage out of the distinctions between different forms of aggression.
But that's not as important as the far less screenplay-ready concept of WHY kids act aggressively towards one another. This research has been active for over 100 years, and the (simplified) answer is easy. Kids are aggressive towards one another for two very different reasons. Importantly, if bullying prevention campaigns do not recognize the difference between these two reasons, they are doomed to fail (or be marginally effective, at best).
1. Some aggression, referred to by psychologists as "proactive" aggression, is enacted by an aggressor as a strategy to get something they want, often high regard or "status" from peers. Sometimes conceptualized as "cold-blooded" aggression, it often is planned, calculated, and strategic. Teasing a vulnerable peer makes the aggressor look more powerful, "cooler," and of higher status. Kids know this because when they bully someone successfully (i.e., make the other person look less dominant or less "cool") they receive lots of verbal and non-verbal signals from others that tells them that they are well-liked and well-regarded. Recent research, by our lab group, as well as by Drs. Amanda Rose, Toon Cillessen, and others, clearly has demonstrated that adolescents' proactive aggressive behaviors are associated with increases in their popularity overtime.
Findings tells us that kids with a tendency towards proactive aggression have probably learned somewhere along the way (often by watching parents) that aggression can be a successful way to get what they want.
2. A second reason for aggressive behavior between peers is referred to as "reactive" aggression, and in contrast to its counterpart, it is often conceived as a "hot-blooded," impulsive, spontaneous behavior. Reactive aggression is a "reaction" to frustration. When someone or something blocks us from reaching a goal, we get frustrated. Sometimes, this feeling of frustration leads to aggression.
For instance, if a peer takes a child's toy away, or if a person can't successfully get their computer to work properly, they will get upset. That's normal and OK. When feeling frustrated, some people act out aggressively. They hit the child who took their toy, or throw that computer across the room. That's not OK.
As children grow older, many learn how to handle frustration more and more adaptively. In other words, they use aggression less and less. But some don't learn this. In fact, many adults find that frustration leads to an aggressive response far more quickly and frequently than they'd like to admit.
An interesting twist: a very frustrating experience for youth is to be bullied by others! So, some kids acting aggressively to youth may only be doing so because they were just victimized.
You likely are starting to get the picture. Peer aggression can occur for very different reasons, and sometimes by very different types of kids. Some of the most interesting scientific developments in this area now are being provided by Dr. Julie Hubbard. Her work shows that even reactively vs. proactively aggressive kids' biological responses to stress differ dramatically!
What happens if we "outlaw" bullying within the schools via bullying prevention efforts?
Most school districts attempting an anti-bullying approach use a no-tolerance policy. Act aggressively towards a peer: get disciplined. This is not a bad approach. But it won't solve the problem. This is because such an approach does not appreciate that there are two different groups that need two different approaches to get aggression to stop. Also, it's important to recognize that peer bullying is a horrible reality of our society, in all age groups. We humans are very interested in comparing ourselves to others, especially if it makes us feel better about who we are. Dozens of tabloid maganzines and gossip TV shows owe their income to this sad fact.
But we should still try to make school a safe place. To do so, let's think about what we would need to do differently to address the different types of peer aggression.
For proactive aggression, reprimanding observable forms of aggressive behavior will not stop these kids' desire to gain status or positive regard from their peers. It also won't easily overturn years of history (in the family, or watching media) that somehow has suggested to them aggression is an effective and appropriate way to get status. These kids will act aggressively anyway, perhaps in more covert ways that elude detection. These are planful, strategic kids who are up for the challenge because the rewards feel worth the effort!
For reactive aggression, such a policy has taken away the only way these kids know how to respond to feeling frustrated. A more effective prevention effort would simultaneously offer them a new, more adaptive strategy for how to handle frustration. Such a new strategy would have to be taught to them, reinforced, and be something that will not ostracize them among their peers. Remember, these are kids who are used to reacting impulsively and seeing immediate results, so telling them to wait until they can discuss the issue with a teacher is not likely to work.
What should we do next?
If this all sounds like a complicated fix, then you are right. Unfortunately, there are few problems ailing our society that will be addressed by a quick and dirty approach. And it is true, our best approaches to effect social change will cost money that no one has.
This is why I write this blog now. It has been a little over ten years since the Columbine massacre, enacted by a group of high school students who claimed that their reactions were in retaliation for their negative experiences with peers in the years that preceded their dreadful and horribly tragic acts. The Columbine tragedy sparked a movement towards the reduction of peer bullying that has since grown exponentially, renewed every so often by another horrible school shooting, or more recently, by another gut-wrenching story of a child victim of suicide who cites peer victimization as a main precipitant for their act. (Note: if you are a child reading this, your pain is real, but it definitely will be only temporary! I promise you will feel better with just a little time! Please tell an adult and/or call 1-800-SUICIDE immediately if you are feeling like you may want to hurt yourself). If all of our efforts in the next ten years were united towards a common strategy, one that integrates what we know in science, what we can achieve in policy, and what we can successfully implement with the willing and able staff in the schools, then we could cite much better success a decade from now.
This content of this blog entry was created from discussions within the Peer Relations Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Copyright © Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., 2011. All rights reserved.