We just wrapped up a week of anti-bullying activities at my kids’ school. Which made me want to look at what the research really says about what reduces bullying behavior in school. I’ve found the work of a team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill which highlights the importance of bystanders. They have two papers out related to social networks, bystander behavior, and bullying. The first appeared in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescents. In this piece the authors, Evans and Smokowski, detail the importance of bystanders stepping in to support the bullied individual. What they found might not be surprising, but it speaks to an avenue for making a change. Those who were more likely to step in and stand up against bullying behavior were those who had positive relationships with their peers and teachers. In other words, people who feel socially confident – like others have their back – are more likely to step in. Interestingly, self esteem didn’t seem to be related, so it seems you could be someone who doubts yourself generally but does not doubt your relationships, and still step in to end a bullying episode.
The same team published an article in the June 2016 Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development arguing that when those positive relationships are absent and, instead, the bystanders tend to have friends who are delinquent or who are accepting of bullying physically or verbally, they are not going to step in. They might, in fact, make the situation worse.
What does this say to me? Well, as a mother, these reports cause me to think that a wise school will invest in friendship building. This is a lot to put on a school. They have a lot of other things they are supposed to do, mandated to do, want to do, and just aren’t funded to do. And, frankly, it’s not easy to play matchmaker and encourage kids to befriend a wide circle of kids. So it’s tough to say, well, take the time to help kids build strong social networks. But, it seems to be essential, if your goal is to counter bullying.
And although these articles do not touch on this aspect, I will go ahead and say it – we do have data about which kids are more likely to be bullied. So again, the wise school would identify those kids and help to build their social network. Likewise, we know which kids are most likely to become bullies – and in any case, that’s an observable quality! So an immediate solution might be to direct those who bully or seem inclined to bully away from befriending like-minded peers.