UI study finds peer pressure a factor in school bullying
Get-tough policies that suspend or expel schoolyard bullies aren't likely to solve the problem, which has been in the limelight again since Erika Harold of Urbana became Miss America last year.
Harold's torment by classmates at University High School prompted her to make an anti-bullying campaign part of her Miss America tenure.
But nationwide, school officials, teachers and parents still haven't come to grips with the breadth of the problem nor its impacts, says a University of Illinois professor who's now done 20 studies of bullying.
The latest study by UI educational psychology Professor Dorothy Espelage and colleagues, reported in the current issue of the journal Child Development, indicates that peer pressure prompts kids to engage in bullying and to bully more than they might otherwise.
The study is the first to show a link between peer influence and bullying and fighting.
It comes in the wake of a study released in 1999 where Espelage found that 80 percent of the children surveyed at a Midwest middle school said they had participated in bullying activities during the previous month.
Espelage said her findings indicate zero-tolerance policies focusing on - and getting rid of - a small number of blatant bullies aren't an effective solution.
?None of the intervention programs include a peer component,? she said. ?A lot of kids are involved in the bullying process.?
The peer influence study, as in other studies, also found that when kids didn't actively participate in bullying they mostly stood on the sidelines and made no attempt to stop it.
Espelage said kids view bullying as a routine part of school life.
She argues that the pervasive nature of the problem demands a consistent, schoolwide focus in addressing it, including a component aimed at the tendency of kids to go along with the group even when they know behavior is hurtful.
Espelage said the spotlight Harold's story put on bullying, coupled with a series of school shootings, has administrators, teachers and researchers more interested in the issue. She said her phone rings frequently these days with calls from schools looking for help.
?We have come a very long way,? Espelage said.
However, she said too many schools continue to take a Band-Aid approach, sponsoring one-shot teacher-training sessions or student assemblies, for example, with little or no follow-up.
In part, that's because too many teachers and school administrators have the same outlook as the kids - bullying is just part of growing up, Espelage said. Some adults view the experience as character building.
But she said bullying has effects as severe as alcohol and drug use, which adults certainly don't approach with a hands-off attitude. Espelage said studies have shown for 30 years that bullying victims suffer from psychological and academic problems and may carry them into adulthood. One in six victims tries to avoid going to school and pays academically as a result, she said.
At its worst, bullying's impact extends to teen suicides and school shootings like Columbine, where the shooters were outcasts who felt they had been picked on by their classmates.
?We can no longer say: ?This is just a part of growing up,'? Espelage said.
The UI study of peer influence surveyed sixth- through eighth-graders at an East Central Illinois middle school about bullying activity and fighting using questionnaires developed by Espelage.
The researchers, including UI graduate student Melissa Holt and undergraduate Rachael Henkel, also did a complex analysis of the social structure in the school to map peer relationships. Holt, now at the University of New Hampshire, and Henkel were co-authors of the study.
Bullying was defined as teasing, harassment, rumor spreading and social exclusion.
In addition to finding that both boys and girls tend to engage in bullying more when they hang out with peers who bully, the researchers identified a similar peer influence on fighting, although not nearly as strong.
Espelage said that's probably because fighting - actual physical aggression - is viewed as crossing the line, not as routine, by adults and by most kids.
? I think it's just not acceptable to start punching,? Espelage said.