When Social Reps are More Important than Defending Your Fellow Man

Playgrounds are wild habitats. Packs roam around together, making deals and exchanging protections while preying on the weak. There’s a reason there’s a cage around them, and it’s not necessarily to keep others out.

Bullying is a problem as old as time and it’s not likely to simply go away anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing whatever we can to decrease the levels and severity of bullying episodes, especially in school districts where the problem is at its worst.

One of the methods employed by modern educators is to try to get kids to stick up for one another. Either by reporting instances of bullying when viewed or by directly intervening when it happens, one way of stopping bullying is by having children police themselves.

And I want to make a note here that this doesn’t just include a fist in the eye. Bullying can take plenty of forms including name calling and social ostracization. One need not risk their fully functioning nose to intervene in bullying, perhaps just their reputation, which can be an even greater loss when broken.

According to University of Illinois educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage, however, the current methods are overlooking one key component – social groups. In a new study published in The Journal of Early Adolescence, Espelage shows that it’s not enough to simply tell kids to stick up for victims; you have to reduce the amount of bullying to begin with as well.

“It behooves us as scholars to understand the complex dynamic behind willingness to intervene and recognize that simply saying to a middle-school kid that you need to just stick up for the victim or you’re going to be held liable is not the way to approach this. There has to be simultaneous consideration of the level of bullying in the schools and the extent to which it’s going to minimize the likelihood of intervention,” said Espelage.

The research team conducted surveys of 346 middle-school children over a two-year period. Some were in 6th grade while others were in 7th, and then they advanced a grade the following year.

Well, most of them.

The survey asked students how many times in the prior 30 days they had engaged in bullying behaviors. It also asked a series of questions in order to gauge their attitude towards bullying, their empathy levels, their ability to adopt others’ points of view and – most importantly – who their friends were.

The results showed that for 7th grade boys, if their peer group had a lot of instances of bullying, they weren’t very likely to intervene on another’s behalf. Interestingly enough, this didn’t apply so much to younger boys or girls of any age. Not so much that they were or were not willing to intervene, just that the amount of bullying already present in their peer group didn’t have much of an effect on their attitudes.

Thus, the authors argue that for any program that teaches kids to stand up for one another in order to decrease bullying to actually work, schools will have to get the levels of bullying already present lower to begin with.

So let me get this straight. In order for older boys to want to intervene more often, there has to be less bullying to begin with. But if there were less bullying to begin with, would programs intended to get kids to intervene even be necessary?

Seems a bit redundant to me, but who am I to judge?


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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