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June 01, 2013

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In kids’ world, bullying makes you cool, troubling findings suggest 

Jan. 25, 2013
Courtesy of UCLA
and World Science staff


Bul­ly­ing, wheth­er it’s phys­i­cal ag­gres­sion or spread­ing ru­mors, boosts the pop­u­lar­ity of mid­dle school stu­dents, a fact that will com­pli­cate ef­forts to pre­vent bul­ly­ing, a new study re­ports.

Psy­chol­o­gists stud­ied 1,895 eth­nic­ally di­verse stu­dents from 99 clas­ses at 11 Los An­ge­les mid­dle schools, con­duct­ing sur­veys at three points dur­ing sev­enth and eighth grades. Each time, stu­dents were asked to name the kids who were con­sid­ered the “coolest,” those who “s­tart fights or push oth­er kids around” and those who “spread nas­ty ru­mors about oth­er kids.”

Stu­dents who were named the coolest at one time were largely named the most ag­gres­sive the next time, the study found. And those con­sid­ered the most ag­gres­sive were more likely to be named the coolest the next time.

“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” said Jaana Ju­vo­nen, a Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Los An­ge­les psy­chol­o­gist and lead au­thor of the stu­dy. “What was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing was that the form of ag­gres­sion, wheth­er highly vis­i­ble and clearly con­fronta­t­ional or not, did not mat­ter. Push­ing or shov­ing and gos­sip­ing worked the same for boys and girls.”

The study aimed “to fig­ure out wheth­er ag­gres­sion pro­motes so­cial sta­tus, or wheth­er those who are per­ceived as pop­u­lar abuse their so­cial pow­er and pres­tige by put­ting oth­er kids down,” she said. “We found it works both ways for both ‘male-typed’ and ‘female-typed’ forms of ag­gres­sion.”

The re­search is pub­lished on­line in the Jour­nal of Youth and Ad­o­les­cence and is to ap­pear in an up­com­ing print edi­tion of the jour­nal.

The find­ings show an­ti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams have to be soph­is­t­icated and sub­tle to suc­ceed, she said. “A sim­ple mes­sage, such as ‘bul­ly­ing is not tol­er­at­ed,’ is not likely to be very ef­fec­tive,” Ju­vo­nen said.

Ef­fec­tive an­ti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams need to fo­cus on the by­standers, who play a crit­i­cal role and can ei­ther en­cour­age or dis­cour­age bul­ly­ing, said Ju­vo­nen, who has con­ducted re­search on bul­ly­ing since the mid-1990s and serves as a con­sult­ant to schools on an­ti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams. By­standers should be made aware of the con­se­quenc­es of spread­ing ru­mors and en­cour­ag­ing ag­gres­sion and the dam­age bul­ly­ing cre­ates, she said.

The ru­mors mid­dle school stu­dents spread of­ten in­volve sex­u­al­ity, like say­ing a stu­dent is gay or pro­mis­cu­ous, and family in­sults, she said. Like chil­dren, Ju­vo­nen not­ed, apes and mon­keys al­so use ag­gres­sion, though ob­vi­ously less ver­bal­ly, to pro­mote so­cial rank.

In pre­vi­ous re­search, Ju­vo­nen and col­leagues have re­ported that nearly three in four teenagers say they were bul­lied on­line at least once dur­ing a re­cent 12-month pe­ri­od, and only one in 10 re­ported such cyber-bul­ly­ing to par­ents or oth­er adults; that nearly half of the sixth graders at two Los An­ge­les-area pub­lic schools said they were bul­lied by class­mates dur­ing a five-day pe­ri­od; that mid­dle school stu­dents who are bul­lied in school are likely to feel de­pressed, lonely and mis­er­a­ble, which in turn makes them more vul­ner­a­ble to fur­ther bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents; and that bul­ly­ing is per­va­sive.

“Bul­ly­ing is a prob­lem that large num­bers of kids con­front on a daily ba­sis at school; it’s not just an is­sue for the few un­for­tu­nate ones,” Ju­vo­nen has said. “Stu­dents re­ported feel­ing hu­mil­i­at­ed, anx­ious or dis­lik­ing school on days when they re­ported in­ci­dents, which shows there is no such thing as ‘harm­less’ name-call­ing or an ‘in­no­cent’ punch.’”

Ju­vo­nen ad­vises par­ents to talk with their chil­dren about bul­ly­ing be­fore it hap­pens, to pay at­ten­tion to changes in their chil­dren’s be­hav­ior and to take their con­cerns se­ri­ous­ly. Bul­lied stu­dents of­ten suf­fer headaches, colds and oth­er phys­i­cal ill­nesses, as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, she ex­plained.


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Bullying, whether it’s physical aggression or spreading rumors, boosts the popularity of middle school students, a fact that will complicate efforts to prevent bullying, a new study reports. Psychologists studied 1,895 ethnically diverse students from 99 classes at 11 Los Angeles middle schools, conducting surveys at three points during seventh and eighth grades. Each time, students were asked to name the kids who were considered the “coolest,” those who “start fights or push other kids around” and those who “spread nasty rumors about other kids.” Students who were named the coolest at one time were largely named the most aggressive the next time, the study found. And those considered the most aggressive were more likely to be named the coolest the next time. “The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” said Jaana Juvonen, a University of California Los Angeles psychologist and lead author of the study. “What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls.” The study aimed “to figure out whether aggression promotes social status, or whether those who are perceived as popular abuse their social power and prestige by putting other kids down,” she said. “We found it works both ways for both ‘male-typed’ and ‘female-typed’ forms of aggression.” The research is published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and is to appear in an upcoming print edition of the journal. The findings show anti-bullying programs have to be sophisticated and subtle to succeed, she said. “A simple message, such as ‘Bullying is not tolerated,’ is not likely to be very effective,” Juvonen said, when bullying often boosts social status and respect. Effective anti-bullying programs need to focus on the bystanders, who play a critical role and can either encourage or discourage bullying, said Juvonen, who has conducted research on bullying since the mid-1990s and serves as a consultant to schools on anti-bullying programs. Bystanders should be made aware of the consequences of spreading rumors and encouraging aggression and the damage bullying creates, she said. The rumors middle school students spread often involve sexuality, like saying a student is gay or promiscuous, and family insults, she said. Like children, Juvonen noted, apes and monkeys also use aggression, though obviously less verbally, to promote social rank. In previous research, Juvonen and colleagues have reported that nearly three in four teenagers say they were bullied online at least once during a recent 12-month period, and only one in 10 reported such cyber-bullying to parents or other adults; that nearly half of the sixth graders at two Los Angeles-area public schools said they were bullied by classmates during a five-day period; that middle school students who are bullied in school are likely to feel depressed, lonely and miserable, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to further bullying incidents; and that bullying is pervasive. “Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront on a daily basis at school; it’s not just an issue for the few unfortunate ones,” Juvonen has said. “Students reported feeling humiliated, anxious or disliking school on days when they reported incidents, which shows there is no such thing as ‘harmless’ name-calling or an ‘innocent’ punch.’” Juvonen advises parents to talk with their children about bullying before it happens, to pay attention to changes in their children’s behavior and to take their concerns seriously. Bullied students often suffer headaches, colds and other physical illnesses, as well as psychological problems, she explained. suggest