Bullying in Early Adolescence:
The Role of the Peer Group
ERIC Identifier: ED471912
Publication Date: 2002-11-00
Author: Espelage, Dorothy L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated the
seriousness of bullying in American schools. In a nationally representative sample of
over 15,686 students in the United States (grades 6 through 10), 29.9% self-reported
frequent involvement in bullying at school, with 13% participating as a bully, 10.9% as a
victim, and 6% as both (Nansel et al., 2001). Aggression and violence during childhood
and adolescence have been the focus of much research over the past several decades
(e.g., Loeber & Hay, 1997; Olweus, 1979). These researchers have found that serious
forms of aggression remain relatively stable from childhood through adulthood;
however, Loeber and Hay (1997) argue that mild forms of aggression may not begin for
some children until early or late adolescence. Despite Loeber and Hay's findings, very
little research has been conducted on mild forms of aggression, such as bullying, during
the middle years. One notable gap in the evolving literature on bullying and victimization
during early adolescence is the role that peers play in promoting bullying and
victimization by either reinforcing the aggressor, failing to intervene to stop the
victimization, or affiliating with students who bully.
This Digest looks at the limited research available on the role of the peer group in bullying to learn more about how
bullying and victimization might emerge or continue during early adolescence.
DEFINITIONS OF BULLYING
While definitions of bullying often differ semantically, many of them have one concept in
common: Bullying is a subtype of aggression (Dodge, 1991; Olweus, 1993; Smith &
Thompson, 1991). The following definitions are common in the literature: "A person is
being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly over time, to negative actions on
the part of one or more other students" (Olweus, 1993, p. 9). "A student is being bullied
or picked on when another student says nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is
also bullying when a student is hit, kicked, threatened, locked inside a room, sent nasty
notes, and when no one ever talks to him" (Smith & Sharp, 1994, p. 1).
PEER ACCEPTANCE AND STATUS
During early adolescence, the function and importance of the peer group change
dramatically (Crockett, Losoff, & Petersen, 1984; Dornbusch, 1989). Adolescents,
seeking autonomy from their parents, turn to their peers to discuss problems, feelings,
fears, and doubts, thereby increasing the salience of time spent with friends (Sebald,
1992; Youniss & Smollar, 1985). However, this reliance on peers for social support is
coupled with increasing pressures to attain social status (Corsaro & Eder, 1990; Eder,
1985). It is during adolescence that peer groups become stratified and issues of
acceptance and popularity become increasingly important. Research indicates, for
example, that toughness and aggressiveness are important status considerations for
boys, while appearance is a central determinant of social status among girls (Eder,
1995). Some researchers believe that the pressure to gain peer acceptance and status
may be related to an increase in teasing and bullying. This behavior may be intended to
demonstrate superiority over other students for boys and girls, either through
name-calling or ridiculing.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR BULLYING IN MIDDLE SCHOOL
Research with elementary school children in other countries supports the view that peer
group members reinforce and maintain bullying (e.g., Craig & Pepler, 1997; Salmivalli et
al., 1996). These authors contend that bullying can best be understood from a
social-interactional perspective (i.e., bullying behaviors are considered a result of a
complex interaction between individual characteristics, such as impulsivity, and the
social context, including the peer group and school social system). Participation of
peers in the bullying process was clearly evident when Pepler and her colleagues
videotaped aggressive and socially competent Canadian children in grades 1 through 6
on the playground; peers were involved in bullying in an astounding 85% of bully
episodes (Craig & Pepler, 1997). Similarly, in a survey study of sixth-graders in Finland,
the majority of students participated in the bullying process in some capacity, and their
various participant roles were significantly related to social status within their respective
classrooms (Salmivalli et al., 1996). Clearly, peers play an instrumental role in bullying
and victimization on elementary school playgrounds and within classrooms.
TRANSITION TO MIDDLE SCHOOL AND "FITTING IN"
Less well understood are the peer dynamics associated with bullying during the
transition from elementary school to middle school. Some researchers speculate that
this transition can cause stress that might promote bullying behavior, as students
attempt to define their place in the new social structure. For example, changing from
one school to another often leads to an increase in emotional and academic difficulties
(Rudolph et al., 2001); bullying may be another way that young people deal with the
stress of a new environment.
A short-term investigation of over 500 middle school students (grades 6-8) found an
increase in bullying behavior among sixth-graders over a 4-month period (Espelage,
Bosworth, & Simon, 2001). The authors speculated that the sixth-graders were
assimilating into the middle school, where bullying behavior was part of the school
culture. This speculation is supported by the theory that bullying is a learned behavior,
and that as they enter middle school, sixth-graders have not yet learned how to interact
positively in the social milieu of the school. Many sixth-graders who wish to "fit in" may
adopt the behaviors--including teasing--of those students who have been in the school
longer and who have more power to dictate the social norm.
Two recent studies further examined the hypothesis that middle school students opt to
bully their peers to "fit in" (Pellegrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999; Rodkin et al., 2000).
Pellegrini and colleagues found that bullying enhanced within-group status and
popularity among 138 fifth-graders making the transition through the first year of middle
school. Similarly, Rodkin and colleagues, in a study of 452 fourth- through sixth-grade
boys, found 13.1% were rated as both aggressive and popular by their teachers.
Furthermore, these aggressive popular boys and popular prosocial boys received an
equivalent number of "cool" ratings from peers.
These two studies do not examine how the influence of the peer group on bullying
behaviors differs across sex, grade, or level of peer group status. A study by Espelage
and Holt (2001) of 422 middle school students (grades 6-8), using a survey that
included demographic questions, self-report, and peer-report measures of bullying and
victimization, and measures of other psychosocial variables, examined the association
between popularity and bullying behavior. Despite the finding that bullies as a group
enjoyed a strong friendship network, the relationship between bullying and popularity
differed for males and females, and also differed across grades. The most striking
finding was the strong correlation between bullying and popularity among sixth-grade
males, which dropped considerably for seventh-grade males and was not associated for
eighth-grade males. Closer examination of peer cliques in this sample found that
students not only "hung out" with peers who bully at similar rates but that students also
reported an increase in bullying over a school year if their primary peer group bullied
others (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, in press).
We cannot assume that bullying among young adolescents is a simple interaction
between a bully and a victim. Instead, recent studies and media reports suggest that
there are groups of students who support their peers and sometimes participate in
teasing and harassing other students. It seems important for families, schools, and
other community institutions to help children and young adolescents learn how to
manage, and potentially change, the pressure to hurt their classmates in order to "fit in."
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S.
Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under
contract number ED-99-CO-0020. The content of this publication does not necessarily
reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of
trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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