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June 23, 2011

Do bullied young people cope differently when they're bullied in lots of different ways?

Skrzypiec, G., Slee, P., Murray-Harvey, R., & Pereira, B. (2011). School bullying by one or more ways: Does it matter and how do students cope? School Psychology International, 32, 288-311.

This research aimed to find out whether victims of bullying experience multiple forms of bullying, such as physical, verbal and ‘covert’ (e.g. rumour spreading, exclusion from groups). Also of interest was whether victims differed in how they coped – did this differ if they were bullied in more than one way?

The 452 young people involved in this study were drawn from two mainstream Secondary schools in Australia and were all aged 12-14 years old. They were asked about their experiences of being bullied in six different ways: hit/kicked, name calling, cyber-bullying, exclusion, ignored, ‘something else’. They were also asked about a number of different coping strategies: getting support from adults, getting support from friends, trying to solve the problem themselves, pretending it wasn’t happening, taking it out on someone or something else, internalising (e.g.being upset or sad), giving into the aggressor, pretending it didn’t matter, going somewhere that the bullies were not.

Prevalence: While 32% of students reported being bullied, 12% said they were being bullied ‘about once a week’ or more often. 5% said they had been bullied for a month or more.

Of those who were bullied, 32% were bullied in more than one way; 10% were bullied in all three ways (physical, verbal and covert). Of those bullied in three ways, 31% were frequently bullied (‘most days’), while those bullied in either one or two ways were bullied less frequently (only 5-6% said ‘most days’). However, the number of ways in which students were bullied did not relate to how long they had been bullied. Despite this, students who reported more forms of bullying said that they felt a lot less safe in school than those experiencing fewer types of bullying.

Coping: 5% of young people said that they did not think they were coping very well, while 58% said they felt they were coping really well with the bullying.

There were differences in how those who were bullied coped and how those who were not bullied said they would cope. For example, bullied students reported using social support less often than non-bullied students said they would use this strategy. These two groups did not differ in the degree to which they said they would/did use problem solving coping strategies.

Comparing those bullied in one way, two ways, and three ways, there were no differences in how they coped with the behaviours they were experiencing. This was interesting because the young people reported that they thought they were coping badly when they experienced more types of coping (despite apparently coping in similar ways).

I thought this was an interesting paper, especially the indication that young people who are bullied in multiple ways do no differ in terms of how they cope with aggression from their peers, and nor are they bullied for any longer. Despite these similarities, their belief that they are coping poorly suggests that they find the situation more distressing.

June 20, 2011

Acting out after experiencing discrimination - what do genes have to do with it?

Brody, G.H., Beach, S.R.H., Chen, Y-F., Obasi, E., Philibert, R.A., Kogan, S.M., & Simons, R.L. (2011). Perceived discrimination, serotonin transporter linked polymorphic region status, and the development of conduct problems. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 617-627.

These authors were interested in changes in conduct problems during later adolescence. Conduct problems are antisocial behaviours such as aggression, destruction of property, lying and theft. These kinds of behaviours predict criminal behaviour in adult life. This study aimed to examine the contribution of young people’s experiences of discrimination in the development of conduct problems among African American adolescents. Furthermore, the study aimed to examine whether certain genetic differences among young people could make the effects of perceived discrimination on the development of conduct problems greater or lesser (i.e. whether genetic differences could reduce the likelihood that young people would develop conduct problems after they had experienced discrimination).

The genetic difference these authors investigated was the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTT.This gene differs between people who carry short or long versions of the allele 5-HTTLPR. Short versions of the allele tend to be seen in people who pay more attention to threatening things in their environment, so people with short alleles were expected to display higher levels of conduct problems in response to perceived discrimination. This genetic risk/resilience factor also seems to be more important for boys than girls.

Participants in this study were 454 African American young people living in rural Georgia, USA. These young people took part when aged 15, 16, and 17 years old. Perceived discrimination and conduct problems were self-reported by the participants, while the DNA data were collected using saliva samples.

Results supported the authors’ expectations. For boys with the short allele, levels of perceived discrimination were associated with conduct problems – when there was very little perceived discrimination this group actually had lower conduct problems than the long allele group, but when there were high levels of discrimination the short allele group showed higher levels of conduct problems. Among the long allele group the level of discrimination did not influence level of conduct problems.

The genetic variation of interest (short vs. long allele 5-HTTLPR) here seems to act as both a protective factor and risk factor – when little or no discrimination is present those with the short allele are actually better off than those with only long alleles. However, when there is high levels of discrimination present, those with the short alleles are in danger of increasing conduct problems. The authors note that others have suggested that the gene variation investigated here relates to how sensitive people are to their environment, and that while short alleles place them at risk of problems when they are in a difficult environment the sensitivity to context also means that they are more likely to take advantage of positive environments than people with only long alleles (also see Jay Belsky’s work in this regard).

Regarding the gender differences, the article suggests that the generally low levels of conduct problems among girls may account for this difference here, especially since aggression and acting out is viewed as a gender appropriate way for boys to deal with stress.

June 16, 2011

Victims of bullying twice as likely to be depressed later in life.

Ttofi, M.M., Farrington, D.P., Lösel, F., & Loeber, R. (2011). Do the victims of school bullies tend to become depressed in later life? A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 3 (2), 63-73.

These authors conducted a review of longitudinal studies which have examined the relationships between victimization in childhood and depression in later life. Longitudinal studies are those which collect data at one point in time (e.g. whether a child is bullied or not) and then collect more data again at a much later point in time (e.g. levels of depression in adult life). These kinds of studies are considered to provide strong evidence for the presence or absence of bullying as something which causes later depression. It is also possible to control for other possible causes of later depression to see whether being bullied can increase levels of depression in addition to other risk factors.

The authors also conducted a meta-analysis. This means they conducted statistical analyses on data from a number of published and unpublished studies. Meta-analyses are considered to provide more reliable judgements about the relationships between behaviours of interest (e.g. being bullied and feeling depressed) than individual studies because they pool information across different studies using different measures, samples, times, and places.

Results suggest that victims of bullying are twice as likely as non-victims to experience later depression. After controlling for other causes of later depression, this reduced slightly but being bullied remained an important predictor of later depression. The authors note that their results indicate that 33% of bullied children reported later depression as compared to 22% of other children. This is a 50% increase in risk of developing later depression.

The authors conclude that there is reliable research evidence which supports the importance of anti-bullying interventions. Reducing levels of bullying helps individuals to live happier lives, but at the same time society benefits financially because of the associated savings in health care and welfare.

June 15, 2011

Don't fight back, and don't show you're upset: What victims say helps.

Tenenbaum, L.S., Varjas, K., Meyers, J., & Parris, L. (2011). Coping strategies and perceived effectiveness in fourth through eighth grade victims of bullying. School Psychology International, 32, 263-287.

These authors were interested in the coping strategies that young people reported using when dealing with victimization. Of particular interest were whether gender differences exist in coping strategy use, and how effective the different coping strategies were considered to be by the young people themselves.

Participating students attended one elementary school and one middle school in the USA. Those who took part had been identified by adults as ‘chronic victims of bullying’. Overall, 102 young people (64 boys, 38 girls) aged 9 to 15 years old took part in small group interviews. The interview groups ranged from three to eight students and took from 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete.

Analyzing the discussions, the authors identified two main coping strategy themes and a number of more focused themes which reflected discrete ways of coping:
  • Problem-focused. This included Self-Defense (i.e. fighting back, usually as a last resort), Stand Up To The Bully, Seeking Social Support (this was the strategy reported most often), Distancing (e.g. ignoring the bulling behavior) and Internalizing (e.g. hiding your feelings so that the bully won’t know they’re upsetting you).
  • Emotion-focused. This included Seeking Social Support, Distancing (e.g. just trying to forget about the problem), Internalizing (e.g. feelin hurt and beginning to believe what the bullies say), Tension-Reduction/Externalizing (e.g. yelling at the bully, getting mad), Focus On The Positive, and Self-Blame (this was not reported very often though).

What do young people say helps?

  • Many young people thought that informing a teacher or adult was a waste of time. Some said that adults didn’t believe them, others reported that they were worried about bullying getting worse if they were seen as tell-tales. Where telling an adult was successful, this was seen as being restricted to the short-term, with bullying starting again after a while.
  • Fighting back was seen in a negative light. Students felt that either it would be ineffective and they would suffer physical pain, or they themselves risked getting into trouble at school for fighting if they fought back. This was not generally not considered to be an effective response.
  • The young people interviewed here also said that showing emotions when being bullied was a bad move and that crying or running away might actually encourage more bullying behavior.
  • Finally, these young people found that distracting themselves from their difficulties did help them to feel better – for example, drawing, reading, and listening to music.

I found the comments made by students here interesting. The fact that students reported adult help to be generally ineffective was very illuminating, and is likely one of the reasons why young people approach adults for help less and less frequently as they get older. It was also interesting to find them noting that even if bullying stopped it tended to start again at a later date – I think this emphasizes that anti-bullying policies need to incorporate ‘follow-up’ meetings to check whether resolved instances of bullying have been maintained over time.

June 13, 2011

Birds of a feather? Friendships and later aggression in early childhood.

Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., Boivin, M., Cantin, S., Dionne, G., Tremblay, R.E., Girard, A., & Perusse, D. (2011). A monozygotic twin difference study of friends’ aggression and children’s adjustment problems. Child Development, 82 (2), 617-632.

This study examined the importance of early childhood friendships and their contribution to subsequent aggression.  The aim was to discover whether having aggressive friends in kindergarten leads to a child showing signs of aggression 1 year later.  Aggressive friends could be viewed as an environmental factor contributing to childhood aggression. However, something in an individuals’ genetic makeup may cause them to choose aggressive friends. This would be a case of genetic factors interacting with environmental factors. It can be difficult in such cases to determine whether it is genetic or environmental factors that are contributing to aggression.  Monozygotic (MZ) twins share 100% of their genes and are usually brought up together. Thus, in an MZ twin pair, if one twin shows signs of aggressive behaviour and the other does not, aggression could not be explained by genetic factors or by an interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Instead, the difference must be explained by some factor out with genetics or their common environment.
This study had 3 aims:
  1. To examine whether MZ twins who had different experiences of aggressive friends in kindergarten would show different signs of aggression and depression one year later.  
  2. To examine whether twins who were victimized by their friends showed higher subsequent aggression. 
  3. To test if this effect would be the same for female twin pairs as male twin pairs.

Two-hundred and thirty- three MZ twin pairs (117 female pairs) from Canada took part in the study. Children were assessed at 5, 19, 30, 48, 60, 72 and 84 months. Teachers and classmates were asked to rate the extent to which each twin had shown aggressive behaviour and depressive signs over the last 6 months. Twins were asked who their three best friends in the class were but were not allowed to nominate their own twin.  Twins’ perception of their friend’s aggression towards them was assessed by interviewing each twin and asking questions about their friend’s behaviour. For example, twins were asked how often their friend had said mean things to them since the beginning of the school year.

The results showed that, even after controlling for other factors such as twins being bullied and twins being treated differently by their parents, having aggressive friends in kindergarten made a significant contribution to the difference in aggression between MZ twins one year later. This result was found for male and female twin pairs.

Contradictory to previous evidence, having aggressive friends in kindergarten was not correlated with depressive symptoms one year later. This may be because in the present study the authors did not ask the children themselves whether they experienced any depressive symptoms (they collected this information from teachers and classmates). This meant that they could not assess the thoughts and feelings of each twin. Another possibility could be that friends’ aggression and depressive symptoms correlate due to genetic factors or an interaction between genetic and environmental factors. However, by using MZ twins, the present study eliminated this possibility.

For male, but not female, twins who thought that they were being victimized by their friends were more likely to show symptoms of aggression one year later. This raises interesting questions about how friendship experiences can have different effects for male and female children.

In summary, the present study found a link between early childhood friendships and subsequent aggressive behaviour. This link was found independent of genetic influences, interactions between genetics and environment and other influences from the twin’s unique environment (such as being treated differently by parents and being bullied). Therefore, friendships early on in childhood seem to be of great significance to subsequent development.

This summary was produced by Lynsey Emery, an undergraduate student who is entering her final year. Her dissertation is focussing on the relationships between theory of mind, the hostile attribution bias, and proactive and reactive aggression.

June 09, 2011

Can bullies work with other children on collaborative tasks?

Murphy, S., & Faulkner, D. (2011). The relationship between bullying roles and children’s everyday dyadic interactions. Social Development, 20 (2), 272-293.

The authors of this study were interested in the ways that children interacted on a task which required them to work together in pairs. Of particular interest were differences in these interactions depending upon the roles that children in those pairs play in bullying situations. The roles of interest here were
  • ‘Defenders’ are those young people who intervene when they see bullying taking place, either directly or by telling a teacher
  • ‘Bullies’ are those young people who initiate or take the lead in bullying others
  • ‘No role’ are those young people who are not in the above roles, and neither are they involved in any other direct way with bullying (e.g. as a victim or as someone who supports the bullies).

One hundred and forty two 6- to- 9-year old children took part. They were first nominated by each other as belonging to specific bullying roles, and children also said how they most liked playing with. Of these 142, a subgroup of 68 took part in further collaborative tasks. These tasks were completed in pairs, and the pairs were different combinations of the three groups of interest: bullies, defenders, and those children with no role. The collaborative task involved children completing a computerised shopping game, and several measures were taken here including: how many moves were made (fewer was better), possession of the computer mouse (degree to which this was shared), and verbal communication.

Defenders: These children were less likely to disagree with their task partners than were bullies, and they more often tried to explain instructions and to give information. They were also assertive and confident enough to give direct guidance on how to complete the task, are were unlikely to simply disagree with their partners in an unhelpful, unconstructive manner.

Bullies: These children tended to disagree with partners more, and this was more often of an unsupportive nature where the disagreement was presented as final. They were also less likely to give helpful explanations and tended to give fewer instructions guiding their partner’s efforts. However, the authors note that it is also interesting that bullies did not make more demands and nor did they express negative feelings anymore than other children. Bullies also did not control the mouse any more than other children. So, children identified as bullies by their peers were not constantly being unhelpful and obstructive (as might have been expected) – rather, they seemed to lack some positive skills (e.g. giving helpful explanations) which defenders were able to more routinely demonstrate. The authors also note that the bullies’ behaviours may reflect difficulties they have in planning tasks and behaviours more generally (known as an executive function problem).

Non-role children: These children are those who are not consistently involved in bullying in any single role. The results reported here suggest that these children were able to change how they behaved when working with different children, and that they used strategies which were unlikely to challenge the possible dominance of bullies – that is to say, bullies may seem to be socially important and have lots of influence in the peer group (certainly at this age) and so non-role children deferred to them. Specifically, they took charge less and told bullies what do so less than they did when working with defenders or other non-role children.

I found this paper really interesting. There are a number of anti-bullying interventions which incorporate social skills training, and this work suggests that such work may be particularly useful for children who bully – though, of course, helping those children to act more collaboratively on an academic task may not necessarily mean they are more collaborative or helpful in social situations.

June 07, 2011

"It was THEIR fault!" Bullies' justifications for bullying.

Perren, S., & Sticca, F. (2011). Bullying and morality: Are there differences between traditional bullies and cyberbullies? Poster presentation at Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 31 March-2 April.

This is a summary of research presented at a recent conference, and this means that the results may differ somewhat from any final peer-reviewed article which results from this study.

These authors suggest that it may be easier to ‘morally disengage’ in cyberbullying than in traditional bullying.  Moral disengagement basically means that aggressors will feel less remorse, and the authors suggest that this may be because aggressors usually don’t see the victim’s responses if they use cyber-aggression.

Young German-speaking students completed a self-report survey and were recruited from a ‘large social networking site’. A total of 486 students completed the survey, and they were aged 12-20 years old (47% were female). Moral disengagement and moral responsibility were assessed using both self-report measures and production measures – the latter are measures where the participants read short stories and had to give their own justifications or decisions about responsibility.

Young people classed as cyber-bullies or as traditional bullies reported higher levels of moral disengagement and lower levels of moral responsibility. However, there was no difference between cyber-bullies or traditional bullies. Boys also reported higher levels of moral disengagement and lower levels of moral responsibility.

These results suggest that young people who use bullying behaviours (cyber or traditional) are likely report that they were provoked and that it was not their fault that they acted aggressively. This in turn may suggest that bullies require help identifying the causes of their own behaviour and help to take more responsibility for their own actions.

June 02, 2011

What links pre-school and early-school aggression?

Olson, S.L., Lopez-Duran, N., Lunkenheimer, E.S., Chang, H., & Sameroff, A.J. (2011). Individual differences in the development of early peer aggression: Integrating contributions of self-regulation, theory of mind, and parenting. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 253-266.

In preschool, most children struggle to control aggressive impulses and have difficulty managing their emotions. However, these are normal developmental tasks which children generally shown good mastery of by the time they enter formal schooling. These authors wanted to better understand the degree to which these factors are associated with aggressive behaviour, and whether they help to explain why some children continue to be aggressive and disruptive even when they have entered school. The specific factors these authors were interested in were:
  • The degree to which children are able to control their negative emotional reactions.
  • Children’s understanding of other people’s beliefs and intentions, known as Theory of Mind
  • parenting behaviour, specifically use of physical punishment and levels of warm, responsive parenting.

199 American 3-year-old children took part (118 girls). They took part in a testing session to assess the variables of interest, and their mother’s reported on their child’s temperament and behaviour. When the children were 6-years-old, teacher’s reported on then children’s adjustment and observations of the children’s aggression in class and playground settings were also conducted.

Boys experienced higher levels of physical punishment than girls, and had lower scores on theory of mind. There were no gender differences on emotional reactivity or levels of maternal warmth. Preschool children’s levels of theory of mind and emotional reactivity were not useful in predicting aggression at age 6. Children’s early ability to control their own behaviour and to stop them selves acting on impulses did however predict later aggressive behaviour. However, the most important predictor was physical punishment used by parents. It was also true that children with low theory of mind and low maternal warmth were at risk for acting aggressively later. These findings were true for both boys and girls.

The authors conclude by highlighting the importance of family based interventions as problematic pre-school parenting was the most important factor in explaining later child aggression.

June 01, 2011

Can managing emotions reduce early-school victimisation?

Giesbrecht, G.F., Leadbeater, B.J., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2011). Child and context characteristics in trajectories of physical and relational victimization among early elementary school children. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 239-252.

This article seeks to understand changes in physical (e.g. hitting, pushing etc) and relational (i.e. manipulating relationships) victimisation across Grades 1, 2, and 3 (that’s approximately ages 6.5 to 8.5 years old). Of particular interest were:
  1. ‘Within person’ predictors of change: (i) how physically aggressive the child was and (ii) emotional dysregulation i.e. how easily upset the child was, how much difficulty they have controlling their emotions. Data on both these issues were gathered using teacher-reports.
  2. 'Between person’ predictors of change: this just refers to whether age and gender can help us understand differences in how victimisation changes across this age span.
  3. ‘Between school’ predictors of change: this referred to the extent to which participation in a victimisation prevention program influenced how victimisation changes across this age span. The intervention used was the WITS (Walk away, Ignore, Talk it out, Seek help) intervention (see Leadbeater et al., 2003, for more details).

A total of 432 children started the study and 385 continued to participate in Grade 3. Physical and relational victimisation were self-reported by the children. Multilevel modelling was used to analyse the data.

Overall both types of victimisation decreased over time, by 11% per year for physical and 7% per year for relational. However, these decreases were influenced by other variables in the study:
  • Physically aggressive children were almost twice as likely to be victimised than children who were not physically aggressive.
  • Levels of physical victimisation reduced more slowly over time for children with worse emotion dysregulation.
  • Levels of relational victimisation actually increased over time for children with worse emotion dysregulation.

Children who participated in the WITS program declined in levels of victimisation at a faster rate than those children who did not take part in WITS. Age and gender did not influence change in victimisation over time.

This study highlights that specific difficulties which children exhibit early on in school can act as markers for increasing victimisation. In particular, children who find it difficult to control and deal with their own emotional reactions and children who are themselves aggressive may both be at risk of victimisation in the early school years. Note that this isn’t to somehow blame the victims, or to justify why others pick on them. However, if adults notice these difficulties they may be able to help children address them and, in turn, help children to integrate more successfully into social settings.

Leadbeater, B., Hoglund, W., & Woods, T. (2003). Changing contents? The effects of a primary prevention program on classroom levels of peer relational and physical victimisation. Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 397-418.