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January 21, 2015

Kohm, A. (2015, in press). Childhood bullying and social dilemmas. Aggressive Behaviour.

This is the first blog post of the new year, and comes from one of my current undergraduate dissertation students Jennifer Burns. 

Research shows that as well as the bully and victim in a bullying scenario, other children will also be present, who are known as ‘bystanders’. These bystanders, despite sometimes wanting to, rarely step in and defend the victim of bullying behaviours. Rather, they often withdraw from the scene or assist in bullying. Therefore, this study set out to identify factors which may explain these behaviours of bystander children in bullying contexts.

Previous research has shown that both individual and group factors will influence how children behave in bullying situations, and so this study looked at both individual attitudes to bullying and group norms regarding bullying. Group norms are the expected standard of behaviour within a group, whilst attitudes are students moral beliefs regarding bullying.

Additionally, this study applied Social Dilemma theory to school based bullying. Social Dilemmas are considered situations where an individual must make a decision based on the outcomes for themselves, as they do not believe that others will support or join them in their choice of behaviour. So, a child may not want to defend another if they feel that, unless other children help, it is a waste of time.

This study therefore predicted that children with anti-bullying attitudes and anti-bullying group norms would be less likely to bully and more likely to defend. Conversely, the greater the social dilemma reported, the more likely they would be to withdraw or assist bullying.

A total of 292 students aged 11-14 years, from a residential school in the USA participated. There were roughly equal numbers of male and female participating students. All children stayed in residences with approximately 10-12 other children of the same sex.

The children completed an online survey that related to bullying experiences within their school residences. The children accessed these online at school. The measure first asked them to report how their fellow housemates usually behave in bullying situations. They then completed sections which asked about their attitudes towards bullying, revealing either anti-bullying or pro-bullying attitudes, and subsequently about the group norms regarding bullying within their residence. The final section asked about the social dilemmas that the children face for physical, verbal and relational bullying. 


Nearly all students reported witnessing bullying in their residences; most common was verbal or relational bullying. Over half of students said that standing up for the victim by themselves would be dangerous and ineffective. In contrast, nearly half of students reported that group efforts to defend the victim are safer and more effective. Very few students believed their housemates would support them if they defended a victim. Individual’s attitudes, reported group norms, and perception of social dilemma each contributed to predicting how children react to bullying. Higher perception of a social dilemma was related to higher bullying and withdrawing behaviour. This study therefore advanced insight into group factors that are associated with, and appear important to bystander behaviour.

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