Bullying in Early Adolescence: The Role of the
Peer Group. ERIC Digest.
by Espelage, Dorothy L.
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
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
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."
For More Information
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