The most common form of bullying is not physical aggression or verbal threats and insults—it’s a behavior known as “social exclusion,” according to new research. Social exclusion is a form of “relational aggression” that occurs when peers exclude a student from group activities or spread harmful rumors about that person, said Chad Rose, an associate professor who directs the Mizzou Ed Bully Prevention Lab at the University of Missouri.
“Previous studies suggest when a kid is excluded from social activities by their peers at school, the outcomes for that kid both short-term and long-term will be just as detrimental as if they got kicked, punched or slapped every day,” said Rose, who was part of a research team that conducted a school climate assessment in 26 middle and high schools across five school districts in the southeastern U.S.
More than 14,000 students were asked how they felt about statements reflecting pro-bullying attitudes, perceived popularity and relational aggression. The survey statements included:
- “A little teasing does not hurt anyone.”
- “I don’t care what mean things kids say as long as it’s not about me.”
- “In my group of friends, I am usually the one who makes decisions.”
- “When I am mad at someone, I get back at them by not letting them be in my group anymore.”
Students who considered themselves socially dominant or popular endorsed pro-bullying attitudes in the survey, but they claimed not to have engaged in social exclusion or relational aggression. Another group who did not think of themselves as socially dominant or popular also endorsed pro-bullying attitudes and admitted to engaging in relational aggression.
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“So, the first group thought bullying was OK but did not see themselves as engaging in it even if they actually were excluding others,” Rose said. “While the second group that admitted to engaging in relational aggression may have been excluding others as an attempt to jockey for the position of being more socially dominant and climb the social hierarchy.”
Rose and his fellow researchers used the term “bystanders” to describe students who did report engaging in some form of bullying. But bystanders can also perpetuate bullying by simply being around it and not intervening, which, Rose acknowledged, can be difficult for children and adults trying to assess a situation. “If we see two kids in a physical fight, we feel an obligation to break it up,” Rose said. “But when we see kids being excluded by their peers, adults don’t always seem to view it as equally damaging, and that’s the scary part.”
Here are a few strategies for preventing social exclusion:
- Skill-specific interventions, such as empathy training and social-emotional learning, can reduce the levels of relational aggression.
- Educators—along with parents and community members—can support youth at risk of bullying by celebrating their individuality. Too often, kids are pressured to conform at school. “Individuality should be interwoven in some of the messages we as adults send in our schools, in our families and in our neighborhoods,” Rose said.
- Teachers can immediately embed social communication skills within their daily curriculum. When educators set academic objectives for a project, they should also monitor whether students are asking their classmates to share their ideas and input. Teachers should praise students when they see this kind of respectful and inclusive behavior in action, Rose said.
Bullying, by the numbers
About 20% of students aged 12-18 experienced bullying, with most of that occurring at school. The bullying took place most frequently in hallways and stairwells, and in classrooms, according to StopBullying.gov, a list of resources and research maintained by the federal government. About 15% of those students reported being bullied online or by text.
Nearly half of those students notified an adult about being bullied.
The students most at-risk of being bullied are those who are perceived as different from their peers, such as for being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing or being new to a school. Students who are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves, kids who are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem, and those who do not get along well with others are also at high risk, according to StopBullying.gov.
The site desribes the two types of kids who are more likely to bully others:
- Some are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others.
- Others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self-esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.
“Bullying does not begin or end with the school bells, it is a community issue,” Rose said. “I think, as adults, we have to be more aware of what we’re teaching our kids in terms of how we interact socially, as schools are a reflection of our communities.”