A new study of more than 346 middle-school children indicates that boys are less likely than girls to intervene to protect a bullying victim, especially if the boy is a member of a peer group in which bullying is the norm. The study also suggests that anti-bullying programs that focus on bystander intervention and empathy training aren’t likely to have much impact unless attention is given to reducing bullying perpetration within children’s peer groups.
The study, led by educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage at the University of Illinois, examined the attitudes and behaviors of sixth- and seventh-grade students and their networks of friends to determine if certain factors – such as gender, empathy and belonging to peer groups that perpetrate bullying – might be predictive of bystander intervention.
The students were asked how many times in the prior 30 days they had engaged in bullying behaviors such as teasing, name calling and social exclusion. Their attitudes toward bullying were measured using a four-item scale, developed specifically for the study from in-depth interviews with middle-school students, with higher scores interpreted as having a favorable view of bullying.
Additionally, students indicated their extent of agreement with statements about intervening directly or indirectly – by alerting an adult, for example – when they encountered others being bullied.
The cognitive and emotional aspects of empathy were also assessed for each student, including “perspective taking” – that is, willingness to adopt others’ psychological points of view – and levels of empathetic concern for others (for example, “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them”).
Boys who belonged to friendship networks that perpetrated higher levels of bullying and who looked upon bullying favorably were less likely to intervene to protect a victim. Seventh-grade males had the least willingness to intervene, less than sixth-grade boys and girls of both grades.
Girls, however, were somewhat more willing than boys to intervene on a victim’s behalf, regardless of bullying perpetration and attitudes toward it within their friendship groups.
The findings suggest that “we may be thinking about willingness to intervene in an inaccurate way,” Espelage said. “It appears that until you reduce bullying within certain peer groups, some kids are unlikely to intervene. Just telling kids to intervene doesn’t recognize that some of the bystanders are entrenched in peer groups where bullying is just their repertoire.”
While boys who scored higher on perspective taking were significantly more willing to intervene than other boys, the researchers found no relationship between empathic concern and willingness to intervene.
Many scholars advocate anti-bullying curricula that promote empathy, nonviolence and prosocial behavior and encouraging individual bystanders to be allies for victims. However, such programs “fail to have a conversation with children about how their intervening is viewed by their friends,” Espelage and her co-authors wrote. “It is important to recognize that early adolescence is a time in which the opinions and attitudes of friends play a pivotal role in the individual decisions that kids make about their own behavior.”
While encouraging bystanders to intervene directly or indirectly can be beneficial, educators need to adjust their expectations to their schools’ particular context. Schools and peer groups are microcosmic societies with social-influential leaders, and developing interventions that focus on modifying the behavior of the individuals and peer groups that engage in high levels of bullying may be required in addition to anti-bullying curricula for all students, Espelage said.
“We suggest that schools should be getting the bullying behaviors to a low level where it is safe for kids to intervene,” Espelage added. “It behooves us as scholars to understand the complex dynamic behind willingness to intervene and recognize that simply saying to a middle-school kid that you need to just stick up for the victim or you’re going to be held liable is not the way to approach this. There has to be simultaneous consideration of the level of bullying in the schools and the extent to which it’s going to minimize the likelihood of intervention.”
Harold Green, of RAND Corp., and Joshua Polanin, a doctoral candidate at Loyola University, were co-authors on the study, published online last month by The Journal of Early Adolescence.
Willingness to Intervene in Bullying Episodes Among Middle School Students: Individual and Peer-Group Influences. Dorothy Espelage, Harold Green, and Joshua Polanin. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 0272431611423017, first published on November 17, 2011. doi: 10.1177/0272431611423017