Students with influence over peers can reduce bullying, study shows

students with influence over peers can reduce bullying

The power of peer influence and social context (e.g., home, school, etc.) are important determinants of youth behaviors that are emphasized in a positive peer culture. Peers with social influence can reduce bullying and conflict behaviors among peers, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study

Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Ph.D., assistant professor at Princeton University, and her colleagues examined the ability of peers to impact others’ behaviors in school as a potential anti-conflict and anti-bullying intervention. Based on theories of human behavior, social norms and social influence, the researchers hypothesized that peers typically adjust their behavior in response to what is socially normal.

A total of 24,191 students (ages 11 to 15) from 56 public middle schools were randomly assigned to either the treatment group or the control group to determine the power of peer influence — that is, whether socially influential peers had the ability to influence the perceptions of social norms of conflict and change overall levels of conflict behaviors among peers at school.

The study consisted of two interventions. The first (i.e., the anti-conflict intervention) was a school-wide intervention that tested whether the influence of socially referent peer groups were strong enough to change perceived social norms and disciplinary events in treatment schools after a year.

In the second anti-bullying intervention, called “the Roots intervention,” a trained research assistant met weekly with a group of socially influential students from each intervention school and led activities to help them to identify common conflict behaviors (e.g., inappropriate written or verbal language toward another student, bullying, verbal altercations, spreading rumors, physical aggression, sexual harassment, etc.) at their schools.

Students who participated in the groups were encouraged to oppose these conflict behaviors. The students formed hashtag slogans about the conflict behaviors and created online and physical posters for slogans. In another activity, the socially referent students gave an orange wristband with the intervention logo (i.e., a tree) as a reward to students who were observed engaging in friendly or conflict-mitigating behaviors.

The results

The results of this study indicated that socially influential peers had a stronger influence on social norms and behaviors than other peers, and the effect of the socially influential peer group was stronger when the group contained more “socially referent” students, who attracted more student attention. Students in the treatment schools reported higher levels of talking with friends about how to reduce conflict and of wearing anti-conflict wristbands, which suggested that peers were engaging in friendly or anti-conflict behaviors at school.

The results of this study suggest that highly influential students in schools have a strong influence on the social norms and behaviors of other peers. Overall, the intervention reduced overall disciplinary reports of peer conflict by an estimated 30 percent in just one year (or an average reduction of 0.06 disciplinary events for students in treatment schools).

Promoting positive and responsible behaviors as the social norm can be useful for reducing problematic behaviors, including bullying, substance abuse and aggressive behavior among peers.

Positive peer culture at White River Academy

Positive peer relationships can lead to reductions in aggression, bullying and acting out in young children. White River Academy’s positive peer culture model provides a positive and supportive atmosphere for students built on the basic values of caring for and helping one another succeed. This positive peer culture demands greatness and sets high expectations to challenge students to do all they are capable of doing.

A positive peer culture model recognizes the power of peer influence — it emphasizes building group responsibility, teamwork and problem-solving among peers, and works with the peer environment and culture to foster care and concern for others, responsibility, dignity, self-worth and significance. These types of behaviors can contribute to feelings of closeness and warmth (i.e., connectedness) among group members — this connectedness formed among peers can promote pro-social behaviors and positive attitudes among peers.

White River Academy’s staff members are fully committed to the caring and helping process of all students. To learn more about our positive peer culture model or for further information about White River Academy, please call our 24/7 helpline to speak to an admissions representative.

Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology.

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