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What is the role of peers in bullying?

A Canadian study found that the behaviour of peers does seem to encourage bullying incidents in the playground. During the incidents, 21% of the time peers actively encouraged the bullying by joining in physically or verbally. 54% of the time the peers 'passively reinforced' the bully by just standing by and watching. It is suggested that by standing and watching they were providing the bully with an audience and also sending the message (whether they realised it or not) that they supported the bullying. Peers spent only 25% of the time trying to stop the bullying.
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Article details

P O'Connell, D Pepler and W Craig (1999) 'Peer Involvement in Bullying: insights and challenges' in 'Journal of Adolescence', Volume 22, pages 437-452.
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Over 6,000 children took part in a study of bullying in Sheffield. When asked what they did if they saw someone being bullied, 54% of junior/middle school pupils and 34% of pupils from secondary school said they did try to help that person. 27% of junior/middle school children and 47 secondary school pupils said they did nothing, but thought they should. However, some pupils (19% in junior/middle school and 20% in secondary school) said that they would do nothing because they thought it had nothing to do with them. When they were asked if they could join in bullying others approximately 16% of junior/middle pupils and 25% of secondary pupils thought they could.

Article details

I Whitney and P Smith (1993) 'A Survey of the Nature and Extent of Bullying in Junior/Middle and Secondary Schools' in 'Educational Research', Volume 35, Number 1, Spring.
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Author details

Peter SmithProfessor Peter K Smith is Head of the Unit for School and Family Studies, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, London. He has been involved in bullying research for a number of years and has published widely on this topic.

Peter Smith may be contacted by email, and the website of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths College may be found here.

In 1997, over 2,000 children in England were asked about bullying. When asked about their reaction when they witnessed a bullying incident almost half said they tried not to get involved. Fewer (34%) said that they told the bullies to stop it. It was less common to ask an adult to stop it. Some children (11%) admitted that they had not joined in but they had enjoyed watching it, while a fewer number admitted to actually joining in. A small number said that they had been forced to join in.
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Article details

P K Smith and Shu Shu (2000) 'What Good Schools Can Do About Bullying: findings from a survey in English schools after a decade of research and action' in 'Childhood', Volume 7, (2).
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Author details

Peter SmithProfessor Peter K Smith is Head of the Unit for School and Family Studies, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, London. He has been involved in bullying research for a number of years and has published widely on this topic.

Peter Smith may be contacted by email, and the website of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths College may be found here.

A study of over 500 pupils in Finland looked at what children in a group (for example a school class) did when bullying occurred. It was found that although most of the children were not directly attacking the victim, most behaved in ways which allowed the bullying to happen/made it possible. The study found that some children in the group actively supported the bully, some encouraged the bullying by standing and watching, perhaps also laughing or jeering, some tried to stay out of things and some took action to support the victim and to try to the stop the bullying. The study also found that the children were in some ways aware of the role they played in the group. However they did not seem to realise the extent of their participation in direct bullying behaviour, and tended to think they defended the victim or stayed outside things more than they actually did.
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Article details

C Salmivalli, K Lagerspetz, K Björkqvist, K Österman and A Kaukiainen (1996) 'Bullying as a Group Process: participant roles and their relations to social status within the group' in 'Aggressive Behavior', Volume 22, pages 1-15.
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Graph details

See figure 1, page 6 in the above article.
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Christian SalmivalliAuthor details

Dr Christian Salmivalli works at the Department of Psychology in the University of Turku, Finland. Her research interests include aggression in children and young people, bullying in school and interventions to prevent it and also self-esteem and social skills. For more information go here.

Some reasons have been suggested to explain why bystanders might be drawn into bullying. It has been suggested that bystanders may be influenced by bullies, especially if the bystander views the bully as someone with qualities to be admired, for example being fearless and strong. This influence will be more powerful if the bystander has feelings of insecurity and does not fit in particularly easily. Also, if it seems that the bully has in some way been rewarded for his/her behaviour, the bystander may be more likely to become involved. Another suggestion for the changing role of the bystander is that as part of a group, the bystander may feel less responsible and less guilty for his/her own actions. Another possibility put forward is that after watching the frequent humiliation of the victim, classmates might come to view him/her negatively and feel less sympathy and less guilt.
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Article details

D Olweus (1999) 'Sweden' in P K Smith and others (editors) 'The Nature of School Bullying: a cross-national perspective', London: Routledge. Click the book graphic to buy this book online.
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Author details

Professor Dan Olweus was the first person to carry out a thorough research project on Professor Dan Olweusbullying. This large, long term study which began in Sweden in 1970, was to provide the inspiration for many who felt that bullying in schools should be challenged rather than accepted. Since the 1970s, his work in this area had continued with force. Indeed, in 1997-99, he led a group in a large project which introduced the widely respected Olweus (anti-bullying) programme to schools in Norway. Professor Olweus is based at the Research Centre for Health Promotion, University of Bergen in Norway and can be contacted by email.
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