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Section 7
Peer Relations and Bullying

Question 7 | Test | Table of Contents

Peers have long been implicated in influencing children's and adolescent's social behavior (see Hartup, 1983 for a review). Given the social-ecological perspective that individual characteristics of adolescents interact with group-level factors, many scholars have turned their attention to how peers contribute to aggression and bullying (Espelage et al., 2003; Long & Pellegrini, 2003; Pellegrini & Long, 2002; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000; Rodkin & Hodges, 2003). Several theories are receiving increased attention in the literature and are discussed briefly next.

Homophily hypothesis. Peer group membership becomes extremely important during late childhood and early adolescence (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). It is during this developmental time period that peer groups form based on similarities in propinquity, sex, and race (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Leung, 1994), and groups tend to be similar on behavioral dimensions such as smoking behavior (Ennett & Bauman, 1994) and academic achievement (Ryan, 2001). This within-group similarity is called homophily (Berndt, 1982; Cohen, 1977; Kandel, 1978). Although the homophily hypothesis has been supported in studies of overt, physical aggression among elementary school students (Cairns, Leung, & Cairns, 1995), only one study included an examination of the homophily hypothesis of bullying. In a study of middle school students, social network analysis (SNA) was used to identify peer networks and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) was employed to determine the extent to which peers influenced each other in bullying their peers. Results supported the homophily hypothesis for bullying and fighting among sixth--eighth graders over a 1-year period (Espelage et al., 2003). The effect was stronger for bullying than fighting, suggesting that peer influence plays a bigger role for low-level aggression than fighting. Put simply, students tended to hang out with students who bullied at similar frequencies, and students who hung out with students who bullied others reported an increase in bullying over the school year. Although males in this sample reported slightly more bullying than females, the homophily hypothesis for bullying was supported for both male and female peer groups. These findings suggest that prevention efforts should incorporate a discussion with students about the pressure they experience from peers to engage in bullying and the real barriers to stand up to this powerful social influence.

Dominance theory. Early adolescence is also a time in which bullying increases (Pellegrini, 2002; Pellegrini & Long, 2002; Smith et al., 1999). A potential explanation for this increase is dominance theory. Dominance is viewed as a relationship factor in which individuals are arranged in a hierarchy in terms of their access to resources. Pellegrini (2002) argues that the transition to middle school requires students to renegotiate their dominance relationships, and bullying is thought to be a deliberate strategy used to attain dominance in newly formed peer groups. In an empirical test of dominance theory of proactive aggression and bullying, Pellegrini and Long (2002) found, at least in one sample, that bullying was used more frequently by boys who targeted their aggression toward other boys during this transition. Certainly, this research supports the idea that males engage in more bullying than girls during the transition to middle school, but it also highlights the importance of studying this increase as a result of the complex interaction among the need for dominance, changes in social surroundings and peer group structure, and the desire to interact with the opposite sex.

Attraction theory. Attraction theory posits that young adolescents in their need to establish separation from their parents become attracted to other youth who possess characteristics that reflect independence (e.g., delinquency, aggression, disobedience) and are less attracted to individuals who possess characteristics more descriptive of childhood (e.g., compliance, obedience) (Bukowski, Sippola, & Newcomb, 2000; Moffitt, 1993). These authors argue that early adolescents manage the transition from primary to secondary schools through their attractions to peers who are aggressive. In their study of 217 boys and girls during this transition, Bukowski and colleagues found that girls' and boys' attraction to aggressive peers increased upon the entry to middle school. This increase was greater for girls, which is consistent with Pellegrini and Bartini's (2001) finding that at the end of middle school girls nominated "dominant boys" as dates to a hypothetical party. This theory, along with the homophily hypothesis and dominance theory, demonstrate the complex nature of bullying during early adolescence and underscores the need to move beyond descriptive studies of bullying among boys and girls.

Familial Characteristics
Literature on aggression and familial factors has provided considerable support for the association between general aggressive behavior in youth and lack of family cohesion (Gorman-Smith, Tolan, Zelli, & Huesmann, 1996), inadequate parental supervision (Farrington, 1991), family violence (Thornberry, 1994), hostile discipline techniques (Loeber & Dishion, 1983), and poor modeling of problem-solving skills (Tolan, Cromwell, & Braswell, 1986). Additionally, high levels of family conflict and parental problems such as drug use and incarceration are correlates of aggression in youth (Henggeler, Schoenwald, Borduin, Rowland, & Cunningham, 1998). These complicated family dynamics illustrate the complex etiological influences on bullying behaviors.

Moreover, investigations in other countries have found significant associations between familial characteristics and bullying behavior (Berdondini & Smith, 1996; Bowers, Smith, & Binney, 1994; Olweus, 1980, 1993). Several of these studies document the association between parenting styles, family environment, and bullying. For example, based on studies with Scandinavian youth, Olweus (1980,1993) concluded that families of boys who bullied were often described as lacking in warmth, used physical violence within the family, and failed to monitor children's activities outside the school. Bowers and colleagues (1994) found support for this finding but added that family members of bullies had high needs for power. Families of victims have been found to be cohesive yet enmeshed and might include an overcontrolling mother (Berdondini & Smith, 1996; Bowers et al., 1994).

Increasingly more research is being conducted on the role of siblings in bullying. In a study in which 375 rural middle school students were surveyed, Duncan (1999) reported that 42% often bullied their siblings and 30% of the sample with siblings were frequently abused by their siblings. Closer examination of these victimization experiences revealed that 22% were often hit or pushed, 8% were often beat up, and 8% were scared they would be hurt badly. This study also demonstrated the concordance between participants' bullying peers at school and bullying siblings at home; 57% of school bullies and 77% of school bully-victims also bullied their siblings.

Research on bullying and victimization in youth seems to support a connection between family environment and bullying behaviors. Families high in conflict, who engage in bullying and aggressive behaviors in the home, and who value aggression as a functional means to an end, are likely to have children who value the utility of bullying behaviors. Given that these behaviors are learned in the home, it is likely that these behaviors will be played out in the school setting. What school conditions are likely to facilitate bullying behaviors?

Community Factors: It Does Take a Village to Reduce Bullying
Given the complexity surrounding bullying behaviors, prevention and intervention efforts need to include not only the individual, peer group, family, and school, but also the community. Our communities are rich environments comprising neighborhoods, churches, after-school programs, recreational centers, libraries, and community centers. Often, schools can partner with these groups and organizations in order to reduce bullying. Wraparound services can help families utilize community services. An example of effectively utilizing community resources to reduce antisocial behavior is multisystemic treatment (MST; Henggeler et al., 1998).
Future Research Directions
- Espelage, Dorothy L.; Swearer, Susan M.; Research on School Bullying and Victimization: What Have We Learned and Where Do We Go from Here?; School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32 Issue 3, p365-383

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information regarding peer-level characteristics in the bullying dynamic.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What are three theories which address peer-level characteristics in the bullying dynamic? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 8
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