Bullying appears to be ubiquitous. We find it in every society that we look for it. Even amongst societies that explicitly state a strong dislike of violence and anger, we find subtle indirect bullying. Our goal is to understand it so that we can prevent it (or at least reduce it).
Bullying is goal-direct aggression that causes harm within the context of a power imbalance. Bullying happens in a wide range of settings, contexts, groups, and ages. And bullying most definitely can cause serious harm to victims. Yet the popular stereotype of bullies as being lonely social-misfits also doesn’t appear to be true for many bullies who are socially skilled, and suffer from few, if any, mental or physical health problems. Add to this that bullies tend to be rated as dominant or popular and that they begin dating earlier and more often. Finally, bullying is partly heritable and has many animal analogues.
We therefore believe that bullying is a natural part of our evolutionary history. That doesn’t mean we condone it. Craving fat, salt, and sugar are part of our evolutionary history, but we don’t have to chow on junk food all day. Similarly, we don’t accept bullying as a modern or moral behavior, so we want to change this undesirable part of human nature.
We currently have over 5 different studies on bullying, but our largest ongoing study of bullying is a collaboration with the Niagara Catholic District School Board to study the relationships of students from a common family of schools. Parents, students, or staff from that study are always welcome to contact me with any questions or comments they have. We also have the parental information form for the Fall of 2019 (HolyCross.High.School. Oct 2019) as well as our school board update (Brock.Adolescent.Social.Relationships.Update.2021.Final) for 2021. While our work has temporarily been suspended due to COVID-19, we hope to be able to return to schools in 2021/22 once it is completely safe and appropriate to do so.
We believe that adolescents’ personalities play a key role in predicting whether or not they engage in bullying. Particularly, we feel that personality traits that are related to low Honesty-Humility (HEXACO) and psychopathy (callousness, lack of humility) may put adolescents at risk for being bullies. Conversely, being introverted and neurotic may place adolescents at the risk of being bullied. But parents, peers, and social environments also all contribute to bullying by helping to shape the costs and benefits of behaving like a bully. So we really want to study the intersection of personality, relationships, and the environment/culture.
Make no mistake, bullying is very complex problem. But the good news is that we’re getting better at understanding it. Our goal is to help with those efforts in order to improve the lives of the millions of people (especially children and adolescents) worldwide who are affected by it.
Bullying in Adolescence
We are currently looking at 3 separate aspects of bullying amongst adolescents: sports, parents, and/or social development.
Our preliminary data suggests that adolescent girls who are in competitive sports face significantly greater risks of being a bully AND/OR being bullied! We are currently replicating the results of this study, as well as expanding it to include boys and adolescents outside of competitive sports. Given that sports are supposed to be a positive, safe, and character-building activity for youth, our findings are of great concern. Thanks to the participation of hundreds of youth from local sport and extracurricular clubs, we have some very encouraging data that coaches may be able to play an important role in reducing athletes’ bullying behaviors in sports AND in schools! In other words, coaches who condemn bullying may change the behavior of their athletes so that they are less likely to bully other adolescents not only in sports, but also at school.
We believe that parents can play a crucial role in preventing bullying and in helping victims of bullying. However, to do so, we need to understand that different children had different temperaments- different, internal ways of approaching the world. Some children respond well to empathy, others reward, others to challenges. We do know that parents can play a role in preventing bullying if their child has a predisposition to be a bully. In those cases, parents need to know what their child is up to. That means actually knowing, not just asking or setting limits. If parents can establish an honest dialogue with their adolescent, that greatly reduces the chances of the child behaving as a bully.
From a personality perspective, we know that being a bully is most strongly associated with arrogant, selfish personality traits (e.g., low Honesty-Humility) as well as impulsiveness (e.g., low Conscientiousness). More details on these traits can be found in the personality research section.
As said above, we think that bullying is a combination of individual predispositions AND their environment. That means various environments can help or hinder the expression of bullying. For example, we know that competitive environments, environments with poor adult supervision, and dangerous neighborhoods all increase the chances of bullying happening. We believe that these environments send signals to some children that their best option is to exploit others. Thus, by changing these environments, we can change the degree of bullying.
We are also using social network analyses to study the details of the social structures that lead to bullying as well as those that protect adolescents from engaging in, or being affected by, bullying. These networks allow us to quantitatively determine how complex social relationships can both encourage or discourage bullying, depending on the individuals involved.
The first thing we need to prevent bullying is to understand it. That’s why my lab does basic research on what bullying is, how do we definite it, and how do we measure it. We also look at how we can not only punish bullies, but offer them incentives for stopping their behavior. After all, if bullying results in popularity, sex, and resources, it’s going to be a tough sell to tell bullies to stop just because we said so. Instead, we think a combination of the stick AND the carrot might just be what’s helpful. To this end, we have co-developed the Meaningful Roles intervention and are currently setting up ways to evaluate it. If you are interested in learning more about Meaningful Roles, please read the following JRA Ellis et al 2016 paper and/or contact me.
Given that bullying is a global problem, our lab tries to study bullying outside of the Southern Ontario, Canadian samples we tend to get. To begin with, we have studied bullying and aggression amongst the adolescents of Bwa Mawego. Bwa Mawego is an isolated rural village on the Caribbean island of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic). This village makes for an ideal location to study bullying for several reasons. First, there is no research on bullying and Dominica, and as such, there is no evidence that can be used to help the local children who suffer from bullying. Second, local adolescents go to school in another village, meaning that school life and village life can be quite separate. This means that bullying in school and in the village can be quite separate. Lastly, despite speaking English (and a local French patois), the culture on the island is quite different from mainstream North American culture.
We have also started collecting data from Chinese adolescents in Baoding. We have found that Chinese bullies share many characteristics with Canadian adolescents. But there seem to be fewer bullies and they display slightly more exaggerated personality traits. We are currently analyzing Chinese peer-reported social networks to see if that collectivist adolescent data is similar to what we see in Western countries.
We are also currently starting a project with researchers at the University of Ottawa to study how immigrant and minority youth experience bullying and victimization in Canada. We are interested in both absolute differences (e.g., do they experience more or less bullying?) as well as relative differences (e.g., do they experience more direct or indirect bullying?). Given the challenges seen globally with racial and ethnic tensions, we think it’s a very important area of research to be focusing on.
Finally, along similar lines, we have done some research on bullying amongst First Nations youth. Our Six Nations bullying is part of my research in Six Nations youth in general.