Bullying in Early Adolescence: The Role of the Peer Group

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated the seriousness of bullying in American schools. In a nationally representative sample of over 15,686 students in the United States (grades 6 through 10), 29.9% self-reported frequent involvement in bullying at school, with 13% participating as a bully, 10.9% as a victim, and 6% as both (Nansel et al., 2001). Aggression and violence during childhood and adolescence have been the focus of much research over the past several decades (e.g., Loeber & Hay, 1997; Olweus, 1979). These researchers have found that serious forms of aggression remain relatively stable from childhood through adulthood; however, Loeber and Hay (1997) argue that mild forms of aggression may not begin for some children until early or late adolescence. Despite Loeber and Hay's findings, very little research has been conducted on mild forms of aggression, such as bullying, during the middle years. One notable gap in the evolving literature on bullying and victimization during early adolescence is the role that peers play in promoting bullying and victimization by either reinforcing the aggressor, failing to intervene to stop the victimization, or affiliating with students who bully. This Digest looks at the limited research available on the role of the peer group in bullying to learn more about how bullying and victimization might emerge or continue during early adolescence. 

Definitions of Bullying

While definitions of bullying often differ semantically, many of them have one concept in common: Bullying is a subtype of aggression (Dodge, 1991; Olweus, 1993; Smith & Thompson, 1991). The following definitions are common in the literature: "A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students" (Olweus, 1993, p. 9). "A student is being bullied or picked on when another student says nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is hit, kicked, threatened, locked inside a room, sent nasty notes, and when no one ever talks to him" (Smith & Sharp, 1994, p. 1). 

Peer Acceptance and Status

During early adolescence, the function and importance of the peer group change dramatically (Crockett, Losoff, & Petersen, 1984; Dornbusch, 1989). Adolescents, seeking autonomy from their parents, turn to their peers to discuss problems, feelings, fears, and doubts, thereby increasing the salience of time spent with friends (Sebald, 1992; Youniss & Smollar, 1985). However, this reliance on peers for social support is coupled with increasing pressures to attain social status (Corsaro & Eder, 1990; Eder, 1985). It is during adolescence that peer groups become stratified and issues of acceptance and popularity become increasingly important. Research indicates, for example, that toughness and aggressiveness are important status considerations for boys, while appearance is a central determinant of social status among girls (Eder, 1995). Some researchers believe that the pressure to gain peer acceptance and status may be related to an increase in teasing and bullying. This behavior may be intended to demonstrate superiority over other students for boys and girls, either through name-calling or ridiculing. 

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