Bullying in Early Adolescence: The Role of the Peer Group (page 2)

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

Setting the Stage for Bullying in Middle School

Research with elementary school children in other countries supports the view that peer group members reinforce and maintain bullying (e.g., Craig & Pepler, 1997; Salmivalli et al., 1996). These authors contend that bullying can best be understood from a social-interactional perspective (i.e., bullying behaviors are considered a result of a complex interaction between individual characteristics, such as impulsivity, and the social context, including the peer group and school social system). Participation of peers in the bullying process was clearly evident when Pepler and her colleagues videotaped aggressive and socially competent Canadian children in grades 1 through 6 on the playground; peers were involved in bullying in an astounding 85% of bully episodes (Craig & Pepler, 1997). Similarly, in a survey study of sixth-graders in Finland, the majority of students participated in the bullying process in some capacity, and their various participant roles were significantly related to social status within their respective classrooms (Salmivalli et al., 1996). Clearly, peers play an instrumental role in bullying and victimization on elementary school playgrounds and within classrooms.

Transition to Middle School and "Fitting In"

Less well understood are the peer dynamics associated with bullying during the transition from elementary school to middle school. Some researchers speculate that this transition can cause stress that might promote bullying behavior, as students attempt to define their place in the new social structure. For example, changing from one school to another often leads to an increase in emotional and academic difficulties (Rudolph et al., 2001); bullying may be another way that young people deal with the stress of a new environment. 

A short-term investigation of over 500 middle school students (grades 6-8) found an increase in bullying behavior among sixth-graders over a 4-month period (Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2001). The authors speculated that the sixth-graders were assimilating into the middle school, where bullying behavior was part of the school culture. This speculation is supported by the theory that bullying is a learned behavior, and that as they enter middle school, sixth-graders have not yet learned how to interact positively in the social milieu of the school. Many sixth-graders who wish to "fit in" may adopt the behaviors--including teasing--of those students who have been in the school longer and who have more power to dictate the social norm. 

Two recent studies further examined the hypothesis that middle school students opt to bully their peers to "fit in" (Pellegrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999; Rodkin et al., 2000). Pellegrini and colleagues found that bullying enhanced within-group status and popularity among 138 fifth-graders making the transition through the first year of middle school. Similarly, Rodkin and colleagues, in a study of 452 fourth- through sixth-grade boys, found 13.1% were rated as both aggressive and popular by their teachers. Furthermore, these aggressive popular boys and popular prosocial boys received an equivalent number of "cool" ratings from peers. 

These two studies do not examine how the influence of the peer group on bullying behaviors differs across sex, grade, or level of peer group status. A study by Espelage and Holt (2001) of 422 middle school students (grades 6-8), using a survey that included demographic questions, self-report, and peer-report measures of bullying and victimization, and measures of other psychosocial variables, examined the association between popularity and bullying behavior. Despite the finding that bullies as a group enjoyed a strong friendship network, the relationship between bullying and popularity differed for males and females, and also differed across grades. The most striking finding was the strong correlation between bullying and popularity among sixth-grade males, which dropped considerably for seventh-grade males and was not associated for eighth-grade males. Closer examination of peer cliques in this sample found that students not only "hung out" with peers who bully at similar rates but that students also reported an increase in bullying over a school year if their primary peer group bullied others (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, in press). 

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