To address bullying, we need to apply what has been learned from observational studies of children at play
Dealing with bullying is not unlike dealing with COVID-19. Less coronavirus infections will arise, if the advice of public health experts is sound, and is followed. If the advice is ignored (or, as in the case of Sweden, the advice is dubious), then the infections will increase.
The same principle applies with bullying. Information about the dynamics of bullying is available in published research related to observational studies of events that occur in schoolyards. Whether or not such information is put to good use will depend upon the senior leadership at a given school board.
Bullying is an issue of concern in schools everywhere. The World Health Organization has published extensive research regarding how well countries around the world are doing in addressing it. On some measures such as rates of victimization by bullying, as Debra Pepler of York University has noted at a podcast referred to at a previous post, Canadian schools are in the bottom third of rich countries for the rates of victimization.
The PREVNet website – the acronym stands for Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network – features information about anti-bullying legislation in provinces and territories across Canada. According to PREVNet, schools are required to have anti-bullying measures in place.
The direct observation of school playground bullying, as described in the article, involved teams of researchers equipped with video cameras positioned at some distance from children at play. Children wore pouches equipped with wireless microphones which recorded their conversations during bullying episodes.
Specified children had pouches with microphones inside of them. Other children wore placebo pouches, without microphones. In that way, all the children were running around with pouches and after a while, the children mostly ignored the pouches.
The researchers studied the role that peers play during bullying episodes on the school playground as examined from a social learning perspective. Many aspects of bullying are amenable to study; in this case, the researchers focused on what peers – that is, bystanders – do, or do not do, when they observe episodes of bullying.
The abstract reads:
The purpose of this research was to examine the peer processes that occur during bullying episodes on the school playground. These processes were examined from a social learning perspective, allowing us to consider the effects of various types of reinforcement among bullies, victims, and peers. Fifty-three segments of video tape were examined. Each segment contained a peer group (two or more peers) that viewed bullying on the school playground. Peers were coded for actively joining or passively reinforcing the bully, and for actively intervening on behalf of the victim. On average, four peers viewed the schoolyard bullying, with a range from two to 14 peers. Averaged across all episodes, peers spent 54% of their time reinforcing bullies by passively watching, 21% of their time actively modelling bullies, and 25% of their time intervening on behalf of victims. Older boys (grades 4-6) were more likely to actively join with the bully than were younger boys (grades 1-3) and older girls. Both younger and older girls were more likely to intervene on behalf of victims than were older boys. The results were interpreted as confirming peers’ central roles in the processes that unfold during playground bullying episodes. We discuss the results in terms of the challenges posed to peer-led interventions. Peers’ anti-bullying initiatives must be reinforced by simultaneous whole-school interventions.
A power differential, between a child who bullies and a child who is bullied, is a key component of a standard definition of bullying. According to some observers, in some cases bullying may occur without a power differential.
The article describes the general context of the research: “The problem of bullying is systemic, extending beyond the bully and victim. Like other forms of aggression, bullying unfolds in a set of social contexts: the dyad, the peer group, the playground setting, and the school environment. The focus of the present analyses is on the peer context in which bullying unfolds.”
“Power differentials in the bully-victim relationship can accrue,” the article notes, “through many means – one is having a group of supportive peers backing the aggressor.”
A power differential may favour the bully, or it may favour the would-be intervenor, depending on the circumstances. Some children are keen to intervene when they see bullying happening. If a school (or any other institution) ignores bullying, the would-be intervenor may be hesitant to intervene because the school or institution may not be there to support such an intervention. The intervenor would also be subject to retaliation, by the person who’s engaging in the bullying.
On the other hand, if a school or institution has a protocol in place for dealing with bullying – if it has, in other words, a viable anti-bullying program in place – then the would-be intervenor will be more at ease about stepping forward and confronting the bully – either directly, or by privately informing a person in authority, such as a teacher, that a particular individual has been bullying some other student or students.
When there’s an effective anti-bullying program in place, the power differential is on the side of the intervenor; it is no longer a situation where the person who bullies is likely to have the edge in power, and in a position to retaliate, against intervenors.
An excerpt from the abstract for the article highlights findings that appear, from my reading of the literature, to be broadly characteristic of research observations of children at play:
More dominant boys, less rejected boys, and more rejected girls excluded peers more frequently than did other children. Children who were more socially accepted tended to more frequently ignore their peers to exclude them. All girls and boys who were more socially accepted used higher rates of mitigated, subtle forms of exclusion. In addition, boys who were more dominant used higher rates of unmitigated, direct peer exclusion.
Dealing with bullying, in any institution, involves taking what we learn from research and actually applying the findings. The researchers who study bullying are generally not directly involved with the implementation of their findings. Instead, that is left to the administrators of school systems and other institutions. PREVNet, which I have described above, seeks to coordinate the research and the implementation.
The same principles apply with regard to public health matters such as pandemics. Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists do research and publish their findings. The decisions about how to deal with a pandemic, however, are generally not directly in the hands of scientists. Rather, it is the political leaders – who have the authority, who have the power, to make key decisions – who choose what advice to follow, or ignore. A related matter concerns competence. The level of competence – as it relates to getting things done, by all levels of government, and by citizens at large – will play a strong role in determining how successfully a given public health crisis is addressed.
When two people interact, their brain patterns align
The following research report is of interest, with regard to potential future directions in basic research (in this case involving animal studies) related to aggression and non-aggression. A May 10, 2021 Nature Neuroscience article is entitled: “Wireless multilateral devices for optogenetic studies of individual and social behaviors.”
The abstract reads:
Advanced technologies for controlled delivery of light to targeted locations in biological tissues are essential to neuroscience research that applies optogenetics in animal models. Fully implantable, miniaturized devices with wireless control and power-harvesting strategies offer an appealing set of attributes in this context, particularly for studies that are incompatible with conventional fiber-optic approaches or battery-powered head stages. Limited programmable control and narrow options in illumination profiles constrain the use of existing devices. The results reported here overcome these drawbacks via two platforms, both with real-time user programmability over multiple independent light sources, in head-mounted and back-mounted designs. Engineering studies of the optoelectronic and thermal properties of these systems define their capabilities and key design considerations. Neuroscience applications demonstrate that induction of interbrain neuronal synchrony in the medial prefrontal cortex shapes social interaction within groups of mice, highlighting the power of real-time subject-specific programmability of the wireless optogenetic platforms introduced here.
The research is highlighted in a May 25, 2021 New York Times article entitled: “Scientists Drove Mice to Bond by Zapping Their Brains With Light: The study, a tour de force in bioengineering, comes after two decades of research on brain-to-brain synchrony in people.”
An excerpt reads:
The new study also raises questions about a tantalizing phenomenon that has been observed in humans for decades, with potential implications for everything from social anxiety disorders to pandemic isolation: When two people interact, their brain patterns align in intriguing ways.
An additional excerpt (embedded links have been omitted) reads:
Since then, however, many sound studies have found brain synchronies emerging during human interactions, starting with a paper in 2002 that described how to collect and merge data from two brain scanners simultaneously as two people played a competitive game. This enabled researchers to observe how both brains were activated in response to each other. In a Science paper in 2005, this “hyperscanning” technique showed correlations of activity in two people’s brains when they played a game based on trust.
In 2010, Dr. Dumas used scalp electrodes to find that when two people spontaneously imitated each other’s hand movements, their brains showed coupled wave patterns. Importantly, there was no external metronome — like music or a turn-taking game — that spurred the pairs to “tune in” to each other; it happened naturally in the course of their social interaction.
Alleged bullying by Canada’s governor general
A Jan. 21, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “Independent firm completes review into claims of ‘toxic’ environment at Rideau Hall: Sources briefed on the report say it’s scathing.”
Initial attempts to address the alleged bullying were not successful, as noted in a Jan. 26, 2021 CBC article entitled: “Complaints against Payette include reports of physical contact: sources: Allegations of unwelcome physical contact shared with independent firm reviewing conduct, sources say.”
“A large number of staff went on leave or left their jobs at Rideau Hall altogether,” the article notes, “because they felt there was no other option, the sources said. Former employees claim they told human resources, the ombudsman and their union about the treatment informally, but no action was taken.”
By way of a subsequent update, a Jan. 27, 2021 CTV article is entitled: “Allegations of screaming, public humiliation in governor general’s office: report.”
Bullying at school boards
Elsewhere at this website I’ve highlighted news reports and inquiry reports related to past problems involving the top leadership of school boards in Ontario – in particular, at the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board. The underlying dynamics in case studies involving such school boards appear to be similar to what observational research has concluded regarding schoolyard bullying.
In the case off the above-noted school boards, outside consultants were eventually brought in. On a wider scale, bullying by political leaders are standard narratives in world history. In such cases, the key question is: Does the bully have the edge in power, or does the intervenor have the agency to set things right?