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.

A related topic concerns bullying, harassment, and coercion in general, a topic addressed at a post entitled:

Reflections regarding the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania in December 1989

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 current post shares highlights from a research article by Paul O’Connell, Debra Pepler, and Wendy Craig in the Journal of Adolescence entitled: Peer involvement in bullying: insights and challenges for intervention (1999)

Peer involvement

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.

Power differential

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.

Application of research

Details regarding the remote microphone system and camcorders used in the above-noted observational research are available in a 1995 Developmental Psychology article by Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig entitled: A Peek Behind the Fence: Naturalistic Observations of Aggressive Children With Remote Audiovisual Recording.

Of related interest is a 2012 Merrill-Palmer Quarterly article entitled: Peer Exclusion in Preschool Children’s Play: Naturalistic Observations in a Playground Setting. The article, by Suzanne Marie Fanger, Leslie Ann Frankel, and Nancy Hazen, outlines use of wireless microphones in the observation of play among young children.

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.”

Click here for a CBC news update regarding the above-noted article >

Click here for a further update >

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?

Some previous posts address related issues:

Click here for an article about how to counter anti-Black racism at the Peel District School Board >

Click here for an article about how to counter right-wing extremism >

Click here for an article about how to counter misinformation about the history of Nazi Germany >

British empire

The history of the British empire is of relevance, with regard to the above-noted article about the Peel District School Board. We are among other things dealing with vestiges of colonialism.

Click here for previous posts about the British empire >

We are dealing with land use and space use. As noted at another post, people forming groups by their very existence “produce exclusive spaces and then, in turn, use the boundaries they have created to define themselves.” The latter quote is from Negotiating Urban Conflicts: Interaction, Space and Control (2006) which you can download for free as a PDF.

8 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A July 10, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “New Edmonton workshop to help bystanders intervene in hate-motivated incidents: ‘We’re all responsible for looking out for one another.'”

    An excerpt reads:

    While bystander intervention is the goal, Saffron Centre program director Grace Schmuland said it’s not easy to accomplish.

    “But if you have that mindset of I want to help people, that’s a really good first start,” she said.

    “It’s OK to make mistakes. Learning from your mistakes will make you better at intervening next time.”

    Any interventions should focus on the victim and does not have to be direct or aggressive, Schmuland said.

    “So it’s not about coming in like a super hero and targeting the bad guy in that kind of thing that can often cause more harm than good,” said Schmuland.

    Even approaching the victims after the incident and providing comfort and support can be effective intervention, she said.

    While this workshop is scheduled for July 16, registration is full. However, organizers said it’s a pilot project and hopefully there will be others.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Of related interest: an article by Vaillancourt, T., Brittain, H., Krygsman, A., Farrell, A. H., Landon, S., & Pepler, D. (2021). School bullying before and during COVID‐19: Results from a population‐based randomized design. Aggressive Behavior, 1–13.

    The abstract (I’ve added paragraph breaks) reads:

    We examined the impact of COVID-19 on bullying prevalence rates in a sample of 6578 Canadian students in Grades 4 to 12. To account for school changes associated with the pandemic, students were randomized at the school level into two conditions: (1) the pre-COVID-19 condition, assessing bullying prevalence rates retrospectively before the pandemic, and (2) the current condition, assessing rates during the pandemic.

    Results indicated that students reported far higher rates of bullying involvement before the pandemic than during the pandemic across all forms of bullying (general, physical, verbal, and social), except for cyber bullying, where differences in rates were less pronounced.

    Despite anti-Asian rhetoric during the pandemic, no difference was found between East Asian Canadian and White students on bullying victimization.

    Finally, our validity checks largely confirmed previous published patterns in both conditions: (1) girls were more likely to report being bullied than boys, (2) boys were more likely to report bullying others than girls, (3) elementary school students reported higher bullying involvement than secondary school students, and (4) gender diverse and LGTBQ + students reported being bullied at higher rates than students who identified as gender binary or heterosexual.

    These results highlight that the pandemic may have mitigated bullying rates, prompting the need to consider retaining some of the educational reforms used to reduce the spread of the virus that could foster caring interpersonal relationships at school such as reduced class sizes, increased supervision, and blended learning.

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Updates: Bullying and harassment occurs in many realms of life not just in schools. In this context, a June 26, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “History museum addresses growing ‘anger’ over workplace harassment: Canadian Museum of History staff sought information about complaint against former CEO.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Dromaguet’s letter offers more details on the complaint, which was first filed in July 2020 against the former CEO of the Museum, Mark O’Neill. O’Neill retired in April, two months before the official end of his second five-year term.

    A May 30, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “The Mafia from the mountains.”

    An excerpt reads:

    That isolation affects Calabria as a whole, with its striking lack of infrastructure — everything from high-speed trains connecting the region to the rest of the country and modern highways to well-functioning hospitals with care at the same level as the rest of Italy.

    “In simple terms, the Mafia culture is a culture of bullying, where the bullies exert their power on every level of society,” Giocondo said.

    Also of relevance (among other sources) are the following overviews of history:

    The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017)

    An excerpt from a blurb reads:

    Gessen charts their paths against the machinations of the regime that would crush them all, and against the war it waged on understanding itself, which ensured the unobstructed reemergence of the old Soviet order in the form of today’s terrifying and seemingly unstoppable mafia state. Powerful and urgent, The Future Is History is a cautionary tale for our time and for all time.

    The book highlights the history of the Levada Center in Moscow which is concerned with public opinion research in Russia. A May 12, 2021 Levada Center article is entitled: “Lev Gudkov: ‘The unity of the empire in Russia is maintained by three institutions: the school, the army, and the police.'”

    An excerpt reads:

    The entire technology of state domination essentially rests on the severing of horizontal ties and solidarities between different social groups. Society is increasingly fragmenting, while the atmosphere of emergency and external threat is being escalated. The Kremlin’s entire control system is based on these two tools.

    Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary (2016)

    A blurb reads:

    Having won a two-third majority in Parliament at the 2010 elections, the Hungarian political party Fidesz removed many of the institutional obstacles of exerting power. Just like the party, the state itself was placed under the control of a single individual, who since then has applied the techniques used within his party to enforce submission and obedience onto society as a whole. In a new approach the author characterizes the system as the ‘organized over-world’, the ‘state employing mafia methods’ and the ’adopted political family’, applying these categories not as metaphors but elements of a coherent conceptual framework.

    The actions of the post-communist mafia state model are closely aligned with the interests of power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a small group of insiders. While the traditional mafia channeled wealth and economic players into its spheres of influence by means of direct coercion, the mafia state does the same by means of parliamentary legislation, legal prosecution, tax authority, police forces and secret service. The innovative conceptual framework of the book is important and timely not only for Hungary, but also for other post-communist countries subjected to autocratic rules.

    See also Twenty-five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State

    The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework (2021)

    An excerpt from a blurb reads:

    At exploring the structural foundations of post-communist regime development, the work discusses the types of state, with an emphasis on informality and patronalism; the variety of actors in the political, economic, and communal spheres; the ways autocrats neutralize media, elections, etc. The analysis embraces the color revolutions of civil resistance (as in Georgia and in Ukraine) and the defensive mechanisms of democracy and autocracy; the evolution of corruption and the workings of “relational economy”; an analysis of China as “market-exploiting dictatorship”; the sociology of “clientage society”; and the instrumental use of ideology, with an emphasis on populism. Beyond a cataloguing of phenomena—actors, institutions, and dynamics of post-communist democracies, autocracies, and dictatorships—Magyar and Madlovics also conceptualize everything as building blocks to a larger, coherent structure: a new language for post-communist regimes.

    Based on over a decade of intensive reading about world history, I’ve come to the conclusion (as have many other observers) that bullying is positioned on a continuum of forms of violence including structural violence and physical violence up to and including mass murder. I have recently been reading a book by Christian Gerlach that I began to read some time back; I find it of much interest and value. A previous post shares highlights from the book:

    Christian Gerlach’s 2010 study of mass violence focuses on extremely violent societies

    I’ve also discussed Gerlach’s ‘extremely violent societies’ concept at a more recent post:

    Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) features specialist essays comparing Nazi and Stalinist mass murder in the 1930s and 1940s

    I am impressed with the concept suggested by Gerlach. The concept enables me to see that mass violence occurs within a multi-causal framework – a framework that, in many respects, is unique to a particular region or locality. A common feature of many extremely violent societies, Gerlach notes, is that the features of society that have emerged during periods of extreme violence tend to remain in place in many cases, in the years after the violence has abated.

  4. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A March 13, 2022 BBC article is entitled: “The Nordic way to stop bullying: Bullying can make children’s lives a misery and cause lifelong health problems – but scientists are discovering powerful ways to fight it.”

    An excerpt (I have omitted embedded links) reads:

    Working with Olweus, Limber has tested the scheme in various settings, including a widescale rollout across more than 200 schools in Pennsylvania. Their analyses suggest that the program had resulted in 2,000 fewer cases of bullying over two years. Importantly, the researchers also saw changes in the school populations’ overall attitude to bullying, including greater empathy for victims.

    Limber’s results are not alone in showing that systematic anti-bullying campaigns can bring about positive change. A recent meta-analysis, which examined the results of 69 trials, concluded that anti-bullying campaigns not only reduce victimisation but also improve the general mental health of students.

    Interestingly, the duration of the programmes did not seem to predict their chances of success. “Even a few weeks of intervention were effective,” says David Fraguas, at the Institute of Psychiatry and Mental Health, Hospital Clínico San Carlos, in Madrid, who was the study’s first author.

    Despite the strong evidence, these interventions have not yet been incorporated into most counties’ national education programmes, however. “We are not doing what we now know to be effective,” he says.

  5. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A March 14, 2022 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Coercive control can be a life or death issue in relationships. But few people even know how to recognize it.”

    The subhead reads:

    Behaviours like gaslighting, intimidation and isolation from family and friends can be an early indicator of relationships that will escalate into physical violence, and even homicide. But many people don’t even recognize it as abuse. The Globe examines the effort to change that.

    An excerpt reads:

    There is a term for this form of abuse – coercive control – and it can be an early indicator of relationships that will escalate into physical violence, and even homicide, according to a growing body of research. But because many people don’t recognize it as abuse, it’s often overlooked.

    “It’s power games … it’s gaslighting, lies, blaming, cruelty, intimidation – all those things that we don’t necessarily recognize as a form of violence [under] the Criminal Code of Canada,” says Carmen Gill, a professor at the University of New Brunswick. It’s isolation from friends and family. Restricted access to money or food or medicine. Damaging property, or hurting pets. Degrading comments. Barrages of text messages. Monitoring social media.

    A second excerpt reads:

    Prof. Dawson adds that the burden of recognizing coercive control as abuse should not fall squarely on the individual. This is a community and societal problem, she says, and therefore needs a societal understanding.

  6. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A March 22, 2022 CBC article is entitled: “Teens charged with harassment, mischief after girl cyberbullied: Warning: Readers may find some details of this story upsetting.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Two 14-year-old girls, one from Cornwall and one from the nearby township of South Glengarry, have been charged with counselling suicide with no loss of life and criminal harassment. One of the girls is also charged with uttering threats and mischief.

    A 16-year-old Cornwall boy has also been charged with mischief. Their names are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

    OPP Const. Serge Duguay said the counselling suicide charge carries a sentence of up to 14 years in jail, regardless of the outcome of the offence.

    Duguay said the girl who was targeted sought professional help.

    He said this is the first time in his 20-year policing career that he’s seen such a charge.

    “I was speechless. It’s sad to see and hear that bullying is still an ongoing problem today, especially with teens. That some think it’s okay to harass someone or to bully someone to the point that their mental health is affected,” he said.

  7. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Nov. 13, 2023 Global News article is entitled: “The little university that could(n’t): UPEI’s nightmare behind closed doors.”

    An excerpt reads:

    A “concerning” number of people experienced things that went against the university’s fair treatment and sexual violence policies, the report said. It documented cases of misogynistic comments from graduate students and supervisors, as well as “lewd comments and suggestions” from professors to students. The behaviour “carried on for years without being addressed in any meaningful way, despite multiple complaints.”

    But due to “obstacles,” including the non-disclosure agreements, the report said it “cannot, at this time, provide the university with a clear picture of the former president’s behaviour or its response to it.”

    “We heard of instances of screaming and yelling among staff, faculty, and students, belittling or overly critical managers and faculty, gossiping and backstabbing, favouritism, the targeting of students by faculty for mistreatment, and the use of intimidation tactics,” the report said.

  8. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Nov. 7, 2023 London Free Press article is entitled: “Conditional discharge for teen who stabbed two bullies near high school: A teenager charged in a double stabbing near a north London high school last year was bullied, beat up and forced to beg for mercy from two teens prior to the attack, his lawyer says.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Ontario Court Justice Craig Sigurdson accepted the joint submission from Dean and the Crown, noting the defendant is a dedicated student with no prior criminal record.

    “I also understand the context of this incident which was very carefully explored at the judicial pretrial over which I presided back in the summer,” Sigurdson said. “(The defendant) was the victim of ongoing bullying by various students at the high school.”

    But Sigurdson cautioned the teen that carrying a weapon is never a good idea and said he’d prosecuted multiple homicide cases resulting from a single stab wound prior to becoming a judge.


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