Monday, May 24, 2010

Is a Little Bullying—Offline and Online—Good for You?

ResearchBlogging.orgFollowing my discussion on bullying and cyberbullying, the NYT featured an article discussing the ways "antagonistic relationships can often enhance social and emotional development more than they impede it." The article suggests that when someone dislikes you, "it may be adaptive to dislike them back." This two part post will explore the following questions:
  • Are there documented benefits to being bullied? 
  • And if there are, then how do these benefits unfold in the digital realm?
According to the Times, researchers acknowledge that belonging to that being targeted by a clique is detrimental to social development and agree with the findings put forth by Snyder et. al. (2003) that bullying is pervasive. The Times reports that studies have found 15 - 40 % of elementary school children are involved in an antagonistic relationship. (Remember that Snyder et. al. reported that the 266 children involved in their study were subject to verbal and physical harassment every 3 to 6 minutes.) In middle school and high school where cliques tend to be a more frequent occurrence, the rate ranges from 48 - 70%. Hostile relationships are not healthy—and as sharing becomes more prevalent and widespread on the web, there can be immense emotional and social consequences for victims both online and offline.

However, Noel A. Card, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, is quoted by the Times as stating, “Once you factor out peer rejection, the effects of antipathetic relationships on adjustment are pretty slight.” But can you factor out peer rejection? It seems to me that peer rejection is a cornerstone of bullying. The individual's response to peer rejection seems to be the marker against which social adjustment can be measured. I don't see how peer rejection can be removed from the equation since it seems to sit at the heart of social isolation and depression in so many of the studies I have read. I take the standpoint of Dodge et. at. (2003) that:
peer rejection is a life event and an interpersonal stressor that might exert an enduring impact on a child's development. Peer rejection describes the relationship between the child and the peer group. Because relationships form the context for social learning, problematic relationships might prevent a child from learning social skills and instead lead a child to develop negative expectations about future relationships. As such, rejection might have a long- term adverse impact (375).
I admit that I am no psychologist, however, so if someone can shed light as to why we might want to overlook peer rejection, I would be happy to discuss with you.

Navigating social groups is an important social skill. And the response to peer rejection can have a tremendous impact on the future development of such skills. Dodge et. al. found that social rejection plays a role in the development of later aggression, even after controlling for previous levels of aggressive behavior (392). Reactive aggressors, who are responding to stress or provocation with aggression, have stronger tendencies toward aggressive behaviors later in life than proactive aggressors who aren't contending with peer rejection. This experience might also lead a child to develop "hostile attributional biases" about peer motives. They may come to suspect friendly gestures (393). 

So how can bullying be beneficial? Children who are able to develop appropriate responses to aggressors may be better able to handle conflict situations later in life. But this response seems dependent on a number of external factors including the child's personality and the availability of a support system.

The Times does make an interesting suggestion, however, that
a truly devious enemy can prepare a young person to sniff out and avoid false or unreliable allies in adult life, when betrayals can be much more dangerous. “In the beginning she seemed like an awesome friend,” said a young woman in Dr. Card’s study of former friends. “But then, after I started getting close to her, I saw her true colors revealed.
I read something recently that supports this suggestion. Haselager et. al. (1998) have suggested that children who are similar in aggression and withdrawn behavior are known to be more likely to become friends than children who are not (1199). However, there are advantages and disadvantages to choosing friends who are similarly disposed:
  • Friends may be protective factors when children are cooperative and socially skilled. The children are likely to encourage pro-social behaviors in each other.
  • Children who are antisocial and aggressive, and friend antisocial individuals are likely to encourage maladaptive, antisocial behaviors in each other.
  • Similarly, shy children and their shy friends may encourage increased shyness, but their association may also alleviate loneliness, and promote positive adjustments in behavior (1204 - 1205).
Bullying may then give children markers against which to judge future potential relationships, so that individuals tend to associate more with individuals with whom they have things in common and avoid maladaptive relationships. However, these studies all focus on the physical, offline interactions between individuals. As Haselager notes,
One cannot be certain that the same dynamics govern friendship selection and socialization when children are "on their own" as when in school. Nevertheless, there is little reason to doubt that these same dynamics prevail in other contexts, because studies of acquaintanceship processes show that school-aged children who come to like one another over time manifest sim- ilarities in play styles (1998: 1205 - 1206).
Tomorrow we'll investigate whether we can apply these studies to online behavior and whether cyberbullying has any adaptive benefits.

Updated: You can read the followup to this post here.

Dodge KA, Lansford JE, Burks VS, Bates JE, Pettit GS, Fontaine R, & Price JM (2003). Peer rejection and social information-processing factors in the development of aggressive behavior problems in children. Child development, 74 (2), 374-93 PMID: 12705561

Haselager, G., Hartup, W., Lieshout, C., & Riksen-Walraven, J. (1998). Similarities between Friends and Nonfriends in Middle Childhood Child Development, 69 (4), 1198-1208 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06167.x

Snyder, J., Brooker, M., Patrick, M., Snyder, A., Schrepferman, L., & Stoolmiller, M. (2003). Observed Peer Victimization During Early Elementary School: Continuity, Growth, and Relation to Risk for Child Antisocial and Depressive Behavior Child Development, 74 (6), 1881-1898 DOI: 10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00644.x

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