Social exclusion more common form of bullying than physical, verbal aggression

September 4, 2022

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Social exclusion more common form of bullying than physical, verbal aggression

Bullying is typically portrayed in popular culture as either physical aggression, such as pushing and kicking, or verbal aggression, such as threats and derogatory insults.

However, a new study highlights the damaging social and emotional toll caused by “relational aggression,” which is the most common form of bullying and involves socially excluding peers from group activities and spreading harmful rumors.

What the researchers say: “Previous studies suggest when a kid is excluded from social activities by their peers at school, the outcomes for that kid both short-term and long-term will be just as detrimental as if they got kicked, punched or slapped every day. So, this study sheds light on the social exclusion youth often face,” said the lead author of the study.

In the study, the researchers analyzed survey results that were part of a broader school climate assessment conducted in 26 middle and high schools across five school districts in the southeastern United States. More than 14,000 students were asked if they agreed or disagreed with statements reflecting pro-bullying attitudes, perceived popularity and relational aggression.

Examples of survey statements included “A little teasing does not hurt anyone,” “I don’t care what mean things kids say as long as it’s not about me,” “In my group of friends, I am usually the one who makes decisions,” and “When I am mad at someone, I get back at them by not letting them be in my group anymore.”

“What we found is kids that perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular endorse pro-bullying attitudes, yet they don’t perceive themselves as engaging in relational aggression,” the researchers added. “There was another group that did not perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular, but they endorsed pro-bullying attitudes and engaged in relational aggression. So, the first group thought bullying was OK but did not see themselves as engaging in it even if they actually were excluding others. While the second group that admitted to engaging in relational aggression may have been excluding others as an attempt to jockey for the position of being more socially dominant and climb the social hierarchy.”

There was a third group of respondents who reported both low levels of pro-bullying attitudes and low levels of relational aggression, known as non-aggressors or bystanders.

“What’s interesting about bystanders is that they often perpetuate bullying, meaning they serve as social reinforcers and are around when it’s happening,” the lead author said. “We teach the famous tagline, ‘See something, say something,’ but in practice, it is hard for kids to intervene and assess conflicts quickly – it’s hard even for adults. If we see two kids in a physical fight, we feel an obligation to break it up. But when we see kids being excluded by their peers, adults don’t always seem to view it as equally damaging, and that’s the scary part.”

Teachers, parents and community members can all assist at-risk youth by celebrating their individuality, the researchers suggested.

“When kids are in school, sameness often gets celebrated, but when kids grow up to become adults, individuality is what makes us stand out and excel in our jobs and in life,” said the principal researcher. “Individuality should be interwoven in some of the messages we as adults send in our schools, in our families and in our neighborhoods.”

Another practical tip teachers can implement right away is embedding social communication skills within their daily curriculum, he suggested.

“In addition to establishing academic objectives for group projects, teachers can monitor how well the students are inviting the input of others’ ideas through positive, encouraging conversations,” Rose said. “Teachers should give specific praise when they see respectful and inclusive behavior in action, because teaching and reinforcing these skills are just as important as the math, science and history lessons.”

If kids aren’t taught the skills to effectively communicate their thoughts, wants and needs, they may be more likely to show aggressive behavior, and although not all kids have to be friends, showing respect to all is essential.

“Bullying does not begin or end with the school bells, it is a community issue,” the lead author said. “I think, as adults, we have to be more aware of what we’re teaching our kids in terms of how we interact socially, as schools are a reflection of our communities.”

So, what? This research is interesting in that it points to social exclusion as the main form of bullying in schools. The authors also rightly point out that bullying in schools is just a reflection of bullying in the community—and in the workplace.

A number of recent studies have indicated that relational aggression—which includes social exclusion—is practiced by women more than by men. Men are more likely to indulge in more physically aggressive forms of bullying.

Relational bullying is not, according to these studies, genetically based whereas other, more “masculine,” forms of bullying—and victimhood—almost certainly are.

Interestingly, research has shown that the drive for leadership and male bullying share the same genes. Hence in organizations you typically find a significant number of “bully leaders.”

I do agree with the authors of the present study that social communication skills should be taught in schools—and universities, and in corporations and firms.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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