Schools may have more success curbing incidents of bullying if their most social students take an anti-bullying stance as opposed to teachers and administrators setting blanket rules and regulations against it.
The study, Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools, found that when students are the ones to take a stand against bullying – as opposed to adults in the school – it's more effective.
Over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, 56 New Jersey middle schools that armed their most influential students with social media training and various bullying awareness gear, like bright-colored wrist bands, saw a 30 percent reduction in student conflict reports.
To identify the most influential students, the researchers from Princeton University, Rutgers University and Yale University distributed a survey to about 24,000 students enrolled at all schools. The survey asked them to nominate the top 10 students at their school who they chose to spend time with, either in or outside of school, or face to face or online. Using these data, the researchers then mapped each school's social networks.
A representative sample of 22 to 30 students in the intervention schools was invited to participate in the anti-bullying program. More than half showed up to the monthly training meetings, where researchers provided students with templates for campaign materials that they were able to customize and training on how to deal with student conflict.
Throughout the year, the students launched various anti-bullying campaigns, including one that involved them posting photos to Instagram using the hashtag "#iRespect," and another during which they gifted brightly colored rubber wrist bands to students they saw intervening in a conflict.
“Our program shows that you don't need to use a blanket treatment to reduce bullying," said lead author Elizabeth Levy Paluck, associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
"You can target specific people in a savvy way in order to spread the message,” Paluck said. “These people – the social referents you should target – get noticed more by their peers. Their behavior serves as a signal to what is normal and desirable in the community, and there are many ways to figure out who those people are and work with them to inspire positive change."
Despite a surge in policy and research attention to conflict and bullying among adolescents, the researchers said there is little evidence to suggest that current interventions reduce school conflict. But encouraging a small set of students to take a public stance against bullying can have a significant impact.
The full study is at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/02/1514483113.full.pdf