Can Certain Kids Stop Bullying? New Study Says Yes

A new study says "socially influential" kids—those considered "cool" by their peers—have the power to stop bullying in schools.

girl being bullied in school
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Bullying is my biggest worry other than violence when I send my second-grader off to school each day. So a recent study that found influential kids may be able to help curb this problem was of particular interest to me.

For the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale universities sought to identify the most influential students at 56 New Jersey middle schools using a technique called social network mapping.

To get the lay of the land, they surveyed nearly 25,000 about the top 10 students who they choose to spend time with in person and online. Those chosen students were asked, although not required, to spread anti-bullying messages to their peers.

The result? An impressive 30 percent drop in bullying behavior. And the schools with the largest numbers of the so-called "social influencers" saw the largest declines in conflict.

"We think the best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices," explains the study's lead author, Elizabeth Levy Paluck from Princeton. "Encouraging their own messages to bubble up from the bottom using a grassroots approach can be very powerful."

I recall my own middle school days, and how influential/cool some kids were, and because of that, this research makes total sense. But looking back through adult eyes, I'm puzzled as to why certain kids were even considered "cool." In fact, it's key to note the true influencers in a school are selected by their peers, not adults.

"When adults choose student leaders, they typically pick the 'good' kids. But the leaders we find through social network mapping are influential among students and are not all the ones who would be selected by adults," Paluck explained. "Some of the students we find are right smack in the center of student conflicts. But the point is, these are the students whose behavior gets noticed more."

So as parents, what can take away from this? Maybe if our kids are being bullied, in addition to teachers and administrators, their friends and peers should be allies in ending the torment. It can't hurt to suggest to the adults that kids get on board, too.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

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