Three Social Contexts of Bullying in Adolescence: Bystanders, Teachers, and Dating Partners

Datta, Pooja, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

There is persistent, nationwide concern about bullying in schools. Current conceptualizations of bullying primarily reflect research and interventions with children, and anti-bullying efforts that are effective with children appear to be much less effective with adolescents, so there is a need to investigate bullying experiences in adolescence. Each of the three papers in this dissertation investigates bullying in a different social context: (1) peer bystander reactions to bullying, (2) bullying by teachers, and (3) bullying within dating relationships. All three studies drew upon data from the statewide administration of school climate surveys in Virginia secondary schools.

The first paper linked student attitudes toward peer aggression with bystander reactions to bullying. Newer bully prevention programs focus on encouraging students to be upstanders by teaching students that bullying is a group problem and to practice positive interventions by standing up to bullies. Consequently, it is important to understand beliefs and attitudes towards aggression that are associated with bystander behaviors that may encourage or discourage bullying. This study hypothesized that students who endorsed attitudes that aggression leads to more popularity and is acceptable would be more likely to reinforce bullying and less likely to stand up to stop it. In a sample of 28,765 middle school students we asked about their responses to recent bullying and classified three group of bystanders: upstanders (48%), reinforcers (7%), and passive bystanders (45%). Multi-level logistic regressions indicated that even though the prevalence of reinforcing behavior was generally low, students with higher levels of aggressive attitudes were more likely to encourage bullying. Conversely, higher aggressive attitudes made students less likely to be upstanders. A school-level analysis found that schools where aggressive attitudes are more widely shared had lower numbers of upstanders. These findings suggest that school-based interventions that target student beliefs and norms about aggression may be critical to the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs.

The second study compared the prevalence and school adjustment of students bullied by teachers versus peers. Assessing teacher-student interactions is especially important in adolescence because it is a period when students begin to have relationships with a greater number of teachers and relate to them in a more independent and assertive manner. Notably, negative teacher-student interactions in secondary school contribute to poorer school adjustment. In contrast to bullying by peers, bullying by teachers has received little attention and is rarely included in the measurement of bullying. In a sample of 56,508 middle school students, a smaller proportion of students reported bullying by teachers (4%) versus bullying by peers (11%). In comparison to students who reported no bullying, students bullied by teachers were significantly more likely to report lower school engagement and course grades, and more negative perceptions of school climate. Students bullied only by peers reported more distress symptoms than those bullied by teachers. The effect sizes associated with bullying by teachers are substantial and concerning. Our findings call for more attention and research on the problem of teacher bullying.

The third paper investigated teen dating aggression (TDA), which is a form of bullying that emerges in adolescence. TDA is characterized by a pattern of controlling behavior intended to maintain the bully’s power in a relationship. This study constructed a six-item TDA scale, measured the prevalence of TDA in a statewide sample, and examined the association between TDA and high-risk behaviors and academic adjustment. In a sample of 32,428 high school students, nearly 40% of students reported experiencing some type of teen dating aggression. Hierarchical regression models indicated that TDA was significantly linked to higher risk behaviors of alcohol/drug use, fighting, and suicidality. TDA was also significantly linked to lower engagement, grades, and educational aspirations. These findings add new evidence that TDA is a prevalent adolescent problem associated with poorer overall adjustment.

An important goal of this three-paper dissertation was to evaluate bullying in three distinct contexts that become increasingly more important and influential to students as they progress through secondary school. Although these studies were correlational and cannot establish a causal effect, the results suggest that anti-bullying programs for adolescents would benefit from lowering aggressive attitudes in students to boost upstander intervention, raising awareness of bullying by teachers, and helping students recognize various forms of TDA. Together, these findings indicate that bullying in adolescence has some distinctive features.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
bullying, adolescence, bullying by teachers, dating aggression, bystanders
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