The Developing Learner

Peer Relationships

Relationships within the family (parent-child and siblings) are not the only significant relationships in a child’s life. Peer relationships are also important. Social interaction with another child who is similar in age, skills, and knowledge provokes the development of many social skills that are valuable for the rest of life (Bukowski, Buhrmester, & Underwood, 2011). In peer relationships, children learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions with other
children. They learn skills for managing conflict, such as turn-taking, compromise, and bargaining. Play also involves the mutual, sometimes complex, coordination of goals, actions, and understanding. For example, as preschoolers engage in pretend play they create narratives together, choose roles, and collaborate to act out their stories. Through these experiences, children develop friendships that provide additional sources of security and support to those provided by their parents.

However, peer relationships can be challenging as well as supportive (Rubin, Coplan, Chen, Bowker, & McDonald, 2011). Being accepted by other children is an essential source of affirmation and self-esteem. At the same time, peer rejection can foreshadow later behavior problems (especially when children are rejected due to aggressive behavior). With increasing age, children confront the challenges of bullying, peer victimization, and managing conformity pressures. Social comparison with peers is an important means by which children evaluate their skills, knowledge, and personal qualities, but it may cause them to feel that they do not measure up well against others. For example, a boy who is not athletic may feel unworthy of his football-playing peers and revert to shy behavior, isolating himself, and avoiding conversation. Conversely, an athlete who does not “get” Shakespeare may feel embarrassed and avoid reading altogether. Also, with the approach of adolescence, peer relationships become focused on psychological intimacy, involving personal disclosure, vulnerability, and loyalty (or its betrayal)—which significantly influences a child’s outlook on the world. Each of these aspects of peer relationships requires developing very different social and emotional skills than those that emerge in parent-child relationships. They also illustrate the many ways that peer relationships influence the growth of personality and self-concept.

Figure 3.11.1. Functions of friendship. By Florida State College at Jacksonville, licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .

As children become adolescents, they usually begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families, and these peer interactions are increasingly unsupervised by adults. Children’s notions of friendship often focus on shared activities, whereas adolescents’ notions of friendship increasingly focus on intimate exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

During adolescence, peer groups evolve from primarily single-sex to mixed-sex. Adolescents within a peer group tend to be similar to one another in behavior and attitudes, which has been explained as being a function of homophily. Adolescents who are similar to one another choose to spend time together (in a “birds of a feather flock together” way) and adolescents who spend time together shape each other’s behavior and attitudes.

Figure 11.2.1.Reciprocal influences on friend selection and personal characteristics.

Peer pressure is usually depicted as peers pushing a teenager to do something that adults disapprove of, such as breaking laws or using drugs. One of the most widely studied aspects of adolescent peer influence is known as deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011). This influence is the process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior. Although deviant peer contagion is more extreme, regular peer pressure is not always harmful. Peers can serve both positive and negative functions during adolescence. Negative peer pressure can lead adolescents to make riskier decisions or engage in more problematic behavior than they would alone or in the presence of their family. For example, adolescents are much more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, and commit crimes when they are with their friends than when they are alone or with their family. However, peers also serve as an essential source of social support and companionship during adolescence, and adolescents with positive peer relationships are happier and better adjusted than those who are socially isolated or who have conflictual peer relationships.

Crowds are an emerging level of peer relationships in adolescence. In contrast to friendships (which are reciprocal dyadic relationships) and cliques (which refer to groups of individuals who interact frequently), crowds are characterized more by shared reputations or images than actual interactions (Brown & Larson, 2009)These crowds reflect different prototypic identities (such as jocks or brains) and are often linked with adolescents’ social status and peers’ perceptions of their values or behaviors. Eventually, these crowds and cliques become less critical to teens as they place more value on close friendships and romantic relationships.


Crowds are large groups of adolescents socially connected by a shared image and reputation (Brown, 2004), especially within the setting of a single school. A single person can belong to more than one crowd if their image matches the crowd’s criteria (Brown, 2004; Mory, 1994). Because membership in a crowd depends on peers’ perceptions, crowds in any given peer group will correspond to the local preconceived “types” of adolescents. Specific stereotypes vary from place to place, but many remain consistent. They are based on peer status, socioeconomic status, residential area, activities, social characteristics, or a combination of attributes (jocks, nerds, populars, and druggies are among the most commonly observed) (Brown, 2004; Mory, 1994; Arnett, 2002). Crowds are very different from cliques: while cliques are relatively small, close-knit groups based on frequent interaction and collectively determining membership, members of a crowd may not even know each other. Crowd membership reflects external assessments and expectations, providing a social context for identity exploration and self-definition as adolescents internalize or reject their crowd identities.

Because crowd membership is initially outwardly imposed, an adolescent’s peers can classify them as belonging to a crowd that they do not consider themselves a member. Members of some crowds are more aware of and comfortable with their crowd designation than others; members of stigmatized or low-status groups, in particular, may resist or deny their undesirable categorization (Brown et al., 1992). Usually, however, adolescents embrace their crowd affiliation, using it to define themselves and advertise where they fit in their peer group’s social structure (Newman & Newman, 2001; Brown et al., 1990).

Crowds and Identity Development

Crowds serve an essential purpose in adolescent identity development, shaping individual values, behavior, and personal and peer expectations. “[One’s group] is often tantamount to one’s own provisional identity” (Brown et al., 1994); the individual defines themself by the crowd to which they see themself as belonging. Different crowds expose the individual to different norms. These norms encourage adolescents to interact with some people while avoiding others and reward certain behaviors while discouraging others, a process of normative social influence (Brown et al., 1990; Brown et al., 1994; Brown et al., 1995; Brown & Larson, 2009). For example, a member of a “preppy” crowd might be rewarded for dressing in a fashion for which a member of an “emo” crowd would be teased, and vice versa.

Crowd effects on norms of interaction:

  • Norms affect how the individual interacts with others. Members of high-status (preppie, popular) groups often interact with many people, but most of these relationships are superficial and instrumental; interpersonal connections are used to establish and maintain social status (Eder, 1985; Lesko, 1988). By contrast, members of lower-caste groups (e.g., dorks, druggies) generally have fewer friends, mostly from within the crowd; however, these relationships are typically marked by greater loyalty, stability, and honesty (Lesko, 1988).
  • Norms affect with whom the individual interacts. Crowds steer the individual toward certain people, attitudes, and behaviors. There are also effects of peer perception and expectations when individuals attempt to interact across crowds. In essence, one may be interested in a cross-crowd friendship, but whether or not the target reciprocates depends on their crowd’s norms as well. The adolescent’s social options for friendship and romance are limited by their crowd and by other crowds (Brown et al., 1994).

Often crowds reinforce the behaviors that initially caused an individual to be labeled part of that crowd, which can positively or negatively influence the individual (toward academic achievement or drug use, for example). These pressures are often linked to the stereotypes members of crowds hold about themselves and members of other crowds: unity by the denigration of the outgroup (Brown et al., 1994).

Racial Crowds and Sub-Crowds

Adolescents’ perception of crowd differences may depend on how closely related the adolescent observer is to a particular crowd. The primary, recurring crowd divisions (jocks, geeks, partiers) have been most often studied in predominantly white high schools, but they also exist for minority students. In multiracial schools, students seem to divide along ethnic lines first, then into these archetypical crowds within their ethnicity. However, one ethnic group may not notice the further divisions in other ethnic groups after the first, race-based split (Brown & Mounts, 1989). For instance, black students see themselves as divided into jocks, geeks, emos, stoners, popular kids, and so on, but white students may see them as just one crowd defined solely by ethnicity, “the black kids.” Sometimes crowd membership transcends race, however, and adolescents are classified as “jocks” or “geeks” regardless of race (Horvat & Lewis, 2003; Tyson et al., 2005). This classification seems to vary and depends heavily on the context of the individual school.

Stereotypes, Stigma, and Cross-Crowd Friendships

While crowds are structured around prototypical caricatures of their members, real adolescents rarely match these extremes. Furthermore, not all adolescents agree on the characteristics typical of a stereotype (Brown et al., 1994). In other words, a regular manifestation of just a few central characteristics of a crowd is a sufficient basis for classification as a member of that crowd. Thus, not all “jocks” neglect their schoolwork, though that is part of the typical jock stereotype, and a person interested in fashion could still be considered a “geek.”

Often a crowd is stigmatized by one or more other crowds. This stigmatization can affect adolescents’ willingness to associate with members of that crowd, or even other crowds similar to it. For example, people may avoid being seen as a “brain,” a middle-status crowd, because of the similarity between brains and “nerds,” a lower-status crowd (Brown et al., 1990).

Shared interests form the basis of many friendships, so often adolescents are drawn to members of their own crowds, especially if their crowd is defined by activities rather than more superficial characteristics such as race or socioeconomic status. However, interests can be shared across crowd divisions. Accordingly, while an adolescent’s closest friends are almost always part of the same clique (i.e., they interact frequently within the same small friend group), they are not always part of the same crowd, especially if multiple crowds have similar lifestyles (Brown et al., 1994).


Further emphasizing the flexible nature of crowd membership, some adolescents are not stably linked to one specific crowd—some individuals are associated with multiple crowds, while others are not stably linked to any crowds and “float” among several. These appear more closely attached to individuals outside the peer group (family, dropout friends, friends from a non-school organization, etc.). Others may consciously work to change crowd affiliations to express different interests or achieve a change in social status. The crowd with which an adolescent desire to be identified is far less stable than the personal attributes by which the adolescent is likely to be categorized by peers. Accordingly, adolescents who change crowd membership (a process known as “crowd-hopping”) tend to have lower self-esteem, perhaps because they have not yet found an environment and peer group that supports them. They likely continue changing crowd membership until they find a fulfilling niche (Brown et al., 1992).

The Rise of Crowds

Crowds first emerge in middle or junior high school, when children transition from stable, self-contained classroom peer groups into larger schools, where they interact with a more diverse body of peers with less adult guidance. Crowds emerge to group students by caricature and structure interactions between students of each type (Brown et al., 1994). Early crowds are often based on social status, especially among girls, with a small group of well-known children being “popular” and the rest “unpopular.” To maintain their status, popular girls will avoid the overtures of less-popular children, which actually makes them disliked (Eder, 1985). Many children stop attempting to gain entry into the popular crowd and make friends with other children instead, giving rise to new crowds (Brown et al., 1994).

The stereotypes on which crowd definitions are based change over time as adolescents shift from grouping people by abstract characteristics rather than activities (“geeks” rather than “the kids who read a lot”). With age, adolescents become more conscious of crowd divisions and the social hierarchy (Brown, 2004). Distinctions between crowds also become more nuanced, developing from simple popular/unpopular dichotomies to less hierarchical structures in which there are more than two levels of social acceptability, often with several crowds at each level (Kinney, 1993; Horn, 2003). As seen in cross-crowd friendships, some crowds interact with each other more readily than others. This transition to a more fluid social structure allows adolescents to change their status over time by changing crowds, remaining in a crowd that undergoes a change in status, or gaining the confidence and perspective to reject the assumptions of the social hierarchy (Brown et al., 1994; Kinney, 1993). Willingness to do so reflects a growing sense of personal identity distinct from crowd membership.

The Decline of Crowds

Adolescents’ attitudes toward crowds change over time—while ninth-graders are willing to discriminate against members of other crowds, twelfth-graders are less likely to do so (Horn, 2003). Adolescents also develop more multifaceted self-concepts and reject crowd labels as simplistic attempts to describe an entire personality (Brown et al., 1994). Across the high school years, crowd significance as a basis for affiliation wanes (Horn, 2003), as does the influence of crowds on an individual’s behavior (Brown, 2004). In fact, some studies indicate the importance of crowds peaks at age 12 or 13 (Brown et al., 1986). By the end of high school, adolescents often feel constrained by impersonal, crowd-derived identities (Larkin, 1979). This constraint, combined with the splintering off of romantic couples from the rest of the crowd, may account for the decline of crowd significance over time(Kuttler & La Greca, 2004).


clique is a group of individuals who interact with one another and share similar interests. Interacting with cliques is part of normative social development regardless of gender, ethnicity, or popularity. Although cliques are most commonly studied during adolescence and middle childhood development, they exist in all age groups. They are often bound together by shared social characteristics such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status (Labrum, 2016).

Typically, people in a clique will not have a completely open friend group and can, therefore, “ban” members if they do something considered unacceptable, such as talking to someone disliked. Some cliques tend to isolate themselves as a group and view themselves as superior to others, which can be demonstrated through bullying and other antisocial behaviors.

One person may be part of multiple cliques, each forming and functioning independently from one another. Cliques are relevant in society due to the social influence or peer pressure that results from interactions with individuals who share a common characteristic. The outcomes associated with clique formations may be endless, with varying degrees of influence (Miller, 1958). So, a formal clique, such as a professional organization, would have a different kind of influence as compared to a social clique consisting of close friends.

A clique can also involve a high degree of social commitment to a specific group. A stronger level of commitment results in an individual having a reduced amount of interaction with other social groups. Cliquish behavior often involves repetition with regard to activities, vernacular, preferences, and manner, which can result in conflict with other cliques, creating “outsiders.” Individuals can also experience social isolation within their clique if their values and/or behavior begin to differ from the rest of the group.

Every clique has some form of organization that makes up the network of social interaction (Peay, 1974). Informal clique networks are groups that do not have a legitimate organizational structure in which they can be established and dissolved in a shorter period. An informal clique may consist of a person’s friend group or co-workers, while it may also identify other, more informal groups, such as criminal gangs (Krackhardt, 1988). On the other hand, a formal clique is a group with a socially accepted organization that is hierarchical in structure. A formal clique is composed of members who have identifiable roles and interactions with one another and is found in the structure of numerous professional organizations, businesses, and even family structures. Culture is a very influential factor in the organization of clique structures because the boundaries established through differences in cultural aspects are persistent, even when the membership varies from time to time. For example, the differences in language, beliefs, traditions, etc. have always created a distinct separation or boundary between groups of people even though the members of that particular group are continually changing (Barth, 1998).

Development of Cliques

The formation and deformation of clique structures do not end with adolescence, even though the number of interactions with clique groups decreases, and the type of groups may change. As individuals become adults, their social interpretations alter, and the formation of their cliques originates from their immediate environment, rather than from common social characteristics (Carstensen, 2016). A clique should not be confused with a crowd because the smaller size and specific boundaries of a group are what cause the group formation to be considered a clique. A clique can develop in several different ways and within environments that consist of individuals who interact regularly. The structural cohesion of the clique is the constant face-to-face interaction between members that can either create or dissolve the group, depending upon the level of interaction. If face-to-face interaction is regularly established, then cohesion between individuals will form. However, if the face-to-face interaction depreciates, then the cohesive social bond between said individuals will eventually dissolve (Friedkin, 1984).

Social impact of Cliques

A clique may inhibit external social influence by impacting the emotions, opinions, or behaviors of group members (Hochschild, 1979). There are many ways in which the perception of information between members in a clique can influence other members on a greater level than if they had received the same information from a different source. For example, receiving information from a close friend or family member is interpreted and responded to differently compared to receiving the same information from someone who is not within the clique structure. The satisfaction, interaction, and closeness between the clique groups that we involve ourselves in develops and changes throughout the years. Nevertheless, there is always a constant morphing of both the individual and the group as time goes on.

Homosociality to Hetersociality

Homosociality is the relationship between people of the same-sex, not romantic in nature. In children and young adolescents, more friendships are with peers of the same sex. As adolescents mature, they become open to heterosociality, having relationships with people of the opposite sex, and bisociality, having relationships with same- and opposite-sex peers.

This process tends to occur in stages, as children transition from almost exclusive homosociality to heterosociality and eventually to romantic relationships. In stage one of this progression, cliques are same-sex and segregated from the opposite sex. In the second stage, opposite-sex cliques with similar interests start to associate. During the third stage, sex-segregated cliques break down, often with clique leaders pairing off into close friendships and romantic relationships. The fourth stage is when other clique members also leave the homosocial clique for hetero- and bisocial or romantic relationships. By stage five, cliques are less important to teens, and close or romantic relationships are the priority.

Cliques, Crowds, and Conformity

Video 11.2.1. Adolescence, Cliques, Crowds, Conformity discusses the different peer groups and their influence on youth culture.

Romantic Relationships

Adolescence is the developmental period during which romantic relationships typically first emerge. Initially, same-sex peer groups that were common during childhood expand into mixed-sex peer groups that are more characteristic of adolescence. Romantic relationships often form in the context of these mixed-sex peer groups (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000).

Although romantic relationships during adolescence are often short-lived rather than long-term committed partnerships, their importance should not be minimized. Adolescents spend a great deal of time focused on romantic relationships, and their positive and negative emotions are more tied to romantic relationships (or lack thereof) than to friendships, family relationships, or school (Furman & Shaffer, 2003). Romantic relationships contribute to adolescents’ identity formation, changes in family and peer relationships, and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Furthermore, romantic relationships are centrally connected to adolescents’ emerging sexuality. Parents, policymakers, and researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to adolescents’ sexuality, in large part because of concerns related to sexual intercourse, contraception, and preventing teen pregnancies. However, sexuality involves more than this narrow focus. Romantic relationships are a domain in which adolescents experiment with new behaviors and identities.

Sociometric Status

A child’s status among their peers will influence their membership in peer groups and their ability to make friends. Sociometric status is a measurement that reflects the degree to which someone is liked or disliked by their peers as a group. In developmental psychology, this system has been used to examine children’s status in peer groups, its stability over time, the characteristics that determine it, and the long-term implications of one’s popularity or rejection by peers.

The most commonly used sociometric system, developed by Coie & Dodge (1988), asks children to rate how much they like or dislike each of their classmates and uses these responses to classify them into five groups.

Figure 3.11.2. Sociometric peer statuses.

Popular children are those liked by many of their peers and disliked by few. These individuals are skilled at social interactions and maintain positive peer relationships. They tend to be cooperative, friendly, sociable, and sensitive to others. They are capable of being assertive without being aggressive, and thus can get what they want without harming others. Among this group, there may be distinct levels of popularity:

  • Accepted kids are the most common sub-group among the popular. While they are generally well-liked, they are not as magnetic as the very popular kids.
  • Very popular kids are highly charismatic and draw peers to them.

Rejected children are designated as rejected if they receive many negative nominations and few positive nominations. These individuals often have poor academic performance and more behavior problems in school. They are also at higher risk for delinquent behaviors and legal problems. These kids are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, conduct disorder, and substance abuse. They tend to be isolated, lonely, and at risk for depression. Rejected youth can be categorized into two types:

  • Aggressive-rejected kids display hostile and threatening behavior, are physically aggressive, and disruptive. They may bully others, withhold friendship, ignore and exclude others. While they are lacking, they tend to overestimate their social competence.
  • Withdrawn-rejected kids are socially withdrawn, wary, timid, anxious in social situations, and lack confidence. They are at risk of being bullied.

Individuals that are liked by many peers, but also disliked by many are designated as controversial. This group may possess characteristics of both the popular and the rejected group. These individuals tend to be aggressive, disruptive, and prone to anger. However, they may also be cooperative and social. They are often socially active and good group leaders. Their peers often view them as arrogant and snobbish.

The neglected children are designated as neglected if they receive few positive or negative nominations. These children are not especially liked or disliked by peers and tend to go unnoticed. As a result, they may be isolated and especially avoid confrontation or aggressive interactions. This group does tend to do well academically.

Finally, the average kids are designated as such because they receive an average number of both positive and negative nominations. They are liked by a small group of peers, but not disliked by very many.

Figure 3.11.3. Sociometric peer statuses and characteristics.


What makes a child popular? Several physical, cognitive, and behavioral factors impact popularity. First, adolescents that are perceived to be physically attractive tend to be more popular among their peers. Cognitive traits matter too. Individuals that demonstrate higher intelligence and do well academically tend to be more liked. Also, those that can take another’s perspective and demonstrate social problem-solving skills are favored. Kids that can manage their emotions and behave appropriately gain higher status. Finally, kids like peers that are confident without being conceited.


What can be done to help those that are not well-liked? For neglected kids, social skills training and encouraging them to join activities can help them become noticed by their peers and make friends. For rejected kids, they may need support to help with anger management, to overcome anxiety, and cope with depression. This group can also benefit from social skills training to learn social competence and gain confidence.


Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions, such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying is not peer conflict, dating violence, hazing, gang violence, harassment (legal definition), or stalking. While these issues may also be problematic, they do not meet the criteria for bullying behavior.

Types of Bullying

There are several types of bullying, and it is not unusual for a bully to utilize more than one type. Verbal bullying is saying, or writing mean things and may include behaviors like teasing or name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, and threatening to cause harm. Social bullying is sometimes referred to as relational bullying. It involves behaviors such as hurting someone’s reputation or relationships by purposely excluding them or getting others to exclude them, spreading rumors about someone, or embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying is hurting a person’s body or possessions by hitting, kicking, or pinching, spitting, tripping or pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, or making mean or rude hand gestures.

The Roles in Bullying

There are many roles that individuals may take in bullying situations. Kids can bully others, they can be bullied, or they may witness bullying. Some may play more than one role, sometimes being both bullied and the bully. It is important to understand the multiple roles involved in these situations in order to prevent and respond to bullying effectively.

Importance of Not Labeling Kids

When referring to a bullying situation, it is easy to call the kids who bully others “bullies” and those who are targeted “victims,” but this may have unintended consequences. When children are labeled as “bullies” or “victims,” it may send the message that the individual’s behavior cannot change. It also fails to recognize the multiple roles one might play in different bullying situations. Labeling also disregards other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate.

Instead of labeling the teens involved, focus on the behavior. For instance, instead of calling someone a “bully,” refer to them as “the person who bullied.” Instead of calling a person a “victim,” refer to them as “the person who was bullied.”

The Role of Bully

The roles individuals play in bullying are not limited to those who bully others and those who are bullied. Some researchers talk about the “circle of bullying” to define both those directly involved in bullying and those who actively or passively assist the behavior or defend against it. Direct roles include:

  • Those who Bully: These teens engage in bullying behavior towards their peers. There are many risk factors that may contribute to their involvement in the behavior. Often, these kids require support to change their behavior and address any other challenges that may be influencing their behavior.
  • Those who are Bullied: These teens are the targets of bullying behavior. Some factors put them at more risk of being bullied, but not all kids with these characteristics will be bullied. Sometimes, these individuals may need help learning how to respond to bullying.

Witnesses to Bullying

Even if a person is not directly involved in bullying, they may be contributing to the behavior. Witnessing the behavior may also affect the situation, so they need to learn what they should do when they see bullying happen. Roles kids play when they witness bullying include:

  • Those who Assist: These individuals may not start the bullying or lead in the bullying behavior, but serve as an “assistant” to those who are bullying. These kids may encourage bullying behavior and occasionally join in.
  • Those who Reinforce: These kids are not directly involved in the bullying behavior, but they give the bullying an audience. They will often laugh or provide support for those who are engaging in bullying. This may encourage the bullying to continue.
  • Outsiders: These individuals remain separate from the bullying situation. They neither reinforce the bullying behavior nor defend the person being bullied. Some may watch what is going on but do not provide feedback about the situation to show they are on anyone’s side. Even so, providing an audience may encourage bullying behavior. These witnesses may want to help but do not know-how.
  • Those who Defend: These witnesses actively comfort the person being bullied and may come to their defense when bullying occurs.

Most participants play more than one role in bullying over time. In some cases, they may be directly involved in bullying as the one bullying others or being bullied. In others, they may witness bullying and play an assisting or defending role. Every situation is different. Some kids are both bullied and bully others. It is important to note the multiple roles kids play, because those who are both bullied and bully others may be at more risk for adverse outcomes, such as depression or suicidal ideation. Also, it highlights the need to engage all kids in prevention efforts, not just those who are known to be directly involved.

Bystanders: Become an Upstander to Bullying

Video 11.4.1. Bystander discusses the roles of a bullying incident and how bystanders may be key to preventing and stopping bullying.

Who Is at Risk?

No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others. Bullying can happen anywhere—cities, suburbs, or rural towns. Depending on the environment, some groups—such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, youth with disabilities, and socially isolated youth—may be at an increased risk of being bullied.

Those at Risk of Being Bullied

Generally, those who are bullied have one or more risk factors. Adolescents that are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool” are at risk for bullying. As are those perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves or are less popular than others and have few friends. Also, at risk for bullying are those that are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem. Finally, those that do not get along well with others, are seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention are more likely to be bullied. However, even if a child has these risk factors, it does not mean that they will be bullied.

Those More Likely to Bully Others

There are two types of kids who are more likely to bully others. The first is well-connected to their peers, have social power, is overly concerned about their popularity, and likes to dominate or be in charge of others. The others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self-esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.

There are specific risk factors that make someone more likely to bully others. Those that are aggressive or easily frustrated, have difficulty following rules, and view violence in a positive way are more likely to bully. Also, those that think badly of others and have friends who bully are at higher risk for the same behavior. Finally, kids that have less parental involvement or are having issues at home may display more bullying behaviors.

Remember, those who bully others do not need to be stronger or bigger than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from several sources—popularity, strength, cognitive ability—and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.

Warning Signs of Bullying

There are many warning signs that may indicate that someone is affected by bullying—either being bullied or bullying others. Recognizing the warning signs is an essential first step in taking action against bullying. Not all children who are bullied or are bullying others ask for help.

It is important to talk with children who show signs of being bullied or bullying others. These warning signs can also point to other issues or problems, such as depression or substance abuse. Talking to the child can help identify the root of the problem.

Signs of Being Bullied

Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs. Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are unexplainable injuries or lost and destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry. Those being bullied may report frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick, or faking illness. They may have changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch. They may also have difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.

Signs of Bullying Others

Kids may be bullying others if they get into physical or verbal fights or have friends who bully others. They may demonstrate increasing levels of aggressive behavior and get sent to the principal’s office or detention frequently. They may also have unexplained extra money or new belongings.

Why Don’t Kids Ask for Help?

Statistics from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that an adult was notified in less than half (40%) of bullying incidents. Kids do not tell adults for many reasons. Fo one, bullying can make a child feel helpless. Kids may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale. Kids may fear backlash from the kid who bullied them. Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Kids may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak. Kids who are bullied may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand. Finally, kids may fear being rejected by their peers. Friends can help protect kids from bullying, and kids can fear losing this support.

Effects of Bullying

Bullying can affect everyone—those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes, including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. It is important to talk to kids to determine whether bullying—or something else—is a concern.

Kids Who Are Bullied

Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood. They may have more health complaints. Decreased academic achievement and school participation is a common effects of being bullied. They are also more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school. A very small number of bullied kids might retaliate through extremely violent measures. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

Kids Who Bully Others

Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. Kids who bully are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults. They are also more likely to get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school. They have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults. They may engage in early sexual activity. They are also more likely to be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.


Kids who witness bullying are more likely to miss or skip school. They are also more like to use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. Bystanders are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

Media reports often link bullying with suicide. However, most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors. Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.

Special Concern: Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else, causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.

With the prevalence of social media and digital forums, comments, photos, posts, and content shared by individuals can often be viewed by strangers, as well as acquaintances. The content an individual shares online — both their personal content as well as any negative, mean, or hurtful content — creates a kind of permanent public record of their views, activities, and behavior. This public record can be thought of as an online reputation, which may be accessible to schools, employers, colleges, clubs, and others who may be researching an individual now or in the future. Cyberbullying can harm the online reputations of everyone involved – not just the person being bullied, but those doing the bullying or participating in it. Cyberbullying has unique concerns in that it can be:

  • Persistent: Digital devices offer the ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours a day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief.
  • Permanent: Most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully, can impact college admissions, employment, and other areas of life.
  • Hard to Notice: Because teachers and parents may not overhear or see cyberbullying taking place, it is harder to recognize.

Cyberbullying and Online Gaming

Playing video games is a popular activity, with 72 percent of teens gaming online. Many video games — whether they are console, web, or computer-based — allow users to play with friends they know in person and others they have met only online. While gaming can have positive benefits like making new friends, socializing, and learning how to strategize and problem solve, it is also another place where cyberbullying occurs.

The anonymity of players and the use of avatars allow users to create alter-egos or fictional versions of themselves, which is part of the fun of gaming. However, it also allows users to harass, bully, and sometimes gang up on other players, sending or posting negative or hurtful messages and using the game as a tool of harassment. If someone is not performing well, other children may curse or make negative remarks that turn into bullying, or they might exclude the person from playing together.

Because players are anonymous, they cannot necessarily be held accountable for their behavior, and their harassment can cause some players to leave games. Some anonymous users use the game as a means to harass strangers or to get their personal information, like user names and passwords.

There are things adults can do to prevent cyberbullying of children who are gaming. Parents should play the game or observe when the gaming happens to understand how it works and what a child is exposed to in the game. Check in periodically with children about who is online, and playing the game with them. Teach children about safe online behavior, including not clicking on links from strangers, not sharing personal information, not participating in bullying behavior of other players, and what to do if they observe or experience bullying. Establish rules about how much time a child can spend playing video games.

Warning Signs of Cyberbullying

Many of the warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring happen around a child’s use of their device. Some of the warning signs that a kid may be involved in cyberbullying include noticeable increases or decreases in device use. Kids may exhibit unusual emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their devices. A teen hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device. There may be sudden changes to social media accounts, with accounts being shut down or new ones appearing. If a teen starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past. Alternatively, if they become withdrawn or depressed, or lose interest in people and activities.

What to Do When Cyberbullying Happens

When warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying, adults should take steps to investigate that kid’s digital behavior. Cyberbullying is a form of bullying, and adults should take the same approach to address it: support the person being bullied, address the bullying behavior of a participant, and show all involved that cyberbullying is taken seriously. Because cyberbullying happens online, responding to it requires different approaches. If an adult thinks that cyberbullying is occurring, several things can be done. First, recognize if there has been a change in mood or behavior and explore what the cause might be. Try to determine if these changes happen around a child’s use of their digital devices. Ask questions to learn what is happening, how it started, and who is involved. Document what is happening and where. Take screenshots of harmful posts or content, if possible. Most laws and policies note that bullying is a repeated behavior, so records help to document it. Report issues to social media platforms and refer to the school’s reporting policies. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police. Provide support. Peers, mentors, and trusted adults can sometimes intervene publicly to positively influence a situation where negative or hurtful content posts about a child. Public Intervention can include posting positive comments about the person targeted with bullying to try to shift the conversation in a positive direction. It can also help to reach out to the child who is bullying and the target of the bullying to express concern. If possible, try to determine if more professional support is needed for those involved, such as speaking with a guidance counselor or mental health professional.

Ways to Stop Bullying

Video #. Ways to Stop Bullying. 



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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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