Influential Students Maybe Be Key to Combating Bullying

While curbing bullying in school has long been a focus of educators and policymakers, anti-bullying campaigns created by adults may not be the most effective solution. Instead, influential students promoting conflict resolution themselves may be the answer, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To test whether students with high social influence in their school, labeled “social referents,” could shape their peers’ behaviors by clearly taking a stance against bullying, a team of researchers from Princeton, Rutgers University, and Yale invited groups of influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools to spread anti-bullying and anti-conflict messages in their own words using platforms such as Instagram, posters, and colorful wristbands.

The researchers randomly selected half of the middle schools to receive the intervention: training through the Roots program. The schools not selected were given the option to receive training at the end of the school year.

Over the course of one year, the middle schools employing this technique saw a 30% reduction in student conflict reports. The greatest reductions in conflict were seen in schools with higher numbers of social influencers, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that these students do exert a vast influence over the school’s social climate and social norms.

To find the students with the most social influence, the researchers conducted a survey of the 24,191 students enrolled in all the schools, asking them to name the top 10 students at their school who they chose to spend time with both in and out of school, and either face-to-face or online. With the results from the surveys, the researchers used social network mapping to determine which students had the most connections with other students. 

“The real innovation here is using student social networks to choose the peers,” said lead author Elizabeth Levy Paluck, PhD, associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“When adults choose student leaders, they typically pick the ‘good’ kids,” Dr Paluck said. “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. 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.”