Now that middle and high school students are back in the classroom, Brock University researchers are looking to determine if bullying behaviors have changed.
Brock’s bullying expert Tony Volk and his team are picking up on a five-year bullying research project they were running before the pandemic ended their work.
In 2017, the professor of child and youth studies received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for the project “Reconceptualizing bullying: strengthening the foundations of measurement, research , interventions and policies”.
He and his team, including Andrew Dane, associate professor of psychology at Brock, and Wendy Craig, professor of psychology at Queen’s University, create and test new concepts and methods aimed at modernizing the field of bullying research.
Academics who study bullying generally refer to a definition of behavior created when the field took off in the early 1990s.
Eight years ago, Volk created a new version: “Bullying is aggressive, goal-directed behavior that causes harm to another person in the context of a power imbalance. »
As part of their research project, Volk and his team are testing the definition and other innovative tools by surveying 1,000 grade 5, 7 and 9 students and their families in Niagara and Hamilton Catholic school boards.
Each survey consists of three questionnaires: one asking students if they have ever been bullied or if they themselves have bullied other students; another asks students about their personality traits, goals, and who their friends are; and a third asking students and their parents to identify who among their peers are bullies, who supports bullies, and who stands up for those who are bullied.
The information gathered will allow the research team to form sophisticated line graphs that map friend groups, bullying networks, and the relationships between these two networks when they overlap.
Volk says this level of sophisticated social network analysis provides insight into the relationships, patterns and group dynamics that can foster bullying.
“Do groups of friends who bully a particular child get together? Do children bully people they call friends? the other kids, or do they leave? Do the bullied kids start to band together?” he says.
So far, the team has collected data from four surveys. Preliminary findings include:
- One in five children and teens in Niagara engages in bullying behavior and one in five is bullied, which mirrors the national average.
- Peers group up with other peers when it comes to being bullies or victims.
- Selfish personality traits predict bullying behavior.
- Medium levels of civility were supported by peer popularity, but high and low levels were not, such as being too unruly or too wise.
- Victimization and witnessing victimization are associated with lower psychosocial well-being and higher levels of emotional problems.
The team is due to return to classrooms this week to pick up where they left off, with the added dimension of assessing if and how pandemic restrictions have impacted bullying behaviors.
Volk says bullying research done by other colleagues during the pandemic found a decrease in bullying — including cyberbullying — at all levels.
“Are we going to see this trend continue, where these behaviors were lower during the pandemic and now they’re going to stay at a lower level, or will bullying behavior return to what it was before the pandemic?” he says.
The answer could go either way. For one, bullying is partly a learned behavior, Volk says, so if teens learned new, healthier ways to interact with each other during COVID, it could carry over into the present.
On the other hand, “the average level of anxiety has increased across the board, and we know that anxiety is a risk factor for victimization, so that’s something we’re cautiously concerned about,” he says.
Volk is a member of the Brock Research on Experiences of Aggression and Victimization (BRAVE), one of the largest teams of child and youth bullying experts in Canada. The group includes faculty and graduate and undergraduate students who research aggression in order to prevent it and help its victims.