Bullying at school can be reduced by half by influential students

Research shows low-cost, effective way for teenagers to run campaigns against bullying.

Socially influential pupils can dramatically cut teenage school conflict and bullying by working together to identify and spread solutions together, according to a study of of over 24,000 students in 56 US ‘middle’ schools for children ages 11-14.

Groups of just 20-32 students, when they included five or six of a school’s more influential young people, reduced disciplinary episodes by 60%. These groups of students designed and ran an anti-conflict campaign at their school, modelling and speaking about the changes that they identified as important. They were operating in schools that averaged 800 pupils, ages 11 to 14.

The study was led by Betsy Levy Paluck, Professor of Psychology and Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. It shows that conflict, which is sometimes considered to be inevitable in schools, is in fact highly mutable, provided young people are at the heart of working out social rules, modeling them and persuading others to follow them. Groups of students, particularly when they include influential figures, can significantly influence how their peers behave and help make schools more harmonious.

“Our findings,” says Professor Levy Paluck, “offer a low-cost, effective way to reduce conflict, which includes behaviors like spreading rumors, sexual harassment, physical fighting, and bullying. Alternative anti-bullying strategies, which often have a more top-down approach, sometimes have questionable value because, often, they are poorly evaluated.”

Identify key, socially influential students

The Princeton team identified socially influential students by asking pupils to name 10 young people in their school who they chose to hang out with, either face-to-face or online. Using their responses, the researchers built a social network profile of the school.

This network was a diverse selection of influential students, not just the “cool kids.” Some, for example, belonged to the school band or were in the math club, and they mattered to a particular subset of students. Some were highly involved with conflict—not the type that teachers typically select for anti-bullying campaigns.

“Counter to conventional wisdom,”, explains Professor Levy Paluck, “such pupils can be extremely helpful to anti-conflict programs because they can speak authentically about the causes of conflict. Conflict can be sport for some, but it’s not usually enjoyable for anyone. So it was not difficult for even these pupils to identify sources of stress or unhappiness that they wanted to change at their school.”

“Conflict, which is sometimes considered to be inevitable in schools, is in fact highly mutable, provided young people are at the heart of working out social rules, modeling them and persuading others to follow them.”

Next, the team randomly selected groups of about 20-32 students in half of the 56 schools that tried our conflict reduction approach (it did not convene any activities in the control group of 28 schools). The researchers didn’t deliberately load any groups with socially influential students. Pupils were randomly assigned. But conflict was reduced more dramatically when a particular school’s program happened to involve more influential students.

“We never used the term “bullying” with our groups of students. When we assembled a group in a particular school, we asked them to discuss what made people unhappy or uncomfortable at school. The group would meet every second week to discuss those issues, with an adult from outside the school facilitating.”

It’s about more than just bullying

The students identified a wide range of issues, not just what is typically thought of as bullying. For example, many were worried about language they took to be hurtful, such as the use of “gay” to describe something bad. Social exclusion was also important – where, for example, only certain people were welcome in areas of the school such as tables in the cafeteria or in places where people congregate before class or where they sit on the school bus.

The social lines and invisible barriers that prevent young people from talking across friendship lines were often raised. After establishing trust within the groups, girls in particular were able to discuss harassment from boys and from other girls about their relationships with boys.

Groups came up with strategies to reduce conflict in their schools, explains Professor Levy Paluck: “So, for example, though showing respect was seen as a desirable quality across all schools, ways of expressing it differed. For example, in one school program, students said that you show respect for someone when you walk home with them from school. That worked well for that school.”

Some traditional anti-bullying programs seemed flawed in students’ eyes. Many programs advise students to be an ally or an active bystander when someone is bullied, to tell a teacher if something negative happens, or to intervene in conflicts. But the study found that active bystanders are often disliked by peers, as are those who tell the teachers.

Novel approaches to persuading peers

The groups generated lots of ideas on how to advertise their stance against conflict in school. These included, for example, making posters, starting petitions, beginning one-to-one discussions with people, wearing anti-conflict wristbands or using online strategies such as Instagram posts or conversations on Facebook.

“Those who ‘matter’ were not necessarily the ‘cool kids’. Some belonged to the school band or were in the math club. Some were highly involved with conflict—not the type that teachers typically select for anti-bullying campaigns.”

Studies of other anti-conflict programs have sometimes asked students to report how much their behavior has changed. As a more independent measurement, this study collected school records on who was brought to the office for disciplining because of conflict with another peer.

Over a single school year, the study recorded a 25% reduction in peer conflict reports in schools whose pupils tried the program. When at least 20% of a treatment school’s anti-conflict group was composed of socially influential students, reductions of 60% were achieved, compared with schools that didn’t develop a program. In total, during a single school year, in the 28 schools where the program was implemented, disciplinary events fell from 2,695 to 2,012 across the 11,938 students involved.

This research also saw the effect that socially influential students can have on values, such as racism, in one-to-one encounters with their peers. For example, in schools where our program was implemented, a pupil who hadn’t talked with a socially influential student typically agreed that only “a few” students disapproved of racial and ethnic jokes. In contrast, a student who had been exposed to an influential person typically agreed that “about 75%” of pupils disapproved.

The message to schools and policy makers, says Professor Ley Paluck “is that we have a low-cost, effective way to reduce conflict in schools.” The study shows that a relatively small number of students (less than 5 per cent) can be involved in developing a program tailored for their school that can be highly effective within a single year. The key to maximizing success, suggests the research, is including a good number of socially influential students who matter to their peers and who will be listened to, probably far more than any teacher.

Header photo: Ross School. Creative Commons.


 Paluck EL, Shepherd H & Aronowc (2016), Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of USA 113.3