One like me! Toying with the Doll Industry

Psychology @ Goldsmiths


Dr. Sian Jones is a Teaching Fellow at Goldsmiths, Univdersity of London. Her research focuses on discrimination and prejudice among children and adults based on membership of a given group – and how friendships may be encouraged between children from different groups. Here, she looks at the Psychology behind the importance of representing disability in the toy industry. 

A lot of attention has focused on the toy industry of late, alongside changes in what is available and who it is targeted at. This ranges from the “let toys be toys” campaign pressuring for non-gendered marketing of products, to a plethora of companies like this one  marketing toys specifically designed to eradicate ethnic bias in dolls. This is coupled with changes to Barbie dolls both to make their shape more realistic, and to represent the careers that women may pursue.

Another avenue of change has been led by the #toylikeme campaign, with a recent petition garnering…

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Bullying Research: At Odds with the Commentary

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that this piece caught my eye whilst I was perusing Twitter last week (the article is linked to below).


The piece describes research by Wolke and his colleagues (2015). The research made use of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS) longitudinal studies.The association between maltreatment, peer victimization, and mental health problems was assessed using binary logistic regression. Binary logistic regression chooses the more likely option between two outcomes in the form of odds ratios: in this case odds for the presence or absence of a mental health problem (i.e., any presence of anxiety, depression, or self-harm or suicidality).

Four groups of children were investigated. Some were maltreated only, some were peer victimized only, some were peer victimized and maltreated, and some were neither maltreated nor peer victimized. It was found that, when compared with children who were not maltreated nor peer victimized, children who were maltreated only were at increased risk for depression in young adulthood. At the same time, those who were both maltreated and peer victimized were at increased risk for overall mental health problems, anxiety, and depression. Children who were peer victimized only were more likely than children who were maltreated only to have mental health problems.

It is the last of these findings that has made the headlines, and is still being amply re-tweeted as I type. It is the comments of Dr. Jennifer Wild that I wish to make the topic of this post:

Dr Jennifer Wild, associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford, said the researchers did not investigate why bullying caused mental health problems. But, she said: “The findings are important because they highlight the devastating consequences of bullying and the need for zero tolerance programmes.

Dr. Wild is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, with expertise in anxiety – meaning she is well-placed to talk about this study’s outcome measure. To my mind, however, her comments should come with two health warnings: the first concerns what the researchers did not investigate; the second is the concept of zero tolerance.

The comment made by Dr. Wild is true. Wolke et al. did not investigate the why of the link between peer victimization and mental health problems. However, neither did they intend to do so. Their aim was “to determine whether [mental health problems] are just due to being exposed to both maltreatment and bullying or whether bullying has a unique effect”. What Dr. Wild offers here then is not, as some might be tempted to see it, a criticism of the research, but rather a suggestion for future research. More pertinent criticisms, I would argue, would concern the methods that the researchers used to address their stated aim. One example might be that maltreatment was assessed using parent-report, for UK participants.

Secondly, the recommendation for zero tolerance.  According to the OED online, this is “automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct”. Zero tolerance on bullying was widely advocated by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. One might imagine cases where zero tolerance would work well, where rules have been obviously transgressed. And where punishment has been shown to deter rule-breaking. However, when it comes to bullying, neither of these tenets holds true. I have already written about the dubious merits of punishment following bullying – and  as the research attests – bullying can be pernicious precisely because it is difficult to define when it has taken place (it often involves acts of omission that worsen with time) (e.g., Monks & Smith, 2006). This means that zero tolerance and bullying do not make good prospective partners.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Dr. Wild’s comments cloud the true value of Wolke et al.’s findings, which  demonstrate that peer victimization in childhood can have worse long-term effects on young adults’ mental health than maltreatment – and that when a child is maltreated peer victimization can denote an added detriment to mental health. These findings, together with the current pervasiveness of peer victimization, mean that government efforts should focus on finding out what leads to and maintains it. It might also focus, not on promoting zero tolerance, but in researching what the effective methods of reducing bullying may be, in schoolchildren. This should be done in order to that bullying research funding  is no longer at odds with the long-term public health concern that bullying represents.

Conference Review: GRASP 2014

Last week, I  visited Linköping University, in Sweden, to give a keynote address at the  ninth  Nordic conference in group- and social psychology -GRASP). My talk is available online here. I count travelling abroad as among the best things about my job, and visiting the research group who held this conference was a real treat.

The day before the conference opened, I gave a workshop for students, looking critically at some of the measures we use in social psychology with children, vis-a-vis the original definitions of the concepts we research, often coined in the 1970s. The irony of this, of course, is that while these measures were originally developed for use with teenagers (think Tajfel et al., 1972), it was not long  before they were applied wholesale to the world of post-war adult social psychology, and now, our challenge is to differentiate them for children again,  erstwhile remaining faithful to their purpose.

That same day, this piece appeared in British media. The upshot of it is, that students, reviewing their university experience in light of their tuition fees want more contact hours and online resources for their money, but won’t bother attending lectures or seminars if such content is made available on the web.

Thinking about this, in light of the workshop, and then during the conference presentations, beyond the paradox of wanting more contact hours, and yet not wanting to turn up for them, my sense that students who don’t attend classes really do miss out was affirmed. My workshop involved group-work, where students could look at the measures, talk to each other, and sit outside in the glorious Swedish sunshine.

Sunshine aside, the conference talks could not have been engaged with in the same way via ‘lecture capture’ (class-recording software). The entire, relatively small, conference had a supportive and friendly atmosphere throughout. Researchers asked questions as the talks progressed, spoke with each other at lunchtimes ( I developed a new collaboration with a lovely research group, that I am very excited about) networked, and enjoyed each others’ company, as well as the change and inspiration of different surroundings. The talks spanned social psychology, from problem-based learning, to benevolent sexism, and from childhood peer victimization to workplace team-building, ending with Ken Mavor’s keynote address on capturing social identities to explore these phenomena, and more.

As an Early Career Fellow, I see my job as training students in their discipline. Granted, not all students aspire to be academics – but face-to-face meetings and discussions, and getting along with people is a paramount skill outside academia, too. As a final meta-point, research on student social identity and problem-based learning presented at GRASP shows us that students who can develop a strong identification with their discipline experience better outcomes, earlier on.

So – more contact hours are likely to lead to better results – if students attend and benefit from the opportunities they provide, which are not, so far as I  can see, available to download online. Conferences remain for me one of the most rewarding and fruitful aspects of academia – a good one, such as this was, can set me up with a research program for the entire year. My wish would be for all students to recognise the benefits of learning in this way, both with and without their lecturers, but face-to-face, rather than simply online. Consumers or not, social psychological evidence supports that this would be good value for money for them.









Researcher Abroad

Back in September, I got my first ever research grant 🙂 It was an Early Career International Collaboration Scheme award, supported by the BPS Developmental Section, and it was to fund me for a short, international research visit. April seemed like ages away then, but it really wasn’t, and the past two weeks have seen my first longer-than-a-conference research trip abroad. I went to the Universita di Padova, to work with Gianluca Gini, and his research team. I took off with quite a lot of the trepidation that goes with embarking on something new, but now, I don’t want it to be over. The time flew by, and I’d happily go again.

Having had my first experience of this kind of trip, I’m going to use this post to make some recommendations for your first PhD or post-doc trip away to a university (because you absolutely should try it).

5. Find out where you are going before you leave home. Do that research, and write everything out with old-fashioned pen and paper. I thought I was being so organised, having multiple maps stored in Safari bookmarks, only to find when I arrived in Padova, that there was no wi-fi connection anywhere that I could see near the railway station, and I could barely remember the road where I was heading (or the road that the Department of Psychology was on).

4. Learn some Italian or [insert other relevant language here] before you arrive. I’m OK with languages. Particularly Latinate ones. And I thought I’d be OK, given that, simply knowing the basic basics – ” please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”. But, as Padova isn’t a central tourist destination, it would have been helpful to have come equipped with more. To be able to buy a train ticket, order in a cafe, ask which lane was meant for the slow swimmers….Then there was that moment when a colleague’s four-year-old was trying to learn English colour names. She first of all presented me with a pink pen. At which I excitedly exclaimed “rosa!”, this being the only colour name I could give in Italian. The way she then laughed out loud at that point said it all…..

3. Give a research talk. Even if it is arranged at the last minute (I am told this is typical in Italy…) and only a handful of people turn up. It was about quality not quantity of the audience. My research was novel to those who did show up, and there was a useful half-hour discussion, too, during which I got some insightful and time-saving advice.

2. Be realistic in your work plan. I was lucky here. I managed to achieve what I said I would in my application, and had a weekend free to explore the city. But that was done through working full days while I was away, and I’m not sure I could have cracked that pace for much longer (maybe I underestimated how tiring simply being somewhere different would be….). I knew I wouldn’t be able to collect data in that space of time – but I didn’t reckon on quite so many relevant papers having come out since I last checked, for me to go through, to plan out new research materials. I guess, if I had realised, I could have done more reading before I left home. I also find it reassuring to be leaving Padova with a follow-up plan for doing the research, and writing it up. 🙂

1. Be friendly with as many people at the university as possible. It’s a great way to get useful advice and information, when you’re stuck not being able to speak the local language (not that you will be), and you begin to discover the world really isn’t that big a place after all. I saw someone on the corridor who I hadn’t seen for three years, and didn’t know she was still in Padova. And a Fulbright scholar sharing my office turned out to share similar interests to me, and it was lovely to spend some of our spare time together (and she knew where all the best gelati-retailers were in town 🙂 ) It’s all about networking and setting up new collaborations, after all, and who knows who you might be sharing your desk with…

Here’s hoping that I’ve persuaded you that it is a worthwhile (and fun!) thing to do. You can see info. about, and apply for, the specific grant I got at:   I’m going to check how long I need to leave it before I can apply again…..

Thank you Developmental Section 🙂

In the Middle Of A Chain Reaction: Normalizing Verbal Insults

A friend posted this video (click on image below to view)  to my Facebook feed earlier this week. It’s well worth the few seconds it takes to watch it, in my view, although not just for the reasons Stonewall intends.


Don’t get me wrong. Stonewall’s message is a stark one, and one that is supported by empirical research; social developmental psychologists have shown that simply encouraging bystanders to intervene is enough to stop bullying episodes (Atlas & Pepler, 1998). In fact, more recently, they’ve shown that simply asking perpetrators to stop is enough to end verbal remarks that are unwanted (Lamb et al., 2009).

The thoughts that crossed my mind, as I watched the video, were more about the chain reaction that was taking place, as one person passed on verbal abuse to another. What I was thinking about was the time-course of bullying: how an episode of bullying of one child by others evolves over time.

Whitney and Smith in their 1993 study found that some episodes of bullying had continued for over two years. And I know from my research (Jones, Manstead, & Livingstone., in press, Frontiers in Learning Research) that an instance of bullying can take place over weeks or years, and can change from a relatively innocuous dirty look, to a full-on campaign, constituting multiple methods, and spaces in which to attack the target.

Beyond that, a review of the literature reveals relatively little empirical research about how bullying develops with time. Children who bully, and who get bullied (as depicted in the video) are known as bully-victims, or aggressive victims in this research area. And the literature shows that these children are vulnerable from multiple risk factors concerning their home life, and subsequently are more likely than any other children involved in bullying to be psychologically maladjusted (e.g., Haynie et al., 2001). I could find nothing, however, on which comes first: bullying or victimization. the only studies I could see we’re cross -sectional (looking at a snap-shot of children’s behaviour at a given moment in time) rather than longitudinal.

Not deterred, I looked more broadly for evidence on the time-course of bullying. It could be that if bystanders and targets are less likely to react angrily to ambiguous (perhaps more innocuous) forms of bullying, targets may later find themselves on the receiving end of nastier forms of attack, as the innocuous behaviour is exaggerated and becomes normal for the friendship group to enact. To support this view, the targets researched by Gamliel, Hoover, Daughtry and Imbra (2003) in a series of case studies, reported how bullying got more severe with time. It is possible then, that the ambiguity of initial incidents prevents targets from appreciating what is happening; by the time they do so, it is much more difficult to resist behaviour that has become increasingly normative for both perpetrators and target alike.

Earlier in this blog, I have referred to Dorothy Epelage’s view that bullying should be banished as a term, because teachers wait until a behaviour unequivocally counts as bullying before they treat it as such. This kind of process may also apply to bystanders who witness mildly nasty behaviour and who do not intervene to stop it because it does not meet their definition of what constitutes bullying. Even if the event does make one feel angry on behalf of the target, it may still be difficult to enlist the help of others – including teachers – because they may not necessarily share one’s own interpretation of the event. Consistent with this view, Boulton (1997) found that teachers readily saw verbal or physical threats as bullying, but were reluctant to identify ostracism (a more passive and ambiguously negative behaviour) as bullying. Similarly, Bauman and Del Rio (2006) found that trainee teachers would punish relational bullying less severely than more overt (verbal or physical) forms of bullying. The ambiguity of negative interpersonal or intergroup behaviour may play an important role in the development of bullying. If the behaviour is seen as harmless or normative at the outset, and as a consequence escapes negative sanction, it may escalate over time.

So, Stonewall’s video is important not just for showing how failing to say ‘stop’ when someone uses a verbally offensive remark can perpetuate a chain of abuse, but in showing the damage that can be done by normalizing verbal insults, as they aren’t curtailed, and get re-cycled in childhood and adulthood.

The Smell of Rebellion


For children who aren’t listening,
For midgets who are fidgeting
And whispering in history,
Their chattering and chittering,
Their nattering and twittering,
Is tempered with a smattering of

We must begin insisting
On rigidity and discipline,
Persistently resisting
This anarchistic mischieving.
These minutes you are frittering
On pandering and pitying
While little ones like this
They just want discipline.
The simpering and whimpering,
The dribbling and the spittling,
The ‘Miss, I need a tissue’
Is an issue we can fix.
There is no mystery to mastering
The art of classroom mistressing.
It’s discipline, discipline, discipline!
Read more: Matilda London Cast – The Smell Of Rebellion 

So sings Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, at the Cambridge Theatre (go see it: it’s fab). Miss Trunchbull isn’t the only one who has found the pong of dissent most insulting. A recent BBC News article highlights Michael Gove’s encouragement to teachers to “get tough”.

“Our message to teachers is clear – don’t be afraid to get tough on bad behaviour and use these punishments. The best schools already ask pupils who are behaving poorly to make it up to their teachers and fellow pupils through community service. I want more schools to follow their example by making badly-behaved pupils pick up litter or help clear up the dining hall after meal times.”

He, of course, has his critics. Also last week, I was pointed to another news piece, where a school are arguably also going “back in time”. But this was an interesting juxtaposition with the above statement from Michael Gove, since this school had gone back to allowing rough and tumble play (Bulldog, anyone?) , and abolition of formal school rules. You can learn more about this below


For me, the interesting thing about these stories, aside from their seeming antithesis to each other was the reduction in bullying reported by the New Zealand school. It is argued here that losing formal school rules has led to a reduction in bullying since children are no longer bored at break times.

Notwithstanding the fact that break times are only one place where bullying can occur, this presents us with an empirical question. Does having tougher discipline regime in schools lead to better behaviour and/or less bullying?

Studies have shown that a cooperative, supportive environment reduces bullying levels. Rivers and Soutter (1996) showed that a school with a strong cooperative norm (a Steiner school) had low levels of bullying. Nipedal, Nesdale, & Killen (2010) examined how far a school norm of inclusion (“that this school wants all the children to like kids in other groups and to be friendly toward them,” p. 200) would moderate the effects of an inclusive (“if the participant wanted to be a part of the team, they must like and include all the members of all other teams,” p. 200) or exclusive (“if the participant wanted to be a part of the team, they must not like or be friendly to any members of the other teams,” p. 200) peer group norm on children’s intentions to aggress. They found that the inclusive school norm did attenuate the effect of peer group norm, particularly in the case of indirect aggression.

There is lots of research on school climate and bullying – more than I could discuss here.   Gregory et al (2010) found in their study of  7 318 9th grade students and 2922 teachers from 290 schools in Virginia that consistent enforcement of discipline (structure) and the availability of caring adults (support) were associated with school safety. Student perspectives of structure and support in their school environment were also associated with less student bullying and victimization after accounting for other school-related factors. This suggests that “tough” policies should be combined with “support” policies for best effect.

There is also research on the link between school rules and classroom behaviour. Research suggests that classrooms with high levels of positive and supportive teacher–student interactions help in reducing student aggression (Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2007). Mitchell and Bradshaw (2013)  used data from 1902 students within 93 classrooms that were nested within 37 elementary schools  to investigate the association between exclusionary discipline and the use of positive behavior support. Analyses indicated that greater use of exclusionary discipline was associated with lower order and discipline scores, whereas greater use of  positive behavior support was associated with higher scores on order and discipline and student–teacher relationship. So, teachers’ should use positive rather than exclusionary discipline strategies in order to enhance conditions for learning.

And on inspection, the concept of school rules wasn’t abolished entirely in the New Zealand school. Rather, from nothing, as situations arose (“not enough sticks for everyone to play with”, children talked with their teachers, and new agreements were made “community stick pile”). The rules were divised from the bottom-up, rather than being imposed upon them. Maybe that’s the key. In my PhD research, I found that peer group norms were more likely to be condoned than school norms: maybe that was why – children don’t have so much control over school rules, tough, or otherwise…

Either way, there is evidence concerning different discipline strategies in schools, and their link to bad behaviour in class. I wonder if Michael Gove and his advisers have consulted it?

Picking Teams on the Playground: A review of Hitti et al. (2013)

Hitti, A., Mulvey, K.L., Rutland, A., Abrams, D. & Killen, M. (2013). When is it okay to exclude a member of the ingroup? Children’s and adolescents’ social reasoning. Social Development. doi: 10.1111/sode.12047

teamspickingWhen I was a child, at school in the UK, we used to pick teams on the playground. Allan Ahlberg reflects on this in his poem Picking Teams, published in Please, Mrs. Butler:



When we pick teams in the playground,
Whatever the game might be,
There’s always somebody left till last
And usually it’s me.
I stand there looking hopeful
And tapping myself on the chest,
But the captains pick the others first,
Starting, of course, with the best.

Maybe if teams were sometimes picked
Starting with the worst,
Once in his life a boy / girl like me
Could end up being first!


Social exclusion and rejection are typically labeled in school policy as a form of bullying, and picking teams in this way is less popular than it used to be, because it  could exacerbate problems surrounding social exclusion (e.g., Sleap & Wormald, 2006). The emphasis in anti-bullying policy advice is on inclusion. Yet, might there be occasions when children consider it better in the long-run to exclude a child (and when adults might agree with them)? As a case in point, consider that school exclusion is one of the more popular methods of dealing with bullying, as I discussed in this blog post.

The above question is the one considered by Hitti and her colleagues (2013). They tested 381 children between the ages of 9-13 years, finding that the acceptability of social exclusion from a peer group, following rule breaking  decreased with age, but, interestingly, also changed according to the rule that was broken. Where the rule concerned dress code, exclusion was viewed as much less acceptable than when they had allocated money between groups unequally, and broken a “fairness” rule. The authors claim that no research has yet looked at when children think exclusion might be legitimate.

The specific claim here then, is that the type of rule, or group norm, that is being violated matters. And for some rules, exclusion is OK. Let’s look in a bit more depth at how they arrived at that conclusion. This was an interview study for nine year-olds, and a survey study for 13 year-olds. Participants were shown a group of eight children of the same gender and asked to choose a group symbol and, from a list of activities, the kind of things that they get up to together. They were told about the groups’ norm, ‘Your group does x’ ‘The other group does Y’, and were given vignettes to read:

Dress Code Rule-Breaking

These are groups that are given special shirts that they wear to the school assembly.
 This way everybody knows which group people belong to. In the past, your group has
 worn their green and white club shirts. In the past the other group has not worn their red
 and black club shirts because they think it’s not ‘cool’. . . . Stephanie, who is also in your
 group, wants to be different from the other members of your club. She does not wear her
 green and white club shirt to the first big assembly of the year.

Money Allocation Rule-Breaking

The Student Council . . . [has] $100 to give out to the groups. . . . In the past, when your
 group has talked about it they have voted to give $50 to your own group and $50 to the
 other group. In the past, when the other group has talked about it they have voted to give
 $80 to their own group and $20 to your group. . . . Sally, who is also in your group, wants
 to be different from the other members of the club. She says that your group should get $80 and the other group should get $20. 

Following this, children were asked for reasons to justify the (il)legitimacy of exclusion of the ingroup deviant. To my mind, it is these findings that are the most interesting part of the research, as I’ll explain below.

So, what was it about the rule violation that led to the legitimacy judgments?  Participants were told that the ingroup deviant was excluded for (for example) distributing money equally, rather than in the ingroup’s favour, which was the group’s rule, – but what does this actually constitute, rule-wise? In other words, is the exclusion justified in terms of behaving out of sync with ingroup norms, or for behaving in line with the out group’s norms (because, in this case, it is the outgroup  that has a rule for equal distribution of money between groups)? Children’s reasoning makes reference to both possibilities:

‘She’s going against what the group wants.’

‘She’s acting like she’s in another group’

Research on the black sheep effect (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013)  tells us that ingroup members think deviants should be punished more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same crime: it is possible that behaving in line with outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules (for example, by distributing all resources to a charitable cause, thereby following neither groups’ rules). This may be particularly threatening where children can choose to be in one group or another (and when there is mobility across group boundaries) – as opposed to groups which we don’t choose, like race.

A further potential avenue for exploration surrounds the initial instigation of the ingroup norm – which is said to come from the school, for shirt-wearing, and the result of an ingroup vote for money allocation (see the vignette above). Thus, the  child who deviates by not wearing the shirt is breaking a school norm – was it this, rather than the in group norm, that served as the  basis for the participants’ responses? Some participants mentioned this in explaining why the child shouldn’t have been excluded ‘he was doing what the school wanted’. The relative weight of peer group versus school norms is a current topic in this research area, with findings suggesting that peer group norms trump school norms…..(see Nesdale & Lawson, 2011). In the other instance, the deviant is going against a collective, democratic decision: what if this norm had instead also come from the school?

Further interesting questions remain. The participants are told that the in group deviant was present when the exclusion decision was made. This reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, wherein conferences are held among the schoolchildren about whether to send a child to Coventry. What is the effect of publicly versus quietly dismissing the in group deviant?  How does the deviant child  respond? Does the outgroup know of this exclusion? What do they make of it? Would they be more likely to accept this ingroup deviant into their fold? Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than exclusion into the ether?

This research suggests that children aged 9-13 years perceive something different about appearance versus allocation rules. The best kind of research is fertile research, that asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s reasoning in groups.


I could have talked all night

I may be quiet, but I love being the centre of attention. So when @EmmaJSumner asked me to give a Psychologist in the Pub talk I jumped (read: bounced very high) at the chance.


And then, a few months later, re-reading the above, and spotting the typo, I got very, very nervous. A quick look at the media (and responses to our recent news item) reveals a great strength of feeling among the public when it comes to peer victimization. And this is Oxford: heart of academia. And I was going to a pub to talk about research on group bullying…..Madness. I felt too small and insignificant to be doing it. I’d be laughed at.

So, of course, it wasn’t like that. The function room was apart from the rest of the pub, and nicely laid out. And it started off with just colleagues there, before the room filled up. And some of my non-psychology friends, and some of my Psychology students were there smiling at me. Started talking and went into autopilot to give the talk (slides linked below) (couldn’t tell you what I said) and then the talk was over, after what felt like no time at all.


Questions….gah questions. But – they were OK, too. Really engaging in fact. On the floor and via #pitpfriends.  Loved the dialogue. Didn’t want to stop when @ninjacats said I’d answered enough questions. So I carried on with people individually afterwards. In the words of Julie Andrews (My Fair Lady), ‘I could have talked all night‘….

I did go home eventually. But I highly recommend taking your research to the pub. The nerves were worth it, and I loved it once I started speaking. Thank you so much to the BPS West Midlands branch for supporting it: never would have volunteered myself 🙂

One in the Eye For The Bullies?

The week of 18/11/13 was anti-bullying week, in the UK. This is the week in the year where I avidly follow all media interest in bullying, to try to work out what public perceptions of bullying are or that year, and to keep an eye out for any new research releases.

This year, I spotted an article in the Telegraph about Kate Middleton’s time with a mental health charity for children, Place2Be, focusing on her interest in cyber bullying ( the theme of this year’s awareness week). What struck me, was not so much that the Duchess was interested in this kind of thing ( who wouldn’t be?) but the headline accompanying the hard copy of the write-up about her visit. I’ve photographed and pasted it below:


There are, it seems to me, two issues here. The first is about calling a child a bully, the second is talk of “beating” that child. It is these I would like to explore further in this post.

I’ve just finished marking a set of undergraduate essay drafts, asking quite a few students to avoid using the term ‘bully’ and ‘victim’. This has become the zeitgeist in research papers, and seems to have roots in older research concerning self-fulfilling prophecy, reputation and stereotyping (see, for example, Bansel et al., 2009). Labelling children as victims or bullies it follows from this research, is likely to be unhelpful.

Regarding the second issue, the more I think about it, the more often I can recall instances of “fighting” language when it comes to bullying. It’s a behaviour that’s not liked by many (if any) of us. So talk of beating it seems sound. To talk of “beating” something is synonymous with defeating it. Here, we’re not just talking of beating bullying, but of “striking a blow against child bullies”. Language is powerful stuff. Do we really want to strike out?

The issue, as I see it, in “striking a blow against the bullies” is that, in some instances, it will be the child doing the bullying who is packing the first punches. And it is us using “fighting language” to “strike back”, not at the behaviour, in this case, but at the child. What effect does this imagery have? Is striking seen as purely figurative in this context? It’s interesting at this point, to note that sanctions are among the least effective tools for dealing with bullying (Thompson & Smith, 2011). What is effective is helping children to understand what has happened (see a brief review here). In using such language, we might be fighting (excuse the term) fire with fire.

It might be the case, that as well as avoiding labelling children as bullies, we should avoid using the language of physical violence to describe dealing with the physical bullying of these children. So far as I can see, the research hasn’t been done. It would be interesting to investigate, though.

Cyberbullying: A Call For Criminalization

Earlier this week, the article below was posted on the BBC News Wales website:


You can click above to read the piece in full. In it, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, states a case for why laws are now needed to tackle the problem of cyberbullying, while the Welsh government, whilst acknowledging the problem of cyberbullying in Wales, argues that positive and respectful relationships should be developed, rather than criminalizing cyberbullying.

I’ve just re-read the article for the nth time, and can’t see that Keith Towler was referring to criminalizing cyberbullying among children in his argument, although this seems to be implicit in the Welsh government’s response (they argue that the guidance given to schools is sufficient).  Assuming then, that Keith Towler is arguing for laws that would affect teenagers as perpetrators of cyberbullying, what is the evidence that this would work? Neither side in this article cites research evidence to support their claims, either that cyberbullying should be criminalized, or that it should not be, so I thought I would review some.

The first attempt to intervene against bullying was made in Norway by Olweus (1983). He reported that bullying fell by 50%. Next up, the Sheffield Anti-Bullying Project (1991-1994) involved 16 primary and 7 secondary schools. There was a 17% reduction in levels of bullying for primary schools, and modest reductions of 3-5% in 5 of the 7 secondary schools. There was importantly an increased willingness to report bullying. The overall finding was that schools that did the most achieved the most. The KiVA program in Finland is a new intervention with encouraging findings so far (reductions of around 35-40%). In a recent overview of the research Ttofi & Farrington ( 2009) showed interventions are effective in reducing levels of bullying and victimisation, by 20-23% in experimental schools compared with controls.Those based on the Olweus programme, and that targeted children over 11 years-old, were most effective.

So interventions are effective. But what were the details of these interventions? There are two camps of intervention option: one is proactive approaches (having things in place that promote positive relationships) and the other is reactive approaches (having things in place to deal with bullying when it has occurred). Note that each side of the debate in the news article falls into a different camp.

First then, reactive interventions. The ‘No-Blame Approach involves the bullying children being seen individually and encouraged to recognize the suffering of the bullied and a positive way forward is suggested. The bullied child or young person is also seen; if a provocative victim encouraged to modify his/ her behaviour. There is work towards a group meeting of bullies and bullied and an agreed way of coping, with some follow-up. This has been found to be effective in two thirds of cases (Sharp & Smith 1994). However, it is opposed by some experts (Olweus 1999). In severe cases, or where individuals do not respond, further action may be needed (McGrath & Noble, 2006).

Bully courts are another example of reactive intervention, and bear a potential resemblance to criminallization.  Here, an elected court of pupils meets after an alleged incident has occurred; all concerned are interviewed, including witnesses, and a decision is made about what punishment (if any) is appropriate. A school staff member chairs the court. It was claimed that in eight schools, reports of being bullied dropped from 70% to 6% (Elliott, 1991), but this was not publicly documented (Smith  & Sharp 1994). One case study of a secondary school found evidence for effectiveness in lower years when combined with a peer mentoring support scheme (Mahdavi & Smith 2002).

If cyberbullying were criminalized, there might well be sanctions for those involved. Sanctions have been found to have direct negative outcomes (Frankham et al., 2007). They lead to a temporary cessation of bullying only, and do not repair damage or help future relationships (Thompson & Smith, 2011). The case for criminalizing bullying then doesn’t seem so strong.

So, what about proactive interventions? Are they any better? Curriculum work, involving stories, theatre and role-play (Boulton & Flemmington, 1996) as well as cooperative group work, (Cowie & Sharp, 1994) and the Social – Emotional – Affective – Learning Programme ‘Say No to Bullying’which aims to develop social and emotional skills (Hallam et al., 2006) have good evidence for effectiveness in promoting positive relationships  (Smith et al., 2008). Of course, the issue in a lot of these evaluations is that we don’t know how much bullying we were preventing from happening (I have a dream-catcher on my window that prevents tigers from dropping by for tea: it is 100% effective….). 

Another option is peer mentoring. Peer supporters gain personal benefit from their involvement (e.g. new skills, increase in self-confidence), and peer support is perceived as beneficial by users. However, its effectiveness is limited to times when agreed ways of working are clear and there is good staff supervision and support of the mentors  Additionally, peer supporters report some degree of derision or hostility from some pupils, (e.g., Houlston  & Smith, 2009) and  it is  difficult to  recruit boys as peer supporters, and again, there is little pre-post data on whether peer support leads to a reduction in levels of bullying.

In sum, the research evidence suggests that large scale campaigns can reduce levels of bullying and victimization, and that schools that do the most achieve the most. There is limited evidence of success for punitive reactive interventions, and some evidence of success for proactive interventions (in spite of their caveats). However, since several interventions are often used by schools at one time, and because evaluations of these interventions are sparse, and not highly controlled, we still don’t know which specific interventions are most effective in which situations. Neither do many interventions specifically address the role of the peer group, or the dynamics of friendship groups, in spite of consensus that positive working relationships and good social skills are crucial.

Smith et al. (2004) highlighted a need to take a systemic perspective, involving teachers, parents and the community. They suggest a need for a range of interventions, concerning (a) what to do with children who bully, (b) what to do with children who are victimized, (c) what to do in classrooms, (d) what to do with bystanders, (e) what to do at a school level. and (f) what to do at a broader community level. Given that those who cyberbully might not be part of the school, and given the limited success of a lot of reactive interventions, I agree with them. Criminalization, if it is used as an answer to cyberbullying, is only ever going to be a very small part of it, that isn’t likely to be effective for most children.