What Makes Children Do it and What are the Consequences for Them?
As bullying episodes generally occur in the presence of other peers, encouraging all children to stand up for those being victimized – rather than watching or doing nothing – has become a key objective of many intervention programs. Anti-bullying programs like the KiVa program try to reduce bullying in many ways, including increasing defending behaviours among students (for example, telling the bully to stop, or comforting the victim). This has raised several questions over the years: How does the program successfully increase defending? Specifically, what changes in the minds of the children who have participated in the program to convince them to stand up for their victimized peers? And importantly, what are the potential consequences for the children who defend others? Is it safe or does it make them more vulnerable to being victimized or to developing mental health issues? A series of recent studies have now provided answers to these questions.
Through which mechanisms does the KiVa program increase defending behavior?
Although we have good evidence that programs like KiVa successfully reduce bullying in schools, little is known about how they achieve their positive results. For a long time, no information was available on the mechanisms that might encourage children to defend victimized peers more. Using data from Finnish primary schools, we first showed that the KiVa program had a positive effect on defending behavior after 9 months of implementation. Next, we tested whether changes in defending after participating in KiVa were explained by changes in: 1) students’ affective empathy for the victim, 2) their feelings of responsibility to intervene, 3) their self-efficacy for defending, and 4) their pro-victim attitudes, as well as their expectations that defending 5) will make the bullying decrease, 6) will be beneficial for their own status, and 7) will not increase their own risk of being victimized. Two of these factors were found to play a significant role.
First, the program increases defending by increasing children’s feelings of responsibility to intervene. This indicates that diffusion of responsibility (the tendency to avoid helping and rely on others to take action instead) is an important obstacle to overcome when witnessing someone in danger. Second, KiVa also increases defending by increasing children’s expectations that defending will make the bullying stop or decrease. It seems that the classroom lessons and activities, combined with the targeted actions of the KiVa team in responding to reported cases of bullying, shows children that their classmates and teachers also feel that bullying is wrong, and that it can be stopped. By increasing children’s feelings of responsibility to help victims and their belief that bullying will stop if they intervene, programs like KiVa can effectively increase peer defending.
Does defending put youth at risk for future victimization?
Now that we know that programs like KiVa can increase defending among students, it is extremely important to determine whether anti-bullying interventions might be putting students at risk of becoming victimized by encouraging them to defend their victimized peers. Indeed, when asked about the reasons why they do not defend victims more often, many students mention the fear of becoming the bully’s next target. However, very few studies had looked at this question until now. Our study conducted in secondary schools did not provide any indication that those who defend experienced an increase in victimization over time. In fact, youth with a reputation for defending were less likely to develop a reputation among their peers as a victim.
Are defenders more likely to develop mental health issues?
Finally, given that intervening in bullying situations could be stressful for youth, we felt that it was important to find out whether defending was a risk factor for poorer mental health among youth. Specifically, we examined the links between having a reputation for defending others and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Overall, defending was not related to higher internalizing problems among youth. In fact, relatively popular youth who also defended their peers from bullying reported lower symptoms of depression over time. This is consistent with other research showing that helping others benefits our own mental health. However, among victimized youth, defending was associated with higher social anxiety, and increased symptoms of depression. These results indicate that defending may be more risky only among those who are already vulnerable (such as currently being bullied). It appears that most youth can defend others without risk.
The preliminary good news from these studies is that 1) anti-bullying programs are effective at increasing defending among students, and 2) most youth can be safely encouraged to defend their peers from bullying, without putting themselves at risk for being victimized or experiencing mental health concerns. Schools that are interested in reducing bullying among their students should seek out evidence-based programs that address students’ responsibility to intervene and support them in effectively defending their peers.
Claire Garandeau works as an assistant professor in the INVEST Research Flagship at the University of Turku. Her research focuses on contextual and individual predictors of school bullying, the psychosocial adjustment of victimized children, and seeks to identify optimal strategies for anti-bullying intervention.
Jessica Trach works as a senior researcher in the INVEST Research Flagship at the University of Turku. Her research focuses on the impact of educational policies and interventions on child well-being.
Sarah Malamut works as a postdoctoral researcher in the INVEST Research Flagship at the University of Turku and at the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University. Her research focuses on aggression and victimization in adolescence, and examines factors underlying individual differences in the psychosocial adjustment of victimized adolescents.
Garandeau, C., Turunen, T., Saarento-Zaprudin, S., Salmivalli, C. (submitted). Effects of the KiVa anti-bullying program on defending behavior: Investigating mechanisms of change. Journal of School Psychology.
Malamut, S., Trach, J., Garandeau, C., & Salmivalli, C. (2022). Does defending victimized peers put youth at risk of being victimized? Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13866
Malamut, S., Trach, J., Garandeau, C., & Salmivalli, C. (2021). Examining the potential mental health costs of defending victims of bullying: a longitudinal analysis. Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 49, 1197–1210. doi.org/10.1007/s10802-021-00822-z
Original text published on INVEST blog on 3.11.2022