St. Catharines researchers resume study of bullying that was halted by pandemic

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Published November 23, 2022 at 1:14 pm

While bullying has never stopped, the hotbed for that unacceptable behaviour, schools, did for virtually two years.

Now that middle and high school students are back in the classroom, Brock University researchers are looking to see whether bullying behaviour has changed.

Brock bullying expert Tony Volk and his team will finally resume a five-year bullying research project they were conducting before the pandemic shut their work down.

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 foundation for measurement, research, interventions and policies.”

He and his team — including Brock Associate Professor of Psychology Andrew Dane and Queen’s University Professor of Psychology Wendy Craig — are creating and testing new concepts and methods that aim to modernize the bullying research field.

Volk told the Brock News this level of sophisticated social network analysis provides greater understanding of the relationships, patterns and group dynamics that may foster bullying.

“Do groups of friends who bully a particular kid cluster together? Are kids bullying people who they call friends? Over time, do kids start joining the popular group that is bullying other kids, or do they go away? Do kids who are bullied start banding together?” he says.

They had gathered significant date prior to the pandemic that showed the following:

  • One in five children and adolescents in Niagara engage in bullying behaviour, and one in five are victims of bullying, which reflects the national average.
  • Peers do cluster together with other peers when it comes to being bullies or victims.
  • Selfish personality traits predict bullying behaviour.
  • Average levels of civility were supported by peer popularity but high and low levels were not, such as being too unruly or too well-behaved.
  • Both victimization and witnessing victimization are associated with lower psychosocial well-being and higher levels of emotional problems.

Eight years ago, Volk created a new version of the word’s definition: “Bullying is aggressive, goal-directed behaviour that causes harm to another individual within the context of a power imbalance.”

Through their research project, Volk and his team are testing out the definition and other novel tools by surveying 1,000 Grade 5, 7 and 9 students and their families in the Niagara and Hamilton Catholic school boards.

Volk says this level of sophisticated social network analysis provides greater understanding of the relationships, patterns and group dynamics that may foster bullying.

“Do groups of friends who bully a particular kid cluster together? Are kids bullying people who they call friends? Over time, do kids start joining the popular group that is bullying other kids, or do they go away? Do kids who are bullied start banding together?” he asks.

The team is scheduled to head back 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 behaviours.

Volk says bullying research done by other colleagues during the pandemic found a decrease in bullying — including cyberbullying — across the board.

“Are we going to see this trend continue, where these behaviours were lower during the pandemic and now they’re going to stick at a lower level, or will bullying behaviour go back to what it used to be before the pandemic?” he says.

The answer could go either way. On the one hand, bullying is partly a learned behaviour, says Volk, so if teens learned new, healthier ways of interacting with one another during COVID, that could carry 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.

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