Influential Peers Can Reduce School Bullying by 30 Percent, Study Finds

Students wear colorful wristbands to promote the Roots program. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Princeton University.
Students wear colorful wristbands to promote the Roots program. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Princeton University.

Curbing school bullying has been a concern for educators, administrators, policymakers and parents, but researchers say the answer may not come from rules set by adults. Rather, the solution to reduce school bullying might actually come from the students themselves, particularly those most connected to their peers.

A team of researchers from Princeton University, Rutgers University and Yale University engaged groups of influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools to spread messages about the dangers of bullying and school conflict. Using messaging platforms such as Instagram, print posters and colorful wristbands, the students were encouraged to discuss positive ways to handle conflict.

The research team wanted to test whether certain students, so-called social influencers, have an outsized influence over school climate or the social norms and behavioral patterns in their schools. These students are not necessarily the most popular kids school-wide, but demonstrate influence within their smaller peer groups. All activities were designed to test whether, by making their anti-conflict stance well known, these social influencers could shape their peers’ behaviors and social norms.

In the course of a year, the middle schools that utilized social influencers saw a 30 percent reduction in student conflict reports. The greatest drop in conflict was observed among the teams with the highest proportion of social influencers, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that these students do exert an outsized influence over school climates.

“We designed our own curriculum because current programs address problems as defined by adults, and they aren’t necessarily fitted to each individual school environment,” said lead author Elizabeth Levy Paluck, associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “We think the best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices.”

Peers influencing peers is a widely accepted concept. But the question of whether certain peers have more influence on social norms governing a group is what spurred Paluck and her colleagues to design their test program, the Roots program.

The program was designed to engage the school’s most influential students, only some of whom fit the typical profile of a student leader or a popular student, to spread anti-conflict messages. Using a survey measurement known as social network mapping, the researchers were able to identify students with the most connections to other students, both in person and online. These students served as the “roots” to influence perceptions and social norms in schools.

“The real innovation here is using student social networks to choose the peers … which can lead to a less unorthodox group of student leaders,” Paluck said. “When adults choose student leaders, they typically pick the ‘good’ kids. But the leaders we find through social network mapping are influential among students and are not all the ones who would be selected by adults. Some of the students we find are right smack in the center of student conflicts. But the point is, these are the students whose behavior gets noticed more.”

Paluck and study co-authors Hana Shepherd from Rutgers University and Peter Aronow from Yale University were able to implement the study in middle schools across New Jersey during the 2012-13 school year. The previous school year, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill issuing a law that required all teachers to have anti-bullying training. The bill was passed without funding.

This gave Paluck, Shepherd and Aronow a chance to offer their program as a training solution. With encouragement from the State Department of Education, they implemented the voluntary program in middle schools, which tend to exhibit higher rates of student conflict than high schools.

For the purposes of the experiment, half of the middle schools were randomly assigned to receive the intervention, which was training through the Roots program. The schools not selected were given the opportunity to receive free training on how to run the program at the end of the school year.