From School Bullying to Dating Violence: Coercive Developmental Processes and Implications for Intervention
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter conceptualizes school-based, peer-to-peer bullying as a coercive relational process, in which bullies instrumentally use aggressive interpersonal tactics to influence, change, or dominate others in order to attain desired outcomes. We explain how this coercive process occurs on multiple levels, both within the bully-victim dyad and within the peer group context. We then discuss how the nature and desired outcomes of bullying change according to school setting and developmental period, drawing on empirical research that highlights the increasingly sexualized nature of bullying during early adolescence. Finally, we link sexual harassment and bullying behaviors during adolescence to risk for involvement in coercive relationships and processes in adulthood, and review the implications of this work for evidence-based bullying prevention programs.
School bullying1 is a subtype of aggressive behavior that refers specifically to repeated acts of proactive aggression by an individual or a group intended to harm another student(s) and occurs in the context of a real or perceived power imbalance (Olweus, 1993; Salmivalli, 2010). School bullying may occur directly (e.g., hitting, threatening, etc.) or indirectly (e.g., social exclusion and isolation; Salmivalli, 2010). It has also been defined in terms of its different forms, such as physical, verbal, social or relational, and more recently, cyber (Internet-based) bullying, among other forms (Salmivalli, Kärnä, & Poskiparta, 2011).
Involvement in bullying as a perpetrator or victim is a psychosocial risk factor that impacts a substantial proportion of youth across developmental periods and cultural contexts. Large-scale studies conducted in the United States and internationally have shown that between 10% and 30% of youth on average are involved in bullying, either as bullies, as victims, or as bully-victims (Craig et al., 2009; Nansel et al., 2001; Solberg & Olweus, 2003). Many more youth report that they have witnessed bullying behaviors at school (e.g., up to 63%, Rivers, Poteat, Noret, & Ashurst, 2009). Research suggests that being involved in bullying, or simply witnessing these behaviors as a bystander, is associated with poor psychosocial adjustment, such as depressive symptoms, anxiety, low self-worth, problem behaviors, and diminished school engagement (Guerra, Williams, & Sadek, 2011; Nansel et al., 2004; Nansel et al., 2001; Nishina & Juvonen, 2005; Rivers et al., 2009).
Bullies use aggressive interpersonal tactics to influence, change, or dominate victims in order to attain desired outcomes. This behavior is proactive and intended to accomplish a specific instrumental goal rather than reactive to perceived or real provocation. These instrumental outcomes also are likely to change developmentally and according to school (p. 301) context. For instance, research has shown that bullying behaviors tend to increase during early adolescence, which typically coincides with the transition from elementary to middle school (Guerra et al., 2011; Pellegrini & Long, 2002). Framed from the perspective of social dominance theory, increases at school transition periods could be reflective of youth using bullying as a strategy to establish social dominance and status in a changing school context (Pellegrini, 2002; Pellegrini & Long, 2002). Bullies in adolescence are often perceived as “cool” or “popular,” which in turn confers social power over other youth (Salmivalli, 2010).
Increases in bullying during early adolescence also correspond with a number of developmental changes that appear during this period. The emergence of mixed-sex peer groups, pubertal maturation, and a growing interest in romantic relationships may all impact adolescent bullying behaviors (Connolly, Craig, Goldberg, & Pepler, 2004; Pepler et al., 2006). Rather than using bullying to obtain possessions or simply dominance, as in early childhood, bullying behaviors in adolescence may be used to compete with peers for romantic partners (Guerra, Williamson, & Sadek, 2012; Volk, Camilleri, Dane, & Marini, 2012). This notion is consistent with recent work suggesting that adolescents target attractive and popular individuals for bullying as a method to reduce dating competition (Cunningham et al., 2010; Guerra et al., 2011; Guerra et al., 2012; Pellegrini, 2001).
In this chapter, we highlight contextual and developmental changes that occur in the nature and adaptive functions of bullying behaviors from childhood to adolescence. Whereas coercive behaviors during early childhood are associated with concurrent peer rejection and risks for later conduct problems (e.g., Snyder et al., 2008), bullying in early adolescence has been associated with increased peer affiliation, popularity, and even subsequent romantic relationships (Bukowski, Sippola, & Newcomb, 2000; Espelage & Holt, 2001; Pellegrini & Bartini, 2001). More extreme peer deviance, such as gang involvement, is also predictive of increased sexual promiscuity longitudinally over adolescence (e.g., Dishion, Ha, & Véronneau, 2012).
Conceptualizing bullying as a coercive process highlights the idea that bullying behaviors can be adaptive and goal-directed, at least in the short run, resulting in these desired social and romantic outcomes for youth. Much of the empirical literature on bullying concerns what bullying is and how it occurs, with many studies examining the prevalence of different bullying behaviors, the characteristics of bullies and victims, and the psychosocial impacts of bullying behaviors. Less research has focused directly on the adaptive nature of bullying, or why bullying occurs, although some work in the last decade has begun to investigate youth perspectives on the causes of bullying behaviors (e.g., Brown, Birch, & Kancherla, 2005; Ellis et al., 2012; Erling & Hwang, 2004; Guerra et al., 2011; Guerra et al., 2012; Owens, Shute, & Slee, 2000). In particular, we will focus on the emerging romantic and sexual nature of bullying during adolescence, and the potential risks this conveys for subsequent involvement in coercive relational processes during adulthood (e.g., intimate partner violence). Indeed, during adolescence there is an increased prevalence of sexual harassment and dating violence (McMaster, Connolly, Pepler, & Craig, 2002; Pepler et al., 2006). This is consistent with more recent work that has examined conceptual and empirical links between bullying behaviors, sexual harassment, and dating violence during adolescence (Josephson & Pepler, 2012; Miller et al., 2013).
School Bullying as Coercive Relational Process
School bullying can be conceptualized as a coercive relational process. As described in the introduction to this Handbook (Snyder & Dishion, this volume; see also Dishion, this volume), coercive relational processes encompass different forms of aversive interpersonal tactics that are used instrumentally by individuals or groups to attain specific goals (e.g., rewards, social status, etc.), or to avoid punishment or other negative outcomes. Aversive tactics can include both direct (e.g., threats, physical and verbal aggression, noncompliance, emotional control, etc.) and indirect behaviors (e.g., withdrawal, rejection or social exclusion, etc.; Snyder & Dishion, this volume). Coercive behaviors are adaptive, in that coercion can be highly effective in achieving goals or controlling others (Dishion this volume; Piehler, this volume; Snyder & Dishion, this volume). Coercive relational processes have long been studied in the context of parent–child and other family relationships, such as the marital dyad or the sibling relationship (e.g., Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Dishion, & Bank, 1984).
Within the parent–child relationship, coercive interaction patterns include behaviors such as a child throwing a tantrum or using other aggressive behaviors to avoid complying with a parental request or a threat of punishment, and the parent backing down (p. 302) or acquiescing when confronted with this behavior. Through negative reinforcement, both the parent and the child are rewarded in this interaction and are more likely to enact similar behaviors in the future. The child is more likely to use aggression to avoid compliance or punishment, and the parent is more likely to acquiesce to the child’s behavior to stop or avoid continued child aggressive behavior. Other examples of coercive parent–child interactions might include high-intensity and overly harsh parenting tactics, such as threats and physical punishment, in order to reduce or control noncompliant child behaviors.
Coercive parent–child interactions such as these have been found to play a key role in the development of serious youth antisocial behavior and in the generalization of aggressive behavior from the home to the school setting (Brennan, Hall, Bor, Najman, & Williams, 2003; Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Forgatch, & DeGarmo, 2010). The family context in which coercive parent–child interactions occur is a broad venue for other coercive relationship dynamics, including, for example, sibling relationships. Coercive sibling relationships, marked by high levels of conflict and psychological control and low levels of warmth and closeness, also contribute to the continuity of child antisocial behavior over time and across settings (e.g., Bank, Burraston, & Snyder, 2004; Criss & Shaw, 2005; Patterson et al., 1984).
Longitudinal research has shown that coercive relationships between siblings and in the parent–child relationship can independently contribute to risk for antisocial behavior and peer adjustment problems (Bank et al., 2004; Criss & Shaw, 2005). For example, Bank et al. (2004) found that ineffective parenting practices and sibling conflict represented distinct familial processes, each of which uniquely contributed to boys’ deviant peer affiliations, peer adjustment, and risk for antisocial behavior during the transition to adolescence. Parent–child and sibling relationships also interactively predicted developmental trajectories of parent-reported antisocial behavior over the ages of 12 to 16 years, showing how multiple coercive family relationships can amplify risk for aggressive behavior (Bank et al., 2004). Additionally, Bullock and Dishion (2002) have shown that sibling collusion accounted for significant variance in adolescent problem behavior, even after controlling for youths’ associations with deviant peers. In this study, sibling collusion was defined as a process in which two or more children in the same family “colluded” to undermine parents’ efforts to manage and lead the family. Not only do children learn to use coercive strategies in these situations, but these collusive interactions also provide a context for learning how to join with others to inflict harm on others. Coercive sibling dynamics are posited to be a context for deviancy training, and for practicing negative social and relational behaviors that can easily generalize to children’s peer interactions and amplify adolescent problem behaviors (Bank et al., 2004; Bullock & Dishion, 2002; Patterson et al., 1984).
Just as coercion theory has been applied to problematic parent–child and sibling relationships in the family context, this theory can be applied to problematic peer relationships in the school context. School bullying dynamics share important characteristics with coercive family processes, and with sibling relationships in particular. Like coercive family relationships, bullying behaviors are instrumental, occur repeatedly over time, involve aversive interpersonal tactics, and have an adaptive function. Whereas siblings might engage in coercive behavior to obtain desired possessions or establish dominance in the family context, bullies might engage in coercive behaviors with peers for similar outcomes in the school context.
Within the school setting, bullying can be thought of as a coercive relational process that occurs on multiple levels, operating within the bully-victim dyad, as well as within the larger peer group, classroom, and school contexts. Early research on bullying has traditionally considered the characteristics and dynamics of children in the bully, victim, or bully-victim roles, without much attention to the larger peer and social-ecological contexts in which bullying occurs (Salmivalli, 2010). Within the bully-victim dyad, the bully might use aggressive behavior for the instrumental gain of tangible outcomes, such as the victim’s lunch money or personal possessions (Guerra et al., 2011; Volk et al. 2012). Coercive processes within the bully-victim dyad are easily identifiable, given the repeated nature of the bullying behaviors and the use of aggression to directly force the victim to submit to the bully’s demands and threats.
However, at the same time, bullying behaviors can also be used to achieve salient but difficult to measure gains in social dominance, such as being perceived as “cool,” popular, or simply powerful, which occurs at the peer group level (Salmivalli, 2010; Sijtsema, Veenstra, Lindenberg, & Salmivalli, 2009; Volk et al., 2012). For example, studies have shown that bullying behaviors are often associated (p. 303) with high social status and perceived coolness, particularly among adolescent samples (e.g., Juvonen, Graham, & Shuster, 2003; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2006).
As bullying research has shifted in focus from the bully-victim dyad to the larger peer, classroom, and school contexts, empirical work has accumulated to demonstrate the importance of bystanders in the dynamics of school bullying. Early work by Salmivalli and colleagues in Finland (e.g., Salmivalli, Lagerpetz, Björkqvist, Österman, & Kaukiainen, 1996; Salmivalli, Lappalainen, & Lagerspetz, 1998) helped to establish different participant roles outside of the bully-victim dyad. These roles include peers who defend the victim (defenders), those who directly assist (assisters) or otherwise positively reinforce the bully (youth who provide reinforcement by laughing or cheering during bullying), and those who remain uninvolved (outsiders; Salmivalli et al., 1996; Salmivalli et al., 1998).
The different bullying roles found in these studies have been replicated in the United States and in other international samples (e.g., Goossens, Olthof, & Dekker, 2006; Lucas-Molina, Williamson, Pulido, & Calderón, 2014; Sutton & Smith, 1999) and have recently been used to examine ways in which participant roles can differentially contribute to the frequency of bullying behaviors. For instance, Salmivalli, Kärnä, and Poskiparta (2011) showed that students’ efforts to defend victims were associated with decreased bullying at the classroom level, whereas reinforcing behaviors were associated with increased classroom-level bullying.
As bully-victim interactions typically occur in a peer group context, where other youth playing different participant roles are present (e.g., Hawkins, Pepler, & Craig, 2001; Rivers et al., 2009), there are multiple coercive processes operating at different social-ecological levels. When bullying occurs in front of other peers, whether in the schoolyard or in the classroom, the bully may be using the victim’s humiliation and submission and, in many cases, effectively coercing others in the peer group into giving the bully social dominance and respect, at least in some cases. Rather than engaging in bullying on a one-on-one basis to obtain a tangible possession (e.g., a toy, lunch money, etc.), bullying in early adolescence often results in social recognition, power, and status in their peer groups, classrooms, and larger school settings. As we will discuss in the following sections, research has shown that the coercive function and social mechanisms involved in school bullying change according to school context and developmental period (see also Horner & MacIntosh, this volume, for a discussion on the associations between school context and bullying behaviors).
Contextual and Developmental Factors
Framing school bullying as an adaptive, coercive process necessitates an understanding of why bullying behaviors occur. Many studies have shown that bullying behaviors tend to increase during the transition to adolescence (Brown et al., 2005; Guerra et al., 2011; Pellegrini & Long, 2002; Salmivalli, 2010), leading scholars to examine the adaptive functions of bullying during this developmental period. One perspective on why early adolescents engage in more frequent bullying behaviors is that bullying can be used to establish social dominance and to achieve status-based goals (Pellegrini, 2002; Samivalli, 2010; Volk, Camilleri, Dane, & Marini, 2012). Social dominance, typically measured through peer nomination procedures, refers to having social power, influence, visibility, or perceived popularity, and is not the same as being liked or socially preferred by others (Salmivalli, 2010; Sijtsema et al., 2009).
Both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have highlighted how social dominance or status-based goals increase during early adolescence, and can be linked with greater involvement in bullying behaviors. For instance, Sijtsema et al. (2009) examined a sample of 10- to 11- and 14- to 15-year-old bullies and victims, and found that older bullies had more status-based bullying goals (e.g., appearing smart or popular; obtaining respect) than younger bullies and that bullying behavior was associated with perceived popularity. Similarly, longitudinal work also has demonstrated associations between increasing bullying behaviors and status-based social goals during early adolescence. For example, Nocentini, Menesini, and Salmivalli (2013) looked at bullying over a 3-year period among a sample of adolescents and found that greater competition for social dominance was associated with both baseline bullying behaviors and increases in bullying over the 3-year period. Cillessen and Mayeux (2004) also followed a sample of youth from ages 10 to 14 years old, and found varying associations between peer-nominated perceived popularity and different forms of bullying over time. Specifically, they found that social/relational bullying increasingly predicted perceived popularity (but not social preference) over time, whereas physical bullying was less predictive of popularity over time. This study additionally showed (p. 304) bidirectional relations between social/relational bullying and perceived popularity for girls in particular, with high baseline levels of social/relational bullying predicting increased popularity during school transition years, and high baseline levels of popularity predicting decreased levels of bullying.
Other longitudinal work has found linkages between bullying behaviors, social dominance, and dating relationships. These associations suggest another potential instrumental goal linked to bullying during early adolescence—to increase access to and reduce sexual competition for romantic partners (Pellegrini, 2001; Pellegrini & Bartini, 2001; Volk et al., 2012). Consistent with this perspective, Pellegrini and Bartini (2001) found that boys’ aggressive behavior increased with the initial transition from fifth to sixth grade and decreased by the end of the academic year, supporting a social dominance perspective. Indeed, a social dominance perspective would suggest that increased aggression at initial school transitions would serve to increase boys’ visibility and assert their dominance in a changing social context. However, boys’ increased aggression also was predictive of dating relationships at the end of sixth grade, suggesting that bullying and other acts of aggression may be attractive to females and can be used to reduce dating competition (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2001).
Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, males and females might employ different aggressive behavior strategies to attract romantic partners and reduce dating competition in adolescence (Benenson, 2009; Leenaars, Dane, & Marini, 2008; Pellegrini, 2001; Volk et al., 2012). Such behaviors may be especially likely during the onset of puberty, which is accompanied by an increase in cross-sex peer interest and interactions (McMaster et al., 2002; Volk et al., 2012). Accordingly, males would be more likely to employ overt, physically aggressive behaviors in order to dominate other males and to attract females who are evolutionarily primed to select high-status partners who can offer resources (Leenaars et al., 2008; Volk et al., 2012). Females, by contrast, would be more likely to use indirect aggression, such as social/relational bullying, to reduce dating competition by portraying rival females as sexually promiscuous and therefore less attractive to males, which also enhances females’ own social status and attractiveness (Leenaars et al., 2008; Volk et al., 2012).
Several studies provide support for this evolutionary perspective on the function of bullying behavior during early adolescence. In addition to the study by Pellegrini and Bartini (2001) described above, Pellegrini and Long (2003) found that during the first 2 years of middle school, increases in males’ perceived dominance (toughness) were predictive of increased peer-nominated dating popularity, whereas for females, increased social/relational aggression was predictive of subsequent dating popularity. Notably, research has demonstrated that both male and female bullies tend to begin puberty and enter into dating relationships earlier than their peers, and also tend to report having more dating partners overall (Connolly, Pepler, Craig, & Taradash, 2000).
Also in line with evolutionary theory, quantitative and qualitative research supports the idea that attractive youth, and especially females, are targets of bullying behaviors during early adolescence. For instance, Leenaars et al. (2008) found that female adolescents who rated themselves as being more attractive were also more likely to report being the victims of social/relational bullying, even when controlling for psychosocial adjustment indicators like behavioral problems. Similarly, Cunningham et al. (2010) found that compared with peers who rated themselves as average-looking, middle-school youth who rated themselves as more attractive reported more experiences of sexual bullying (inappropriate touching or making sexual comments), both as bullies and as victims.
Several qualitative studies have shown that adolescents believe that attractive females are more likely to be bullied. In our own research with middle and high school youth, participants indicated that “perfect” or attractive females were more likely to be victimized by peers through spreading rumors and other social/relational forms of bullying and that these behaviors were partially due to jealousy (Guerra et al., 2012). Similarly, in focus groups of adolescent females, Owens et al. (2000) found that jealousy over physical appearance emerged as a salient explanation for female-to-female bullying behaviors. This is consistent with the notion that adolescent females view bullying as a way to decrease competition for romantic partnerships and as a method to increase their own physical and sexual attractiveness.
Emerging sexual and romantic interests during early adolescence also may be associated with increased sexual harassment during this developmental period. Sexual harassment can be defined as unwanted sexual attention (McMaster et al., 2002). As Shute, Owens, and Slee (2008) have noted, sexual harassment and bullying are often considered (p. 305) separately in the extant literature, despite recent findings that bullying in adolescence is frequently sexual in its content. For example, in a qualitative study, Shute et al. (2008) found that verbal and social/relational victimization by males toward females had highly sexual overtones. Cross-sectional studies of bulling and sexual harassment indicate that both tend to increase during early adolescence. Pepler et al. (2006) found among youth in Grades 6 to 8 and in Grades 9 to 12 that bullying behaviors as well as sexual harassment between same- and cross-sex peers were more prevalent among early adolescents and that sexual harassment increased each year from Grade 6 to Grade 10. Functionally, bullying and sexual harassment are quite similar, as both can be used to dominate peers. For instance, Pepler et al. (2006) hypothesized that sexual harassment appeared to be a new method to gain power and control over peers during adolescence. McMaster et al. (2002) also found in a sample of middle school adolescents that a substantial proportion of these youth were involved in both same- and cross-sex sexual harassment, and that cross-sex sexual harassment increased from Grade 6 to Grade 8. In this study, sexual harassment was also associated with pubertal maturation as well as participation in mixed-sex peer groups.
Interestingly, although McMaster et al. (2002) found many youth were involved in both same-and cross-sex sexual harassment, the categories of same- and cross-sex sexual harassment were distinct, indicating that there are some youth who engage in only same-sex or only cross-sex harassment. Additionally, there were differences in the rates of male- versus female-reported same- and cross-sex sexual harassment. In this study, McMaster et al. (2002) took a broad view of sexual harassment, defining it as “unwanted sexual attention” (p. 92) and noting that sexual harassment lacks a universal definition. This term in their study may thus encompass verbal harassment that includes unwanted, sexualized name-calling. Males in this study reported higher perpetration and experiences of same-sex as compared to cross-sex sexual harassment (McMaster et al., 2002). Females, however, reported higher perpetration and victimization rates of cross-sex as opposed to same-sex harassment. There may be different functions of same- and cross-sex sexual harassment, although further research in this regard with older adolescent samples is necessary. For instance, among males, same-sex sexual harassment may be an extension of verbal bullying rather than a method to reduce sexual competition, and could be linked to increased homophobia among adolescent males, as McMaster et al. (2002) have noted. Although females were found to engage in less same-sex versus cross-sex sexual harassment during early adolescence, our work with high school youth indicates that some females spread rumors about other females that are sexual in content as a method to reduce dating competition (Guerra et al., 2012). That is, older females may engage in same-sex sexual harassment or verbal bullying more frequently than males to reduce dating competition. However, further research on the changing functions and prevalence of same- and cross-sex sexual harassment are needed to substantiate these ideas.
Consistent with findings on the associations between bullying and sexual harassment, Pepler and colleagues (Josephson & Pepler, 2012; Pepler et al., 2006) have drawn conceptual and empirical linkages between bullying behaviors and risk for sexual harassment as well as dating violence. Dating violence refers to physical, emotional, or sexual aggression in the context of an intimate partner relationship and has been found to impact approximately 9% of all high school students (Centers for Disease Control, 2012; Foshee & Reyes, 2009). Whereas perpetration of physical bullying and sexual harassment tends to be higher among males, most studies have shown that males and females engage in similar rates of dating violence and that dating violence is mutual among partners (Connolly et al., 2000; Josephson & Pepler, 2013; Miller et al., 2013; Pepler et al., 2006). Pepler et al. (2006) emphasize that bullying is a relationship problem that can easily generalize to other, more private dyadic interactions, such as in dating relationships, and can confer risk for these types of negative relational patterns. This perspective is consistent with a conceptualization of bullying as a coercive relational process, particularly as research shows that coercive processes in one relationship domain can generalize to coercion in other domains during childhood (e.g., sibling coercion as a risk for peer coercion; Bank et al., 2004). However, it is important to note that Kim, Wu Shortt, Tiberio, and Capaldi (this volume) have shown that, among adults, aggression in one intimate relationship does not strongly correlate with aggression in another intimate relationship, suggesting that these processes may be more stable and/or generalizable earlier in development.
Several studies have found interrelationships between bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence among adolescent samples. Pepler et al. (2006) found in their study of adolescents in (p. 306) Grades 6 to 12 that youth who reported that they bullied others were also more likely to sexually harass same- and opposite-sex peers. These youth were more likely than others to be physically aggressive in their dating relationships (Pepler et al., 2006). Similarly, in a study by Connolly et al. (2000), adolescents who bullied were more likely than other youth to report aggressive behavior in their romantic partnerships. In line with these findings, Leadbeater, Banister, Ellis, and Yeung (2008) found that adolescents who used social/relational aggression in peer relationships were more likely to use these tactics in their dating relationships. In a study of early adolescents, Miller et al. (2013) also found that bullying behavior, sexual harassment, and dating violence were highly interrelated behaviors that frequently co-occurred in their sample. Examining subgroups of adolescents through latent transition analysis, Miller et al. (2013) also showed that, unlike adolescent reports of bullying behaviors, dating violence never occurred independently and was also reported in the context of bullying and sexual harassment behaviors. Taken together, these studies suggest that adolescents who bully are at risk for being involved in both sexual harassment and in dating violence. These findings again provide support for the perspective that bullying is a coercive relationship tactic that can generalize to other relationships, including those between romantic partners.
In summary, both qualitative and quantitative research on bullying dynamics in early adolescence demonstrates the coercive nature of bullying and how it changes developmentally, although not in function, as these dynamics are still used to obtain a desired outcome by force. With school transitions, the onset of puberty, the increasing importance of peers, and an emerging interest in sexual and romantic relationships, bullying in adolescence becomes less about obtaining tangible objects and more about intangible gains related to social dominance and perceived gains in sexual competition (Volk et al., 2012). Within a coercion framework, the dynamics of bullying become more complex during the transition to adolescence, as bullying to gain social dominance with respect to sexual competition requires coercive processes at both the dyadic and the peer-group level. These adolescent bullying dynamics also confer increased risk for dysfunction in other relationships, given data showing that adolescents involved in bullying are also more likely to be involved in sexual harassment and dating violence (Miller et al., 2013; Josephson & Pepler, 2012; Pepler et al., 2006). Such findings have implications for the prevention of bullying, continued aggressive behavior, and subsequent intimate partner violence during early adulthood.
Implications for Intervention
In light of the complex coercive processes and developmental changes in the nature of school bullying during adolescence, interventions at the middle and high school level may need to target adolescents’ social and sexual motivations for involvement in bullying behaviors, regardless of the roles (bully, victim, bystander, etc.) that adolescents play in these situations. Unfortunately, the majority of the available evidence-based bullying prevention programs target elementary school populations, with few interventions developed explicitly for middle and high school students (P. K. Smith, 2010; Williamson, Guerra, & Lucas-Molina, 2013). Meta-analytic reviews of bullying prevention programs also have produced equivocal results for whether program effects vary by age, with some reviews finding no age differences (J. D. Smith, Schneider, Smith, & Ananiadou, 2004; Merrell, Guelder, Ross, & Isava, 2008), and other results showing a decline in effects among older adolescents (P. K. Smith, 2010).
In most cases, bully prevention programs have been designed to change the acceptability of bullying and establish antibullying norms, with little focus on its adaptive functions in a social context such as schools. One exception is the KiVa antibullying program (an acronym for “Kiusaamista Vastaan,” or “against bullying” in Finnish (Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Kaljonen, et al., 2011, Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Alanen, et al., 2011). The KiVa program is relevant when considering bullying as a coercive process, because it addresses bullying as a group process specifically targeting the perceptions and actions of bystanders to school bullying (Salmivalli, 2010; Salmivalli et al., 2010). The KiVa program aims to increase youths’ awareness of their roles in bullying situations, promote empathy toward victims, and reduce social rewards provided to bullies through individual (bully-focused) and universal (whole-school-focused) intervention activities (Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Kaljonen, et al., 2011, Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Alanen, et al., 2011; Salmivalli, 2010). The program also works with school staff and parents to provide education about bullying prevention strategies (Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Kaljonen, et al., (p. 307) 2011, Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Alanen, et al., 2011).
In a recent randomized trial, the KiVa program was found to reduce bullying and victimization among 8,237 early adolescents in Grades 4 through 6 (Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Kaljonen, et al., 2011). The program also showed positive effects on bullying in a nonrandomized trial that included high school youth, suggesting that a focus on the larger social context may increase program relevance for adolescents (Kärnä, Voeten, Little, Poskiparta, Alanen, et al., 2011). Still, KiVa does not address issues of social dominance and sexual competition, and the interrelations between bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence. Although KiVa attempts to change social reinforcement that bystanders might provide to bullies, the program does not specifically integrate a focus on changing adolescents’ motivations to bully.
Related to the social dominance and sexual competition functions of bullying behavior, both Volk et al. (2012) and Ellis et al. (2012) have offered several recommendations for evolutionarily informed bullying prevention. In addition to recommendations about changing the social reinforcement for bullies and flexibly tailoring interventions to meet the needs of different bullies, Volk et al. (2012) also suggested that interventions integrate a focus on the adaptive nature of bullying behavior. In this regard, bullying interventions could teach adolescents alternative and more prosocial methods for achieving goals related to social status and sexual or romantic partnerships.
In a similar vein, Ellis et al. (2012) suggested that interventions could be designed to include activities or strategies in which adolescents could earn status or other rewards for prosocial rather than antisocial behaviors. Additionally, Ellis et al. (2012) suggested that adults in the school environment take a more active role to promote prosocial behavior and discourage bullying behaviors. Interventions that focus on changing adult behaviors and other environmental targets at the larger school system level are also useful for preventing bullying, sexual harassment, and other relevant behaviors. Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), a schoolwide system that provides contingencies for positive student and school staff behavior as a method to reduce and prevent problem behavior, discussed further by Horner and MacIntosh (this volume), is relevant for the reduction in bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence at the school administration and policy level.
These bullying prevention recommendations converge with recent reviews of dating violence suggesting that interventions focus on promoting positive relationship skills among adolescents with problematic or coercive relational patterns (Foshee & Reyes, 2009; Josephson & Pepler, 2012). Given findings on the interrelationships between bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence during adolescence, bullying prevention at the middle and high school level should integrate the teaching of skills for healthy peer and romantic relationships (Josephson & Pepler, 2012). Based on previous dating violence research and its correlation with bullying during adolescence, Foshee and Reyes (2009) highlighted the importance of peer behaviors in the emergence of dating violence and aggression.
For instance, in their review of primary prevention strategies to reduce dating violence Foshee and Reyes (2009) indicated that interventions should change the ways in which peers respond to general aggression and specifically dating violence. Drawing on these recommendations, in their review paper on the associations between bullying and dating violence, Josephson and Pepler (2012) recommended similar strategies. For example, they suggested that prevention programs focus on skill-building strategies for peer friendships and romantic partnerships, change peer norms related to violence and aggression, comprehensively address bullying and dating violence in both school and home (parental) settings, and teach adolescents positive ways to obtain social power.
As Josephson and Pepler (2012) have noted, there are some evidence-based dating violence prevention programs for adolescents that utilize several of these recommended intervention strategies. The Safe Dates program and the Youth Relationships Project have both been found to reduce dating aggression (Foshee & Reyes, 2009; Whitaker et al., 2006). For instance, the results of a longitudinal, randomized-controlled trial of Safe Dates in a large sample of eighth and ninth grade students found that the program was effective in reducing psychological, physical, and sexual dating violence perpetration, as well as physical dating violence victimization, at the four study follow-up periods, which spanned from 1 month to 4 years post intervention (Foshee et al., 2004; Foshee et al., 2005). Foshee et al. (2005) also showed that program effects were mediated by changes in students’ beliefs about dating violence and gender role norms. Additionally, the Fourth R: Skills for Youth Relationships Project, which was evaluated in a cluster randomized trial among 1,722 (p. 308) ninth grade students exposed to the intervention in their public school health class, was associated with reduced physical dating violence 2.5 years following the intervention (Wolfe et al., 2009). Much as KiVa aims to change bystander reactions to bullying, Safe Dates attempts to change peer responses to dating violence, and the Fourth R Project includes activities to promote positive uses of social dominance and influence (Josephson & Pepler, 2012).
However, a salient issue for the feasibility of prevention programming in school settings is the sheer number of prevention programs available, such as for bullying, drug use, aggression and violence, and sexual harassment or dating aggression. Future programming should consider combining program efforts to meet the developmental needs of the target population and to increase the feasibility of program implementation. For adolescents in middle and high school, bullying prevention programming should focus on the adaptive nature of bullying and on its social and sexual/romantic functions. Integrating existing bullying prevention programs like KiVa with the healthy peer and romantic relationship skills promoted by dating violence programs, for example, could serve to target the changing coercive functions of school bullying.
Another promising avenue for integrated prevention programming at the middle and high school level is the use of a social-emotional learning (SEL) framework. Social-emotional learning interventions aim to enhance youth competencies and prevent risk behaviors through the promotion of key skills in various domains. For instance, the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) emphasizes the five skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making as salient targets for preventive interventions (CASEL, 2013). A recent meta-analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs among youth in elementary, middle, and high schools found that SEL programming had a positive effect across age groups on SEL skills, attitudes, prosocial behaviors, and academic achievement (Durlak, Weissburg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Because SEL programs focus on improving broad social skills, these interventions could be integrated and adapted to focus on discrete, yet interrelated, risk behaviors, such as bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence among adolescents. As involvement in bullying, aggression, substance use, sexual violence, and other risk behaviors tends to co-occur during adolescence, a focus on enhancing key social skills that are implicated in the prevention of all of these risk behaviors is relevant for the integration and simplification of intervention programming at the middle and high school levels (Guerra & Bradshaw, 2008).
Indeed, this type of integrated SEL intervention is currently being implemented and evaluated by Espelage and colleagues (Espelage, Low, Polanin, & Brown, 2014) in an ongoing study of a gender-enhanced version of the Second Step Violence Prevention program, called Second Step + Shifting Boundaries (Taylor, Stein, Woods, & Mumford, 2011). This intervention integrates violence prevention programming through Second Step with sexual and dating violence prevention through the Shifting Boundaries program. The adapted program uses an SEL framework to enhance youth competencies, but focuses on preventing discrete behaviors that are relevant to the changing nature of adolescent bullying. For instance, the program focuses on sexual harassment and violence, dating violence, and, importantly, bullying and harassment that are homophobic in nature (Espelage et al., 2014). A randomized, school-based trial of this program is currently underway in Illinois with middle school students in Grades 6 through 8 (Espelage et al., 2014).
Our own research with older adolescents has also included a focus on integrated preventive interventions that operate through an SEL, or competency-promotion, framework. In a small pilot study, we recently evaluated the Positive Life Changes (PLC) program, which is a prevention program designed specifically for older adolescents who are in high school (Guerra, 2009). Similar to SEL approaches, the PLC program aims to enhance youth competencies in several domains in order to prevent and reduce involvement in interrelated risk behaviors, such as bullying, violence, sexual risk-taking, substance use, and school dropout (Guerra, 2009). Positive Life Changes targets five competencies: sense of self, self-control, decision-making, moral beliefs, and prosocial connections. The program includes lessons that focus on a number of developmentally appropriate issues for adolescents, such as bullying, sexual harassment, and healthy romantic partnerships, and can be implemented at school during Grades 9 through 12. In our pre-post, no-control pilot study with 31 adolescents in an alternative school, we found reductions in youths’ physical and verbal aggression propensity and improvements in youths’ sense of self, decision-making, and moral beliefs (Williamson, Dierkhising, & Guerra, 2013). (p. 309) Although these findings require replication with a larger and randomized sample, the PLC program is an example of an integrated preventive intervention effort that targets multiple risk behaviors and is specific to developmental issues within an older adolescent age group.
Conclusions and Directions for Future Research
In this chapter, we have conceptualized school-based, peer-to-peer bullying as a coercive relational process that occurs on multiple levels, both within the bully-victim dyad and within the peer-group context. Our review of the extant literature highlights how the nature and desired outcomes of bullying change according to school transition periods and adolescent development. The broad function of bullying as a coercive behavior does not appear to change with age—it is still used by adolescents to influence, change, or dominate others in order to attain some desired tangible or intangible outcome. However, the nature of bullying appears to become increasingly sexualized during early adolescence, with adolescent bullies using aggression and sexual harassment as a method to obtain the outcomes of social power or control and to reduce competition for romantic partners. Involvement in bullying during adolescence is also highly correlated with increased perpetration of sexual harassment and dating violence.
The conceptual and empirical links between bullying, sexual harassment, and dating violence across adolescence provide many directions for future research. First, more quantitative and qualitative data on the nature and specific functions of adolescent bullying are necessary for a better understanding of sexualized adolescent bullying behaviors as well as sexual harassment and dating violence among adolescents. Direct observations of the social context in which these behaviors occur would also help to improve our understanding of, and efforts to intervene on, these behaviors. For instance, Ehrenreich and Underwood (this volume) examined adolescent text messages and found when deviant talk over text message was reinforced, it increased—an effect that could very well be consistent with adolescents’ sexualized bullying behaviors in their social environment. A focus on coercive relationships both within the bully-victim dyad and at the larger peer-group level would also be important for elucidating the mechanisms by which adolescents gain intangible social power or status and reduce dating competition through bullying and sexual harassment dynamics over time. Longitudinal studies that focus on whether there are dynamic links between increases in bullying and increases in social status and dating relationships during the transition to adolescence and beyond would also help to augment and expand on existing literature in this regard (e.g., Nocentini et al., 2013; Pellegrini & Bartini, 2001). Additionally, more longitudinal work is needed that examines the developmental precursors that place children at risk for being involved in sexual harassment and dating violence as perpetrators or victims during middle school and high school.
This chapter has focused primarily on the evolutionary mechanisms and prevalence of sexualized adolescent bullying in the context of heterosexual relationships. However, there may be other reasons for sexualized bullying during adolescence, particularly given the paucity of data on the same-sex and cross-sex bullying experiences of youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) or who are questioning their sexuality. Emerging research focused on homophobic teasing in adolescence has found that overall, sexual minority (LGBT) and questioning youth report high levels of homophobic teasing, depression, suicidal feelings, and substance use than heterosexual adolescents (Espelage, Aragon, Birkett, & Koenig, 2008). The functions, experiences, and implications of same-sex and cross-sex sexual harassment may differ for sexual minority or questioning youth. Broadly, more empirical work on same-sex and cross-sex sexual harassment perpetration and victimization by gender and sexual orientation, across early to late adolescence, is needed to better understand the dynamics of sexual harassment and its linkages with both bullying and dating violence as coercive processes.
As we have discussed, there are many existing preventive interventions for problem behaviors, such as bullying, aggression, dating violence, substance use, and sexual risk-taking. However, few preventive interventions have been designed for or evaluated with adolescents, particularly those in high school. Integrated programs that aim to prevent a number of correlated risk behaviors through the promotion of adolescent SEL skills are quite promising, but more large-scale randomized trials of such intervention efforts are necessary. These types of programs, especially when implemented during late childhood, could help to prevent the emergence of sexualized bullying behavior in adolescence, although this is an empirical question that (p. 310) remains to be tested. From an evolutionary perspective on sexualized bullying during adolescence, programs that focus on the sexualized nature and various social functions of bullying during adolescence would be extremely useful in reducing or preventing this behavior. Unfortunately, bullying programs rarely integrate this perspective. It is our hope that this chapter will stimulate future work on preventive interventions that focus on the changing and coercive nature of bullying across adolescence.
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(1.) In this chapter, school bullying refers to peer relational dynamics, although school bullying can also extend to teacher-student relationships.