Princeton U Study: “Students With Influence Over Peers Reduce School Bullying by 30 Percent”

Students with social clout in their school can help put a stop to bullying, according to a recent study released by Princeton University.

A team of researchers from Princeton, Rutgers and Yale universities sought out the most influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools in 2012-13 and asked them to spread messages about the dangers of bullying and school conflict among those in their social circle. After the end of the study period, the team found a 30 percent reduction in reported incidents of bullying at those 56 participating schools.

The study’s lead author, Elizabeth Levy Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said: “Our program [dubbed ‘The Roots Program’] shows that you don’t need to use a blanket treatment to reduce bullying. You can target specific people in a savvy way in order to spread the message. These people – the social referents you should target – get noticed more by their peers. Their behavior serves as a signal to what is normal and desirable in the community, and there are many ways to figure out who those people are and work with them to inspire positive change.”

So how did the team choose the “social referrents” for their social experiment? How did they select the cool kids in the schools? To identify the most influential students, Paluck and her team distributed a survey to the 24,191 students enrolled at all 56 schools. The survey asked them to nominate the top 10 students at their school who they chose to spend time with, either in or outside of school, or face to face or online. Using these data, the researchers then mapped each school’s social networks. “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,” added Paluck.

Interestingly, the top 10 percent of students at their school nominated by their peers in the survey were found to share certain important traits. Many were found to have an older sibling, were in dating relationships and received compliments from peers on the house in which they lived. Apparently, “this cluster of characteristics suggests that these students are hooked into more mature social patterns in their lives and at schools,” Paluck said.

The selected “social referents”were then invited, but not required, to attend Roots training sessions and provided with templates for the anti-bullying campaign materials, both print and online, which the students can customize for their schools and peers. The cool kids were also given some training on how to deal with student conflict.

Throughout the 2012-2013 study period, the “social referents” launched several messaging campaigns. After the yearlong social experiment, the researchers found significant statistical differences between the schools that participated against those that did not. On average, according to the study, schools participating in the program saw a 30 percent reduction in disciplinary reports. Because each conflict can take up to an hour to resolve, this reduction, claims the authors, is equivalent to hundreds of saved hours.

The experiment was registered at Princeton’s Experiments in Governance and Politics site prior to the analysis of outcome data. The research was approved by the Princeton Institutional Review Board.

Princeton University is a private Ivy League research university founded in 1746. It has a student population of around 8,000 and a 1,172-man academic staff. It has six residential undergraduate colleges and one graduate residential college. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is a professional public policy school that offers undergraduate AB degrees, graduate Master of Public Affairs (MPA), Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Ph.D. degrees.

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