Some educators may feel a natural impulse to comfort students who sit alone at a lunch table, get picked on, or are just generally ignored by their peers by telling them these experiences will help make them stronger and more resilient down the road.
But they’re wrong, according to research.
In fact, teens who feel left out, bullied, or have a history of negative peer interactions tend to feel the sting of being excluded much more intensely than those whose social experiences have generally been positive, according to a study by Karen Rudolph, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and Haley Skymba, a doctoral student in developmental psychology at the university.
Teens who haven’t felt accepted by their peers tend to interpret new rejections “in terms of ‘there’s something wrong with me. This has happened before. It’s happening again. It must be something about me,’” Rudolph said.
On the other hand, a teen who has had mostly positive social interactions is more likely to look for another explanation when they feel left out or when someone is mean to them. They’ll think: “’That’s just something about them’ or ‘they were having a bad day,’” Rudolph said. For those teens “self-worth [is less likely to be] tied up in approval from or belonging to a peer group.”
To investigate these issues, researchers interviewed 89 girls ages 14 to 17 who were recruited from schools in the midwestern United States. They asked the teens extensive questions about whether they had experienced adversity in peer interactions, either just in the last few months, systemically throughout their lives, or something in between.
Then they had them play “cyber ball,” a simple game where players toss a digital ball to one another online. The subject can’t see the other two players. Instead, each is represented by an avatar, a photo of a conventionally attractive teenage girl. In reality, however, the entire game is computerized. The other two girls are entirely fictional.
At first, all three players get an equal amount of time with the ball. But as the game goes along, the human subject is excluded more and more by the two computerized players. Eventually, the subject stops getting the ball altogether. Since the test subject doesn’t realize the other two players are fake, she is expected to conclude that two other girls her age were deliberately excluding her.
None of the teens liked being left out. Those whose past social interactions were generally positive bounced back from the experience much quicker.
But “the ones who had been victimized or bullied or had a lot of conflict in the past, they continued to feel [fallout from the exclusion] up to half hour later,” Rudolph said. “So, it seems like this system [of feeling rejected] is getting activated in most girls. But then the ones who have this history can’t get back to their baseline. They continue to be feeling more rejected, less like they belong.”
Encourage students to judge themselves by their own standards
That feeling of nonacceptance could lead girls to engage in risky behavior in order to win their peers’ approval, another experiment showed. This experiment also involved a simulated game. But instead of tossing a ball, students were driving a car. Players got more points for their team when they went through a yellow light. But they could also crash.
Students who had more adverse peer experiences—getting bullied, feeling left out socially—were more likely to make risky moves in the driving game to help their team win, and presumably, make the other players like them more, the researchers found.
“That’s why kids succumb to peer pressure to do drugs or drive fast or [engage in] other risky behaviors because they think they might get approval from peers,” Rudolph said. “So it can be risky if the [neurological] system we’re talking about goes into overdrive and they can’t regulate it.”
So what can educators do to help students who have a history of negative social experiences, especially in school?
Encourage children to have their own, internal standards for judging social success, Rudolph said. Students who have developed those tend to think that “if they have good friends and they get along with people, they don’t have to be the most popular kid in the grade,” Rudolph said.
And definitely ditch the idea that somehow getting bullied or feeling excluded empowers kids to be mentally tougher later in life.
“We’re really struggling against that idea that this makes you stronger,” Rudolph said. “There is a huge, vast amount of research showing that victimization has very negative consequences and sometimes lifelong consequences. And there’s really no research suggesting that it makes you stronger, and it’s good for you.”