School Climate & Safety

Studies Take Aim at Playground Gossip

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 01, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Stephen S. Leff. He is a psychologist and director of the Friend to Friend and Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Everyday (PRAISE) programs at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Gossip and social ostracization may come far down on the list of concerns for educators trying to prevent bullying, yet emerging research suggests relational bullying, though often the most frequently overlooked, may hold the key to changing an aggressive culture in schools.

Of the three major types of bullying—physical, verbal and relational—relational aggression, has been the latest and least studied, both because it involves less visible, immediately dangerous behavior than fighting or verbal abuse, and in part because it involved more nuanced relationships among the bullies, victims, and bystanders.

“If you think of Columbine and other school shootings, the shooters were often victims of relational aggression, so there’s a growing recognition that emotional scars are real, and we need to create interventions to address those scars and prevent them from happening,” said Stephen S. Leff, a psychologist and director of the Friend to Friend and Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Everyday (PRAISE) programs at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a co-editor of a current special issue of School Psychology Review on the topic.

The newer research into relational aggression is bringing into focus an alternative to the stereotypical image of the dull, socially awkward, and physically aggressive schoolyard bully: a popular, socially astute student who uses rumors and social isolation to control enemies, rivals, and friends alike. While students who physically fight tend to be avoided by peers, studies show relational aggression actually becomes more socially acceptable as students get older.

Antonius H. N. Cillessen, a professor of developmental psychology at Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, found in one four-year longitudinal study of American middle and high school students that the students considered by their peers to be the most popular were not the same as those most liked, and students perceived to be popular were the most likely to engage in gossip and social manipulation over time.

Hidden in Plain Sight

“It’s the dark side of popularity,” Mr. Cillessen said. “For the practice of education it’s pretty important, because the popular bully gets a lot of peer reinforcement. As adults we can say this is bad, you shouldn’t do this, but among peers, bullies have power. That’s a really difficult challenge for intervention research, because it means you don’t have to work only on the individual bully and victim, but you have to address all possible roles that a person can play.”

“Steps to Respect”

A teacher demonstrates an anti-bullying lesson in a video used in the Steps to Respect program, which fosters support for victims of gossip and ostracism.

One reason educators may have to take a more holistic approach is it is harder for adults to effectively identify individual episodes of social bullying.

“A huge problem is, how do you even know it’s going on?” said Hill M. Walker, a professor of special education and co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon. “Generally, you have to rely on self-reports from victims, and children for a variety of reasons are reluctant to define themselves as victims.”

Relational aggression has long been known as “covert aggression,” but the emerging research suggests that’s something of a misnomer: Social isolation, rumor-mongering, and manipulation have proven surprisingly easy for researchers to spot.

In a recent randomized, controlled study of 610 3rd through 6th-grade students in six Seattle-area schools, researchers led by Karin S. Frey, a research associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, found relational aggression on the playground was “semi-public” and episodes could go on for quite a while, even with adults present. “A student or students would speak negatively about a third party that was not among the listeners,” the researchers noted in a study in School Psychology Review. “Group members would laugh, gesture, or look ‘meaningfully’ in the direction of an isolated, unhappy-looking student.”

“It’s both parallel and a step on the path” to physical and verbal abuse, Ms. Frey said. For example, she noted that rumors often allege a boy has flirted with or had sex with another boy’s girlfriend, which can lead to fights. The investigation into the 2010 suicide of Massachusetts bullying victim Phoebe Prince suggested students had spread rumors that the 15-year-old was sexually promiscuous before she was allegedly raped by fellow students. “This kind of social aggression is much more painful than many people realize,” Ms. Frey said. “When you talk to individuals about being excluded, ostracized, they often say it would be less painful to be beaten up.”

The Popular Bully

In a way, studies like these are finally dissecting a phenomenon already well-documented in popular culture: The popular clique of “mean girls,” anonymous lists alleging the sexuality of various students, and suave but socially manipulative class presidents are all common tropes in adolescent literature and shows, from the “Mean Girls” movies to the “Glee” television series.

In the Seattle experiment, in which researchers easily identified “semi-public” relational bullying, teachers could not identify it and were surprised by some of the students identified as bullies.

The need to understand and address relational aggression is becoming more urgent, Mr. Walker said, as students interact more often online, away from even minimal adult supervision.

“Cyber-bullying poses a gigantic risk for our children,” Mr. Walker said. “It affords one person the ability to assume the identities of 10, 15, 20 people who can send messages and spread rumors about the targeted victim. Your friends who support your bullying can be told about it. So it’s a way for a bully to torture ... unmercifully.”

Mr. Leff said more researchers and educators are trying to include relational bullying awareness in their overall school climate programs, in part as a result of high-profile school and cyber victimization. He said there’s been a growing recognition over the last 10 years that some anti-bullying programs don’t address strategies for children involved in relational conflicts.

Ways to Intervene

Not every student is socially skilled enough to intervene between a bully and a victim without escalating the situation. That’s why the Steps to Respect anti-bullying program instead teaches bystanders to avoid feeding the bully’s energy by watching, laughing, and spreading rumors, Ms. Frey said. Students learn to comfort and support the victim of abuse without encouraging him or her to retaliate, which can escalate the problem.

“If you’re the victim and you’re surrounded by people watching, you don’t know what people are thinking,” Ms. Frey said. “They may be enjoying the spectacle, or they may be feeling really uncomfortable. But if they don’t say anything, it feels like they are all against you.”

In the Seattle study, researchers found “malicious gossip” dropped 72 percent after elementary schools instituted Steps to Respect, which trains teachers to identify relational aggression and encourage bystanders to stand up for ostracized children.

In the spring after the program began, researchers noticed only about a quarter of the amount of gossip observed in the fall semester: 234 fewer instances of gossip for each class of 25 students, and 270 fewer instances of a student being targeted for rumors.

Mr. Leff is exploring similar interactions in another program, Preventing Relational Aggression in Schools Every Day, or PRAISE, which includes training for teachers on ways to recognize more subtle bullying and explain to students the difference between normal social interaction and harassment. He said more educators and researchers are exploring this type of program.

“It’s a really tough balancing act,” Mr. Leff said. “The important part is to open up the lines of communication so teachers can give examples of types of behaviors that would be concerning and can slow kids down and make them think about the ways that their actions can hurt someone else.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Researchers Look for Ways to Curb ‘Mean Girls’ and Gossip

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