'Social norms' strategy aims to tame bullying

Researchers say that middle-school bullying could be curbed by showing that it's not normal.

It's not normal to act like a bully. In anonymous surveys at several large middle schools, the vast majority of students reported that they had not hit, teased, threatened, excluded, or gossiped maliciously about classmates in the past 30 days.

But a majority were also convinced that their own nonbully status was an exception to the norm. To reduce the amount of bullying that does exist, that misperception needs to change, argues H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor and director of the Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

"What we've seen consistently is that risk behaviors [and] problem behaviors are overestimated," Professor Perkins says, "which [means] much of the bullying or violence or substance abuse can continue because the people engaged in that think everybody else is doing it."

The idea of "social norms" interventions emerged in the 1980s and was first applied as a way to address excessive drinking on college campuses. Media campaigns and workshops tried to educate students that binge drinking was not the norm. The tactic began showing success in curbing alcohol abuse.

By the late 1990s, social-norm interventions had reached some high schools and lower grades. The approach was also used to get more people to realize that it's common to wear seat belts and to educate men that most of their male peers don't support violence against women.

Now it's time to tackle bullying, Perkins and his colleague David Craig proposed at the National Social Norms Conference in late July. The starting point is to present kids with credible bullying data from their own school, not a state or national average. The professors developed a survey for schools, funded by the New Jersey and US Departments of Education (http://social normsurveys.hws.edu).

Once they gather data, educators need to send consistent messages about the true norms throughout the year. "You can't just hang a few posters," Perkins says. Some schools, for instance, incorporate the information into their orientations and curriculum and post statistics on screensavers in computer labs.

Another key is for students to understand that there's peer support for seeking help from adults when bullying takes place. In one of Perkins's middle school surveys, 74 percent thought they should tell a teacher or counselor. But 52 percent thought most of their peers would feel that telling was not the right thing to do.

Reaching the "silent majority" is essential, agrees Marlene Snyder, training director for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at Clemson (S.C.) University's Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life. Kids often become bystanders because they "don't know what to do, [and] they have an innate sense that if they do it wrong, they're going to be next.... The big danger is ... they lose empathy and begin to think ... bullying is just a fact of life."

That's why Olweus, considered a model program, trains not just students, but also teachers, staff, and parents to take a stand on bullying (www.clemson.edu/olweus). Slogans aren't enough, Ms. Snyder says. But she can see how a thorough social-norms campaign could lead to modest reductions in bullying, at least.

A number of high schools using social norms successfully lowered rates of alcohol and drug use. "Over a period of time, it can add up to an 8 or 10 percent [reduction]," says Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

When such campaigns are not effective, Perkins says, it's often because a school sends mixed messages – for instance, trying scare tactics such as a simulated drunken-driving crash while at the same time emphasizing that most students don't drink.

On the college level, the social-norms approach has drawn criticism from Henry Wechsler, an expert on college alcohol issues at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. His skepticism is partly based on his view that students are more influenced by immediate peers than by a schoolwide group. "We've consistently found that [people's] drinking habits ... are related to the habits of their group," he says.

Perkins agrees that close friends have more influence, but says that "as you move out to these larger peer groups, there is more dramatic misperception ... so you can make a big change and get a return from that."

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