August 16, 2012

Quality, not just presence, of friendships important for reducing bullying and peer-victimization

Kendrick, K., Jutengren, G., & Stattin, H. (2012). The protective role of supportive friends against bullying perpetration and victimization. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1069-1080.

This study aimed to build on a literature which examines the “Friendship protection hypothesis.” This is the theory that having friends can prevent negative experiences and therefore also prevent the negative outcomes associated with those experiences. They note that both quality of friendships and quantity of friendships may be important regarding whether or not young people experience peer-victimization.

The primary aim, as stated by the authors, was to address an issue which has received little prior attention, namely the short-term (across one-year) relationships between perceived support from friends and links to both bullying and victimization. These authors also looked at whether depression and engaging in property crimes were also related to bullying and victimization. They looked at these issues because they have both been associated with bullying and victimization in previous research.

The authors recruited 980 (435 boys) young people aged between 12 and 16 years old in Sweden. All young people completed self-report measures of bullying, victimization, friendship quality, depression, and involvement in property crime. These measures were all completed at two different points in time, and the time points were one year apart. This is called a cross-lagged research design and allows the researchers to unpick which of these issues leads to the other(s).

Using a statistical technique called structural equation modelling, Kendrick and her colleagues found that:
  • Young people who felt that they had a supportive friendship friend support at Time 1 reported lower levels of victimization at Time 2; for boys, supportive friendships also led to lower levels of bullying of others. 
  • Bullying of others at Time 1 predicted property crime at Time 2, but this was true only for girls. Being involved with bullying of other may therefore be indicative of a more serious downward spiral in the behaviour of girls than for boys.
  • Victimization at Time 1 predicted depression at Time 2. Depression at Time 1 predicted victimization at Time 2 for boys only (perhaps less tolerated among boys and so they are picked on?). This supports previous work that suggests there is a vicious circle taking place here, that is to say, victimization leads to higher symptoms of depression which in turn lead to higher levels of victimization and so on.
  • Victimization at Time 1 did not predict levels of friend support or property crimes at Time 2.
  • Depression at Time 1 does not predict bullying at Time 2.

The authors conclude that friendship may protect adolescents from being victimized because such friendships increasing their psychological wellbeing, and that this in turn may reduce their vulnerability to aggression from peers. They also note that supportive friends may actually act directly as defenders, and in this way may provide practical help as well as emotional support.

It is worth noting that most of the effect sizes throughout this paper were fairly small. This means that the effects of, e.g. victimization upon depression across the year of the study, were not large. While some previous studies have reported larger effects, I would say that the cross-lagged design of this study (which takes into account that fact that the best predictor of e.g. depression at Time 2 is depression at Time 1) will provide more realistic estimates of these effects that a simple cross-sectional design does.

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