Influential Students Can Change Bullying Climate, Study Shows


According to a new report from Princeton University, the solution to reducing bullying at school could be found through a promotion of conflict resolution and students connecting with their peers.

Researchers from Princeton, Rutgers University, and Yale University prompted groups of influential students from 56 middle schools in New Jersey to discuss the dangers of bullying and school conflict with their peers.  Students were encouraged to do so through social media accounts, printing posters, and wearing wristbands, while suggesting positive ways to resolve issues in terms their peers can identify with.

The research teams were determining whether or not certain students, who they called “social referents,” have an increased influence over school climate or the behavioral patterns seen at schools.  These students may not necessarily be the most popular students in the school, but simply students who hold influence over smaller peer groups.  Researchers were looking to see if these students could hold influence over their peers’ behaviors and social norms.

The report, “Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools,” found that those middle schools who participated in the use of social referents over the course of a year saw a 30% decrease in student conflict.  The highest drop was seen in schools that had the highest number of social influencers, suggesting that the hypothesis proposed by researchers concerning the influence of these students was valid.

“Current programs address problems as defined by adults, and they aren’t necessarily fitted to each individual school environment,” said lead author Elizabeth Levy Paluck, associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “We think the best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices. Encouraging their own messages to bubble up from the bottom using a grassroots approach can be very powerful.”

The question of certain peers influencing the actions of others is one used by Paluck in the creation of the test program, the Roots program, designed to ask the most influential students within a school to push messages of anti-conflict.  Researchers use a survey measurement known as social network mapping in order to determine which students had the most connections to other students, not only in person but online as well.  These students were considered to be the “roots” to influencing social norms.

Paluck noted the importance of using social media to determine student leaders, mentioning that when adults choose these students in their classrooms, the “good kids” are typically chosen.  However, the leaders found by researchers using social network mapping were sometimes the ones who were right in the middle of the conflict.  It only mattered to find students whose behavior was noticed more often.