The Co-evolution of Bullying Perpetration, Homophobic Teasing, and a School Friendship Network

Published in: Journal of Youth and Adolescence [Epub December 2017]. doi: 10.1007/s10964-017-0783-4

Posted on RAND.org on January 12, 2018

by Gabriel J. Merrin, Kayla De La Haye, Dorothy L. Espelage, Brett Ewing, Joan Tucker, Matthew Hoover, Hank Green

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Bullying and homophobic teasing behaviors affect the lives of many school aged children, often co-occur, and tend to peak in middle school. While bullying and homophobic teasing behaviors are known to be peer group phenomena, studies typically examine the associations at the individual or school levels. An examination of these behaviors at the peer group level can aid in our understanding of the formation and maintenance of peer groups that engage in these forms of aggressive behavior (selection), and the extent to which friends and the peer group impact individual rates of these aggressive behaviors (influence). In this longitudinal study, we assess the co-evolution of friendship networks, bullying perpetration, and homophobic teasing among middle school students (n=190) using a Stochastic Actor-Based Model (SABM) for longitudinal networks. Data were collected from 6–8th-grade students (Baseline age 12–15; 53% Female; 47% Male) across three waves of data. The sample was diverse with 58% African American, 31% White, and 11% Hispanic. Since bullying and homophobic teasing behaviors are related yet distinct forms of peer aggression, to capture the unique and combined effects of these behaviors we ran models separately and then together in a competing model. Results indicated that on average individuals with higher rates of bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing were associated with becoming increasingly popular as a friend. However, the effects were not linear, and individuals with the highest rates of bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing were less likely to receive friendship nominations. There was no evidence that bullying perpetration or homophobic teasing were associated with the number of friendship nominations made. Further, there was a preference for individuals to form or maintain friendships with peers who engaged in similar rates of homophobic name-calling; however, this effect was not found for bullying perpetration. Additionally, changes in individual rates of bullying perpetration were not found to be predicted by the bullying perpetration of their friends; however, changes in adolescent homophobic teasing were predicted by the homophobic teasing behaviors of their friends. In a competing model that combined bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing, we found no evidence that these behaviors were associated with popularity. These findings are likely due to the high association between bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing combined with the small sample size. However, friendship selection was based on homophobic name-calling, such that, there was a preference to befriend individuals with similar rates of homophobic teasing. We also examined several risk factors (dominance, traditional masculinity, impulsivity, femininity, positive attitudes of bullying, and neighborhood violence), although, impulsivity was the only covariate that was associated with higher levels of bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing. More specifically, youth with higher rates of impulsivity engaged in higher rates of bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing over time. The findings suggest bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing have important influences on friendship formation, and close friendships influence youth's engagement in homophobic teasing. Implications for prevention and intervention efforts are discussed in terms of targeting peer groups and popular peers to help reduce rates of these aggressive behaviors.

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