Forget what you’ve heard about mean girls; new research from Florida State University finds girls are far more likely than boys to notice instances of bullying and interpret them as emergencies.
Those findings were recently published in the Journal of Early Adolescence. Lyndsay Jenkins is an assistant professor in the FSU College of Education and lead author on the study.
“Research has found girls are more likely to recognize the harm of bullying and experience more emotional distress when experiencing bullying as a victim or a bystander,” Jenkins said. “Girls tend to be more empathetic, whereas boys are more likely to disengage.”
Jenkins’ study delves deeper into the role of gender and bullying by using the Bystander Intervention Model created by social psychologist Bibb Latane and John Darley as the basis of the study. The model includes five steps to examine the actions of bystanders in bullying. Those steps are noticing the event, interpreting the event as an emergency, accepting responsibility for intervening, knowing how to intervene and then, intervening.
“We need to think much more broadly about bullying and victimization,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just something that happens between two people, but it’s something that really involves everyone at the school. We need to encourage more kids to be defenders.”
Researchers surveyed nearly 300 middle-school students in rural Illinois. While they found that girls engaged more in three out of five steps in the intervention model, they found the steps of accepting responsibility and knowing what to do was evenly distributed among boys and girls.
The team also examined social skills of empathy, cooperation and assertiveness and how each related to the five-step model of intervening. They found kids with greater empathy were more likely to engage in the last four steps of the model, but less likely to actually notice the bullying initially. More assertive children were more likely to know how to intervene. However, kids who were more cooperative were less likely to get involved.
“That finding was interesting,” Jenkins said. “The more cooperative somebody was, the less defending they did, which when you think about it makes sense. If they’re going with the flow and doing what’s expected, if no one else is intervening, they’re less likely to defend and intervene.”
The team also found girls had significantly higher scores for empathy and cooperation. Boys and girls had similar scores of assertiveness.
Jenkins said this research should be duplicated in more diverse school environments and scholars should examine cultural influences, school climate and social norms to better understand the issue of bullying in their schools.
“Our study and others like it prove that empathy is extremely important,” Jenkins said. “Taking the perspective of another student and having empathy for what they’re going through will lead to more defending. That will ultimately reduce the impact of trauma on kids from bullying, which we are learning could have really strong long-term negative effects.”
Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University of Buffalo, co-authored the study.
To learn more about Jenkins and her research on bullying prevention, visit https://education.fsu.edu/research/bullying-prevention.