Many can help more than one: New research highlights benefits of multiple social connections for bullied youth

Posted by Andrew Trounson, futurity.org

Having a group of friends to rely on appears to buffer children from the emotional hurt bullying causes better than a single “best” friend, a new study of more than 1,200 primary school children and their parents suggests.

“A group of friends appears to protect the mental health of bullied children when just having a best friend makes little difference,” says co-lead researcher Lisa Mundy of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the pediatrics department at the University of Melbourne.

“It makes sense that a group of friends would be protective. You would expect there to be safety in numbers. But it is surprising that having a best friend doesn’t appear to be protective,” she says.

The findings, which appear in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, suggest that actively promoting large friendship groups may be an effective strategy for anti-bullying programs.

More than teasing

Previous research shows that bullying is widespread in middle primary school with 1-in-3 of some 1,000 eight-to-nine-year olds surveyed reporting being bullied at least once a week.

Bullying is more than just a little teasing at school. Bullying, says Mundy, is when children are repeatedly harassed over an extended period, either verbally, online, or physically. It is characterized by victims being made to feel inadequate by one or more bullies exercising power over them.

“Bullying can also be indirect, as when children are deliberately excluded or gossiped against,” Mundy says.

Rates of bullying among school kids are remarkably consistent internationally at 13-15 percent of children aged 11 or older. Less research has been done on younger children, but the higher rates among eight and nine-year-olds that Mundy and colleagues are finding suggests that younger children may be particularly vulnerable.

Psychiatric problems later

Bullying can have long-lasting effect on mental health with some studies suggesting that bullying at a young age can be a predictor of psychiatric problems more than 10 years later.

This link between bullying and poorer mental health is well established. A 2005 study of over 123,000 children in 28 countries found that in every country frequent bullying was associated with poorer mental health, including a link between bullying in adolescence and depression in later life. Frequent is usually defined as experiencing bullying at least once a week.

The new study involved children self-reporting on their mental health, bullying experience, and friendship situation, matched with a survey of their parents.

“That is one of the strengths of this study in that it covers both parents and children,” Mundy says.

Participants were recruited from the ongoing Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study.

Not surprisingly, the surveys found that children with groups of friends were less likely to be bullied than those with no groups of friends. Among the 356 children experiencing frequent bullying, 15 percent had no groups of friends. Among those not being frequently bullied, only 5 percent had no groups of friends.

But having a best friend made little difference. Among bullied kids some 93.5 percent had a best friend compared with 92.4 percent among kids not experiencing frequent bullying.

Further, bullied children with groups of friends were less affected in their emotional well-being than bullied children with no friends or just a best friend. That is, they and their parents reported less sadness and anxiety. Just having a best friend made little difference.

Bullying and our buddies

The results only suggest an association between friendship group and the incidence of bullying and its mental impact, Mundy says.

While it may be that not having a group of friends facilitates bullying and worsens the mental impact of bullying, it may also be that bullying and poorer mental health leads children to have less friends.

While more research is needed, the results do suggest that when it comes to anti-bullying interventions it may be worth it for teachers and parents to facilitate group activities that promote friendship groups, such as more focus on group play and tasks, as opposed to paired activities.

“Interventions are shown to work best when the whole school community—parents, teachers, and children—are involved. But even so, the interventions we have aren’t proving as effective as we’d like them to be.

“What this research suggests is that fostering group friendships may be a new element to include in interventions.”

Bottom Line for Mentors and Programs

This research highlights what many Chronicle readers may already know: having a host of social relationships from which to draw support can be helpful in times of stress, such as when a youth is being bullied.

So what can programs do with this knowledge? One step is to prompt mentors to help their youths practice social skills in a low-risk, supportive setting (i.e. the mentoring relationship). This will enable a young person to stumble, but not fall, when it comes to social encounters in their school, particularly if the youth is shy or withdrawn by nature.

Beyond serving as a context to help youth practice their social skills, mentors can also serve a key role in helping youth develop and pursue their interests and talents. Doing so can help the youth encounter more opportunities, whether through clubs or school programs, to meet peers and expand their social group in contexts they enjoy.

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