A new study, co-authored by Professor H. Wesley Perkins and David W. Craig from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Jessica Perkins from Harvard University, was recently published by the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.
The study, “Using Social Norms to Reduce Bullying: A Research Intervention in Five Middle Schools,” applies the social norms approach to address bullying by uncovering exaggerated perceptions of problem behavior and then dispelling the myths with accurate information.
The research was conducted across five middle schools in different school districts throughout New Jersey. Schools represented diverse locales and varying racial compositions. In each of the five schools, the overwhelming majority did not engage in bullying behavior, however, the students believed that as many as 80 percent believed that their peers engaged in bullying behavior.
“The ‘elephant in the room’ is the existence of massive misperceptions among youth that bullying is the norm at their school,” says Perkins. “In reality, while bullying is a very serious and pervasive problem, most students are not perpetrators, but they are often bystanders thinking they are alone in opposing bullying.”
Intervention at the schools using poster media communicating actual attitudes and practices of the safe and healthy majorities reduced the number of students perceiving bullying as normative. Actual personal bullying was reduced by 17 to 30 percent as perceptions were altered.
“The basic strategy is quite simple. Let’s tell the truth about what most students want in their schools and in their peer relationships based on accurate information,” says Perkins.
A recent White House conference on bullying prevention highlighted the problems and impact of bullying and called for more research on effective programs in the US. President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget designates $132 million to combat violence and bullying.
“Social norms bullying prevention programs can be implemented often at low cost in comparison with other programs,” says Craig. “No special classes are required. You only need to martial creative teachers and students in getting the word out about the safe and healthy majorities.”
The social norms approach was introduced to the field of health promotion and risk prevention by Perkins in the 1980s, and Perkins and Craig have been leaders in designing applications and conducting research since.
Perkins is a graduate of Purdue University, and he received his M.A., M. Div., M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of dozens of journal articles about substance abuse prevention and has been honored with national awards for his work in preventing alcohol and drug abuse in colleges and universities.
In addition to his teaching duties, Craig is the director of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Alcohol Education Project and is principle investigator of a program of BAC research at HWS. He is a leader in interdisciplinary program development particularly in the integration of the sciences into programs focusing on health and wellness at both the college and secondary school levels and has published numerous publications and a recent film on this subject.
The full journal article is available online.