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Many children at one time or another experience some form of victimization from their peers at school (Nansel et al., 2001). This common experience may explain, to some degree, why adults, including school personnel, often diminish the effect such experiences may have on social and personality development. However, for the sizable minority (about 10% of the school population) who are verbally and/ or physically assaulted at school consistently overtime (Kochenderfer, 1995; Olweus, 1993; Perry, Kusel, & Perry, 1988), the negative adjustment consequences cannot be overlooked. Indeed, longitudinal research indicates that chronically victimized children, relative to nonvictimized children, are more likely to increasingly evidence behaviors of an internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression, withdrawal) and externalizing nature (e.g., aggression, argumentativeness, dishonesty); to show drops in self-esteem; to become less well-liked and more disliked by their peers; and to feel a greater dislike of school that likely leads to increases in skipping or absenteeism (Boivin, Hymel, & Bukowski, 1995; Egan & Perry, 1998; Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro, & Bukowski, 1999; Hodges & Perry, 1999; Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2000; Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996; Schwartz, Dodge, & Coie, 1993; Vernberg, 1990). Perhaps most disturbing is that chronic harassment by peers has been consistently linked to suicidal ideation in several concurrent studies (Rigby, 2000; Slee, 1994; cf. Carney, 2000).
Personal risk for victimization. Efforts to understand why certain children are more likely than others to become the target of abuse by their peers have focused on individual level characteristics and behaviors exhibited in the peer group that likely serve to reinforce and/or irritate bullies. Bullies appear to gravitate towards (or select as targets) children that are physically weak, exhibit internalizing behaviors, lack prosocial skills, and have low self-worth and perceptions of social competence. Indeed, longitudinal evidence indicates that each of these contribute to increases in victimization over time (Egan & Perry, 1998; Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999; Hodges & Perry, 1999; Pellegrini, 1995; Vernberg, 1990). Longitudinal studies have provided mixed evidence that externalizing behaviors serve as antecedents of victimization (see Boulton, 1999; Egan & Perry, 1998; Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Hodges, Boivin, et al., 1999; Hodges & Perry, 1999; Pellegrini, 1995; Schwartz, McFadyen-Ketchum, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1999). However, it appears that hyperactivity and emotional dysregulation are especially likely to annoy peers and provoke potential aggressors, thus leading to increases in victimization (Pope & Bierman, 1999; Shields & Cicchetti, 2001). It should be noted that heterogeneity exists in the behaviors manifested by victims. One group of victims (passive victims) display primarily internalizing behaviors whereas aggressive victims tend to be comorbid with respect to internalizing and externalizing behaviors (for a review, see Schwartz, Proctor, & Chen, 2001).
Interpersonal risk for victimization. Overall, the picture of victimized children's peer relationships is quite bleak at the dyadic (friends and enemies) and group level (peer rejection and acceptance). We review each in turn and then highlight recent work indicating that positive peer relationships can inhibit the actualization of personal risk into victimization experiences.
Children who fail to establish a reciprocated best friend (i.e., the peer they nominate as a best friend reciprocates the nomination) are more victimized than those who have a reciprocated best friend (Boulton, Trueman, Chau, Whitehand, & Amatya, 1999; Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999; cf. Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1997; Ladd & Burgess, 1999). Research has also demonstrated that the number of friends students have is negatively associated with victimization (Boivin & Hymel, 1997; Hodges, Malone, & Perry, 1997; Hodges & Perry, 1999; Pellegrini et al., 1999; Salmivalli et al., 1997; Slee & Rigby, 1993; Smith, Shu, & Madsen, 2001). Friendships likely reduce victimization because they pose additional risk to aggressors by increasing the likelihood of retaliation (Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999).
Not all friends are alike, however, and the characteristics and qualities of friends need to be taken into account when gauging the likelihood of a child becoming victimized. The ability of friends to provide a protective function is especially important in warding off attacks from bullies (Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999). Unfortunately, when victims do have friends, they often lack the characteristics needed to successfully play a protective function. Specifically, friended victims tend to have friends who are themselves victimized (Haselager et al., 1998; Hodges et al., 1997; Pellegrini et al., 1999; Salmivalli et al., 1997), as well as who are physically weak and exhibit internalizing problems (Hodges et al., 1997). Victimization is also related to low supportiveness and companionship within friendships (Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999; Rigby, 2000; Vernberg, 1990), as well as low protection (Hodges & Perry, 1999; Smith et al., 2001; cf. Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999). More recently, victimization has been linked to the quantity, context, and characteristics of enemy relationships (i.e., relationships based on mutual dislike). First, victimized children have more enemies than nonvictimized children (Card & Hodges, 2003; Parker & Gamm, in press; Schwartz, Gorman, Toblin, & Abou-ezzedine, in press; cf., Abecassis, Hartup, Haselager, Scholte, & van Lieshout, 2002). However, it is unclear whether having many enemies causes victimization, as longitudinal data addressing issues of temporal primacy are lacking. It also appears that it is within the context of enemy relationships that aggressor and victim roles develop. Indeed, victimization occurs most frequently within enemy relationships as compared to neutral peers, friends, or dyads where only one member dislikes the other (Card & Hodges, 2003). Moreover, the role each member of an enemy dyad takes depends largely on the power differential between the two, especially in terms of aggression and physical strength (Card & Hodges, 2003; Card, Piedrahita, Isaacs, & Hodges, 2002).
At the group level, the situation for victimized children is just as grim. Victimized children are clearly on the margins of the peer ecology. They are widely disliked (and not well liked) by their peers as evidenced by socio-metric nominations and these findings have been replicated across diverse ages, races, and countries (e.g., Boivin et al., 1995; Boulton & Smith, 1994; Buhs & Ladd, 2001; Crick, Casas, & Ku, 1999; Forero, McLellan, Rissel, & Bauman, 1999; Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Hodges et al., 1997; Lagerspetz, Björkqvist, Berts, & King, 1982; Olweus, 1993; Pellegrini et al., 1999; Perry et al., 1988). Children likely seek out targets that have been marginalized by the peer group because targeting low status students is unlikely to be negatively evaluated by the peer group. Longitudinal studies confirm that children of low social status become increasingly victimized over time (Boulton, 1999; Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Hodges & Perry, 1999; Vernberg, 1990; cf. Boivin et al., 1995; Pellegrini, 1995).
Fortunately, children with personal characteristics that signal vulnerability to aggressors (e.g., physical weakness, internalizing behaviors) may be able to escape an escalating cycle of peer abuse by establishing positive dyadic and group relations with their peers. Evidence is emerging that suggests that the actualization of personal risk into victimization by peers depends largely on the quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships. Concurrent data indicate that the association between physical weakness and victimization is strongest for youths with negative peer relations (high peer rejection, few friends, friends who are unable to provide protection) but non-significant for those with positive peer relations (Hodges et al., 1997). Further, longitudinal research has shown that physical weakness fails to translate into victimization over time for those who are not widely disliked by their peers (Hodges & Perry, 1999). Similarly, the positive concurrent associations of victimization with internalizing and externalizing problems are minimized for youths who are not rejected, have many friends, or have friends who can provide protection (Hodges et al., 1997; see also Hanish & Guerra, 2000), and longitudinal evidence indicates that low peer rejection and protective friendships eliminate longitudinal associations between internalizing behaviors and increases in victimization (Hodges, Boivin et al., 1999; Hodges & Perry, 1999).
Implications for psychologists. Although it is clear that certain personal factors place children at-risk for victimization by peers, by no means do we imply that the victim is responsible for their own plight. Ultimately, school personnel are responsible for providing a safe environment for all children. Importantly, the actualization of personal risk into victimization appears to hinge critically on the quantity and quality of relationships with peers at the dyadic and group level. At the dyadic level, it may prove fruitful to promote the development of friendships with well-adjusted peers or a buddy system in which at-risk children are paired with another child who can model more skilled social interactions. It is also important that paired friends or "buddies" are capable of serving a protective function (e.g., are physically strong, prosocial) for the victimized child. Victimized children may also benefit from interventions aimed at working towards resolving conflict with their mutual antipathies, because victimization frequently occurs within this context.
- Rodkin, Philip C.; Hodges, Ernest V. E.; Bullies and Victims in the Peer Ecology: Four Questions for Psychological and School Professionals; School Psychology Review, 2003, Vol. 32 Issue 3, p384-400
Reflection Exercise #4