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Social support can buffer psychological effects of bullying

by CIFAR Nov 9 / 12

Recent media coverage has exposed the tragic consequences of bullying as society grapples with how to prevent it.

In a new study, CIFAR Fellow Clyde Hertzman (UBC) and a team of researchers at the Human Early Learning Partnership based at UBC found that social support from adults and peers can especially help girls buffer the negative consequences of bullying, such as low self-esteem and depression.

As Dr. Hertzman, a Fellow in CIFAR’s Experience-based Brain & Biological Development and Successful Societies programs, says, “More than anything else, our research shows that there is a strong basis for schools and communities to focus on social and emotional development and learning in the middle years much more than they have to date.” Their study is published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

The researchers studied over 3,000 ten-year-old children from over 70 schools in Vancouver. Studying this age group is a priority because middle childhood (ages 6 to 12) is a critical period for developing identity, and well-being and developmental health are impacted by social factors such as social relationships and success in school.

“We are trying to understand how later social development and circumstances such as bullying link to earlier social and emotional development,” says Dr. Hertzman, “and to understand the broad ‘iceberg’ of daily experiences that lie below the extreme cases highlighted in the media, such as suicide.”

The students completed a survey called the Middle Years Development Instrument, developed in 2006 by researchers at UBC including Dr. Hertzman, the Vancouver School Board and the United Way. The survey assessed their satisfaction with life, self-esteem, and levels of anxiety and depression, and then the researchers looked at whether relationships and bullying had an impact.

Dr. Hertzman and his team found that for all children, positive relationships with adults and peers are strongly linked to life satisfaction and self-esteem, whereas being bullied is linked to depressive symptoms and anxiety. However, social connectedness can protect girls from the harmful effects of bullying.

The findings from this study stress the importance of understanding children’s psychological well-being as well as the importance of investing in children’s health and development through effective programs in schools and communities.