And the Power
Research indicates that peers play an essential
role in promoting or preventing bullying.
Philip C. Rodkin
Editor’s note: This report was commissioned for the White House Conference on
Bullying Prevention, which met on March 10, 2011. The conference brought together
President Barack Obama and members of his cabinet, First Lady Michelle Obama,
youth, parents, researchers, school officials, and other groups to craft a national strategy
for reducing and ending bullying in schools. A longer version of this report was included
in the briefing book distributed at the conference.
On first thought, the words bully and peer hardly belong in the same title; for all intents and purposes, the two words are opposites. A peer is an equal, of the same social standing as oneself, whereas bullying lacks the elements of equality and free choice. What distinguishes bullying from other forms of childhood aggression,
whether a hard-fought basketball game or rough-and-tumble play, is unequal,
coercive power (Olweus, 1993; Vaillancourt, McDougall, Hymel, & Sunderani,
2010). It’s this sense of inequality, abuse, and unfairness—and of a peer culture
valuing all the wrong things—that makes bullying incompatible with the democratic spirit; all youth should be free to learn in peace and safety, making the
most of their talents and goals.
What kind of power does a bully really have? Children and youth (and some
adults) use bullying to acquire resources and—here is where peers come into the
picture—to demonstrate to an audience that they can dominate (Pellegrini et al.
2010; Salmivalli, Kärnä, & Poskiparta, 2010). The success of bullies in attaining
resources and recognition depends on factors that include the characteristics of
the bully, the relationship that exists between bullies and those whom they target
for harassment, and the reactions of classmates who witness bullying. Do schoolmates embarrass the harassed and stroke the bully’s ego? Do they ignore the
bullying in front of them? Does somebody intervene to support the victim and
help stop the bullying?