​​​Power, social norms and bullying

To understand the relationship between power, social norms and bullying, it is useful to understand bullying as a group phenomenon occurring in a social context. Young people participate in a variety of social contexts, including their family, peers, school, community and society. Social norms — the expected ways to look and behave — exist within student groups and within the whole school community.

Peer group

When individuals of any age are together, certain group processes occur. At first, there is a natural tendency to emphasize the most obvious difference between groups, such as gender, race, age or social class. Group members view their own group as better than other groups. This process leads to the development of group identity and group norms. However it can also allow individuals to justify bullying simply because a peer is not part of the same group.

Next, two processes occur at the same time — one process of similarity and one of difference.

The process of similarity occurs over time as group members' behaviour and thinking become more consistent with the group norms. Various tactics, such as laughter, are used to encourage individuals to conform to group norms. Individuals who identify strongly with the group will willingly defend it against non-conforming members and against other groups. They may blame a peer for not conforming to group norms and view bullying as a way of reinforcing those norms.

The process of difference occurs as members create their own individual roles within the group. Group status positions develop based on the priorities and values of the group. Group members judge their own status and some compete to gain and maintain social status. Individuals who challenge the status hierarchy are likely to experience resistance from group members. Some bullying behaviour occurs in an effort to maintain status or dominance within the peer group.

School

Teachers' efforts or lack of efforts to intervene in bullying may affect classroom norms related to bullying behaviours. Students are less likely to be involved in bullying if they perceive their teacher as disapproving of bullying.

In some classrooms, it is common for students to behave in ways that provide social rewards to the perpetrators, such as laughing when a student is publicly ridiculed.  In other classrooms, such behaviour is uncommon and students are more likely to defend a student who is being bullied.

Research has demonstrated a link between classrooms with a high level of status hierarchy (popularity or social impact) and high levels of bullying over time. Studies have also found that many students who bully are popular with their peers.

Community

The community context can have an impact on bullying. For example, body weight norms, such as the acceptance of heavier bodies, differ across racial and ethnic groups. The available evidence suggests that community norms can positively or negatively affect the incidence of weight-based bullying.

Society

Societal attitudes such as prejudice, contribute to bullying behaviours. In particular, several groups of youth (e.g. LGBTIQ+ youth; youth with disabilities) are at higher risk for being targets of bullying. To read more, go to Diversity and bullying.

Implications for schools

Bullying prevention initiatives in schools need to take into account group processes that contribute to bullying. This may involve shifting group norms to create a sense of community that fosters respectful behaviour, acceptance and inclusion of all students so that bullying is less likely to happen.