​​​Power, social norms and bullying

Social norms – the expected ways to look and behave – exist in every group. An individual's sense of needing to conform to the group's social norms is usually high during adolescence.

Group social norms exist within student groups and also within the school as a whole. The school's norms are modelled by the school staff and other adults in the broader community.

Researchers have found that any students who 'stand out' or vary from the norms considered valuable within the peer group are more likely to be bullied. They suggest that students can use bullying as a way to enforce group norms about how to appear and behave.

For example, bullying focused on gender roles for boys and girls is common in early high school. This can include insults, insinuations or rumours about sexual activity. Bullying is often related to the 'norms' for masculinity and femininity, so boys and girls who do not fit within the gender norms, e.g. for behaviour or clothing, for their sex are more likely to be targeted.

If students are identified as 'different' or not sufficiently conforming to social norms, bullying may be used within the peer group to delineate the 'in group' and keep those identified as different out.

Student group norms and views about which students are of 'greater' social status are derived from the values about power and social status evident in wider society. This process happens as children and young people absorb and replicate the norms, values and prejudices of the school and the wider community.

This points to a critical role for a positive school climate that promotes equality and inclusion.

Schools can help to prevent bullying by directly addressing the concepts of power, equality and inequality with students through curriculum, and by fostering student involvement and connectedness to the school.

Whole school strategies to break up rigid social hierarchies can help to reduce power struggles and the competition for social status.

Within a school climate which promotes inclusion and respectful behaviour as the 'norm', bullying is much less likely to happen.

Bullying is also sometimes focused on students' personal attributes such as weight, ability, wealth, race, culture, religion and sexuality. Students who 'stand out' because of these attributes are more likely to be targeted for bullying. To read more go to Diversity and bullying.