Peer group affiliation predicts aggressive behavior a year later

iStock_000004579760XSmallBully prevention efforts don’t focus enough on cliques or peer groups,  says a study in the Journal of School Health. The study asked 1614 Southern California high schoolers to select one of 16 peer groups adolescents they most identified with (jocks, skaters, averages, preppies, stoners, brains. Goths) and then surveyed them on whether or not they had engaged in aggressive behavior, both physical and relational.

How much aggressive behavior they engaged in a year later when the students were surveyed again could be predicted by the groups they selected, the researchers report.

Not surprisingly, adolescents who identified with high-risk groups (druggies, rappers, gang members, etc) engaged in more physical aggression and relational aggression than adolescents who self-identified as normal and average. But adolescents who identified with elite, high-status groups (populars, preppies and jocks)also were more likely to engage in relational aggression. Examples of relational aggression include spreading rumors, insults or exclusion of a peer from social plans.

“As with Elites/Socials in our sample, studies have found adolescents higher in peer-perceived popularity to become more relationally aggressive over time, most likely to maintain their high social status,” the researchers write.

The study of high school students in 9 districts in southern California makes a case for paying more attention to peer group identification in bullying prevention efforts, the researchers write. Few programs seem to consider the effects of peer group norms on aggressive behavior. Educators can help correct adolescents’ misperceptions about the benefits of aggressive behavior.

In the study, students were asked to select which group they best fit in with from a list of 16 group names; they were told to select “other” if they did not see an appropriate choice in the list. Of the 1614 students who participated in the study, 297 identified high-risk groups, 246 identified elites/socials, 864 self-identified as belonging to the regulars or normals groups and 207 checked the “other” category.

In both the initial survey and the follow-up questionnaire, students were asked about their participation in relational or physical aggression in the last 12 months.

Researchers also looked at the impact on aggression of attending a continuing high school as opposed to a regular high school. They found no impact due to type of school, only to group affiliation.

“Peer Group Self-Identification as a Predictor of Relational and Physical Aggression Among High School Students,” by Pallav Pokhrel et al., Journal of School Health, May 2010, Volume 80, Number 5, pps. 249-258.

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