Guess who's most likely to step in and defend a victim of bullying?
Several studies have come to that conclusion in recent years, but new research takes the finding a step further. Girls are more likely to challenge a bully than boys are, but it's not just because they are girls.
"It has been thought that girls' sense of empathy and nurturing might play into their willingness to help the victim more often," said Jim Porter, who studied the subject for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida.
"But it looks as if it's peer pressure, not the gender," that compels girls to defend victims more often than boys, said Porter, who received his doctorate in psychology this May.
Porter surveyed 269 students (168 females and 101 males) in four middle schools in North Central Florida to see what they believed their parents, best friends and favorite teachers would expect them to do if they saw another student being bullied. The girls were much more likely than boys to say they'd be expected to intervene.
In a telephone interview, Porter acknowledged that is a correlation, not necessarily a causation, but he believes his study shows that peer pressure plays a big role in getting more girls than boys to stand up against bullies.
Bullying has become a major concern in America's schools, especially in middle schools where it occurs most frequently.
In his dissertation, Porter noted that many studies had shown that bullies, and particularly the victims of bullies, accounted for some of the worst tragedies that have hit our schools in recent years.
One study by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education concluded that most school shootings in the United States were committed by those who'd been bullied. And the World Health Organization found that 30 percent of students in the United States had bullied other children, been bullied, or both.
Many studies show that both sexes produce bullies and victims, although there are some differences.
One large study at the University of Illinois found that powerful, popular males were more likley to pick on weaker members of their own sex, whereas unpopular, aggressive boys tend to bully popular girls.
Another study from Rhode Island's University of Warwick found that girls who are bullied are more than twice as likely to remain victims for a longer period of time than boys, but the nature of the bullying often changes from physical or verbal abuse to social exclusion.
Bullying has caught the attention of researchers only relatively recently. The first formal studies were conducted in Scandinavia in the 1970s, and even later than that in this country, Porter said. And nearly all those studies focused on either the bullies or the victims. Porter found only 13 studies that concentrated on students who came to the defense of a victim, and nine of those concluded that girls were more likely to defend than boys.
Porter believes his research shows that in the considerable effort to deal with bullying following tragedies like the Columbine massacre, one of the most important components has been underestimated.
"Social expectations," he said, may be a big player in dealing with bullies.