Want to Stop Bullies?

Guess who's most likely to step in and defend a victim of bullying?

A girl.

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.

Peer Pressure Crucial in Getting More Girls to Stand Up to Bullies

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.

Social Expectations Play Big Role in Dealing With Bullies

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.

"We all talk about peer pressure being an important force, but when I first saw in past studies that girls were more likely to defend, and people said maybe it's just an innate helpfulness in girls and not in boys, I thought wait a minute," Porter said. "Don't tell me that boys are less innately inclined to help someone in a bullying situation."

Study Based on Self-Disclosure, More Research Needed

The difference, he said, may lie more in what's expected than in a gender-based empathy.

The findings are based on self-disclosure, so the accuracy depends largely on the candor of the participants. The results will need to be repeated by other researchers for the findings to stand.

In the survey, students said teachers and parents were more likely than best friends to expect them to try to stop a bully, but they were more likely to actually intervene if the message came from a best friend, Porter said. And a whopping 85 percent of the girls said their best friend would expect them to defend or help a victim, compared with 66 percent of the boys.

"My studies suggest tentatively that there are social influences that can be used in anti-bullying programs," Porter said. So instead of dealing with the problem entirely by punishing the bullies, some attention needs to be directed toward rewarding kids who intervene, he said. Of course, intervening can also be dangerous, so more research needs to be conducted before kids are advised to step into the middle of a fight.

Boys More Likely to Bully and Be Bullied Than Girls

This is somewhat of a personal issue for Porter, who moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico as a child. "I didn't know how to speak English, so I was getting picked on quite a bit," he said.

That left him with a "passion" for researching the subject because he "couldn't understand why you can be in the middle of school and get hurt by someone and nobody comes to help you," he said.

Gender does play a role, of course. Boys are much more likely to bully and be bullied than girls, and they are more physical in their punishment, but girls can also be bullies, he said.

"Girls do bully, and they are bullied, and it is very intense," he said. "Some of it seems to be a social bullying that's very nuanced and very powerful where girls will ruin each other's reputations, or cause someone to be ostracized, and that can lead to hopelessness and despair."

Effects of Bullying Linger for Years

Porter also measured "gender identity" in the students he studied. Students who rated themselves as "more masculine" were less likely to actually go out and defend a victim of bullying.

"I was surprised by that at first because I would think a boy would feel more comfortable jumping in and helping the victim," he said, but in fact the more masculine the boy feels, the less likely he is to defend someone else.

Although bullying is less frequent beyond middle school, the effects can linger for years, even into adulthood. Porter said that he remained fearful until recently, when he began working as a counselor and dealing with people who had been bullied, or were bullies.

"I started to realize that knowing different kinds of people more intimately has made me less afraid, and I really don't experience that sense of anxiety any more when I need to go out and confront a person or a situation," he said.