"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."
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.
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."
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.