Christina Salmivalli

The Big Idea

This review paper was published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.  Its subject is bullying.  While its context is the classroom, what is reported in the research entails the fields of play as well.  If there is an umbrella quote covering the inherent nastiness of bullying, it would be this, Maya Angelou’s reflection: “I’ve learned that people forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What amplifies the devastating impact of bullying is the circle of peer group involvement.  Yet most of the intervention and actions focus on individual bullies and victims.  The value of this publication lies in its targeting the research focused on the mysteries of peer clusters involvement in bullying.  The World Health Organization reports around 12% of school children are victims of bullying.  In the United States, 28% of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying; 30% of young people admit to bullying others; and 70% of youngsters have seen bullying in their schools.


  • Bullying knows no bounds, whether age, geography, institution, work life, or income.
  • Particularly insidious is not just its ever presence, but its destructive impact.
  • Bullying starts early, especially when children come of school age.
  • The bully wants respect, admiration, and dominance.
  • But bullying is more than a bully and a victim; it is a group process.
  • Bystander (peer cluster) reactions can either contribute to or help resolve bullying.
  • Mostly, peer bystanders passively enable bullying by doing nothing.
  • Therefore, it is the group norm that needs to be the focus of anti-bullying.
  • The social status of the bully would disappear if the peer cluster refused to reinforce and reward the bully.
  • A promising evidence-based anti-bullying ten-year project in Finland (and now explored in other countries) is called KiVa, which is based on changing the social norms for prevention, intervention, and follow-up monitoring.

The Research

What does the bully want?

Bullying is unprovoked and deliberate.  It is typically classified as proactive aggression.  Individual or group bullying is defined as repeated and humiliating attacks against a relatively powerless person.

By and large, bullying is driven by status goals.  Hence, witnesses are necessary to create and maintain a dominant position in the peer group.  Bullying is related to self-reported goals of being respected, admired, and dominant.

Peer involvement during bullying

Given that peer clusters are almost always present in bullying incidents, the question is to what extent bystanders react, either to contribute to the problem or to help resolve it.  This bullying circle is complicated since there are many ways children in the cluster can behave.  They can join in (assist the bully), reinforce the bully (laughing, cheering), withdraw (become an outsider), or defend the victim.

Bystander reactions make a huge difference in either ratcheting up the episode or challenging it.  When more classmates or peer clusters stand up to the bully, the victim is less anxious, depressed, or stressed out.  When classmates or peer clusters reinforce or support the bully, the victim is more likely to experience social anxiety and peer rejection.  Overall, far more children report attitudes sympathetic to the victim than aggression toward the victim.  Yet, even if the peers know bullying is wrong, over a third of the peers do nothing.  Their withdrawal becomes passive enabling of the bullying continuing.

Why don’t peers intervene more often?

It appears that the percentages of passive enabling can be attributed to what is called the bystander effect:

  • A diffusion of responsibility where no one feels responsibility for intervening, maybe expecting someone else to act first.
  • Or, since no one is acting, the bystanders perceive the event must not be too serious.
  • The victims may hide their suffering, so bystanders aren’t aware of the ongoing victim psychological damage.
  • If the bully is perceived as popular (even if disliked), bystanders may distance themselves from a low-status victim to “fit-in.”

Peer clusters and involvement in bullying

One significant aspect of the potential for group bullying is when membership is involuntary.  With youngsters, schools are largely mandatory.  It is difficult for the victim to leave the groups, just as it is difficult for members of the group to leave.  Groups of this sort will tend to form cliquish sub-groups.  Hence, it is difficult to know whether bullying related behaviors are a result of selection or socialization. 

Either way, it appears that when bullies are perceived as high-status children, even children who do not identify as bullies are attracted to bullying.  The original bully can become distant role models of other children for social cohesion.

It is also the case that peer cliques can positively influence other children to support bully victims.  Defenders of bully victims can become prosocial positive role models for others in the group.  But when it comes to group power, it is typically the primary bullies who set the classroom norms, thereby overriding the influence of positive role models.

To be the target of bullying

If a child is the only victim in a group . . . as Three Dog Night sings . . . “One is the loneliest number/One is the loneliest number/one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  But if there are two or more victims in the same group at least there is some relief that others are in the same predicament. Failing that circumstance, a single victim comes to believe that he or she is to blame for the bullying, that for some reason they deserve targeting.  And the wounds received accelerate psychological maladjustment.

Implications for bullying interventions

A primary implication of this review of bullying research literature is that interventions against bullying should focus on the peer-group rather than at individual bullies and victims.  But how?

Group bystanders are trapped in a social dilemma: they are likely to know that bullying is inherently wrong, but to do something to stop it compromises their own status and safety in the peer group.  So, one implication is that if fewer children rewarded and reinforced the bully, and if the group refused to give high status to bullies, the social rewards for bullying would disappear.

Maybe the most promising implication is to recognize that bystanders can be empowered to intervene.  Most bystanders already believe bullying is wrong.  They also feel sorry for the victim.  And they would like to help stop it.  If these attitudes can be converted into prosocial behaviors, they may be far more successful stopping a bully than adult sanctions.

What if peer group attitudes are mostly pluralistic ignorance?  What if the collective bystander private attitudes were made public in the group?  If the entire group was made aware of how everyone individually really thinks about bullying, this knowledge could change the bully’s behavior.  If the bystanders are mobilized by this, they can minimize the adverse effects for those who are victims.  These protective friendships can also buffer against future victimization and the negative influences of victimization.

A Promising Intervention

In 2007 the University of Turku in Finland initiated an anti-bullying intervention program.  It is called KiVa (  Around 4,000 students in 39 primary schools were in the pilot study.  It was estimated then that approximately 5,000 bullying incidents were prevented.  Since then, the KiVa program has been a Finnish nationalized school evidence-based intervention.  In 2018 it KiVa is either underway or being studied in such countries as Italy, Belgium, Chile, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Estonia, New Zealand, Wales, and other European schools.

The author of this review paper, professor Christina Salmivalli, is one of the primary researchers testing the efficacy the intervention.  The longitudinal research studies focus on KiVa’s efforts at bullying prevention, intervention, and monitoring.  Bullies, victims, and bystanders are integrated components in influencing group norms for positive youth development.  Essentially, KiVa is taking bullying out of the shadows and shining light on the process and group participant elements.  It is a promising approach to attacking the social problem of bulling early in a child’s development.

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