Bullying research subject of Provost Lecture

April 2014

Three members of the SUNYIT faculty are engaged in research to determine what factors play a role in bullying and being bullied. Joanne Joseph, associate professor of psychology, Veronica Tichenor, associate professor of sociology, and Rosemary Mullick, professor of computer science, presented their research recently as part of the Provost’s Lecture Series. With two dozen nations now reporting societal problems associated with bullying, the three say zero tolerance, education and intervention aren’t enough to address the problem and its lifelong impact.

“The interest and the question comes from a real problem in our community, which is how can we address bullying in our schools,” said Joanne Joseph, associate professor of psychology. “Can we identify individuals at risk?”

Bullying is defined as unwanted aggression and attention. These days, bullying extends far beyond the classroom and schoolyard, reaching into the homes of some victims through social media. Studies have found that bullying takes its toll on victims in a multitude of ways, including increased risk for significant psychosomatic problems such as high blood pressure, headaches and gastrointestinal complaints; and increased risk for poor academic performance.

“Bullying produces a range of consequences, all of which are negative,” said Tichenor. “These consequences are significant, affecting the physical, emotional and academic welfare of children.”

Part of the answer lies in the study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their effects. ACEs are negative events that a child experiences from infancy through the age of 18 and include sexual, emotional and physical abuse; neglect, parental absence due to death or divorce, parental incarceration, parental mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Researchers have found that sexually, emotionally or physically abused children are much more likely to be bullied, and children who witness domestic violence are much more likely to bully others. A study by Duke University has found that children with four or more ACEs were at significantly increased risk for bullying and being bullied.

“Just one of the negative events increased the risk of a negative health outcome. If you had one, you were more likely to have another,” Tichenor said. “Once you hit four, you had a dramatic increased chance.”

It is hoped that by looking into the relationship of family, school and community support to the bullying experience, new courses of action to reduce and curb both bullying and victimization can be implemented in schools and communities. Joseph, Mullick and Tichenor used data from the 2011 Teen Assessment Project (TAP), which surveyed more than 2,200 Oneida County middle and high school students.

“What this data tells us is that by taking a look at the predictors of bullying or bullying others, we can come up with a set of characteristics that go along with them,” said Mullick.

Veronica Tichenor, Joanne Joseph, Rosemary Mullick

Veronica Tichenor, Joanne Joseph and Rosemary Mullick at a recent Provost’s Lecture.

The three found that the best predictor of someone being bullied was having three or more circumstances on the ACEs scale, with females being particularly vulnerable to being bullied. The next best predictor was low community support and engagement; this also played a role in findings for those who engage in bullying behavior. Those having low community support and engagement were more likely to bully others. On the other hand, feeling connected to family and school was associated with a decrease in bullying behavior. Overall, 30% of students surveyed reported being bullied, and 40% said that they bully others.

“One of the things we think schools are missing in their approach is the community engagement variable, how involved kids are with volunteer activities, church, etc.,” said Joseph. “That is a key issue. Our research shows that they are less likely to bully when they have community engagement.”

So how does all this research and analysis get put into action? The three took their findings back to the community, and the Utica City School District has now adopted and integrated what is known as “planned helpfulness” in its gang deterrent strategy. Planned helpfulness is a way to get kids involved and engaged in their community, Joseph said. School district officials say they are seeing positive results from this approach, but Joseph says future research and studies are planned to determine if it is successful in reducing bullying. Screening students for ACEs would help too, she said.

Joseph, Mullick and Tichenor have now been invited by Oneida County to be involved in the design of the next TAP Survey, to help focus the questions on what needs to be known in to better inform further research. Herkimer County has just granted the researchers access to its information as well, in the hopes of finding similar approaches to combating bullying.

“The most important thing, from my point of view, is that this is research that has real impact on real people,” Joseph said.