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'Social norms' strategy aims to tame bullying

Researchers say that middle-school bullying could be curbed by showing that it's not normal.

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It's not normal to act like a bully. In anonymous surveys at several large middle schools, the vast majority of students reported that they had not hit, teased, threatened, excluded, or gossiped maliciously about classmates in the past 30 days.

But a majority were also convinced that their own nonbully status was an exception to the norm. To reduce the amount of bullying that does exist, that misperception needs to change, argues H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor and director of the Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

"What we've seen consistently is that risk behaviors [and] problem behaviors are overestimated," Professor Perkins says, "which [means] much of the bullying or violence or substance abuse can continue because the people engaged in that think everybody else is doing it."

The idea of "social norms" interventions emerged in the 1980s and was first applied as a way to address excessive drinking on college campuses. Media campaigns and workshops tried to educate students that binge drinking was not the norm. The tactic began showing success in curbing alcohol abuse.

By the late 1990s, social-norm interventions had reached some high schools and lower grades. The approach was also used to get more people to realize that it's common to wear seat belts and to educate men that most of their male peers don't support violence against women.

Now it's time to tackle bullying, Perkins and his colleague David Craig proposed at the National Social Norms Conference in late July. The starting point is to present kids with credible bullying data from their own school, not a state or national average. The professors developed a survey for schools, funded by the New Jersey and US Departments of Education (http://social normsurveys.hws.edu).

Once they gather data, educators need to send consistent messages about the true norms throughout the year. "You can't just hang a few posters," Perkins says. Some schools, for instance, incorporate the information into their orientations and curriculum and post statistics on screensavers in computer labs.

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