University of Delaware found that kids who are bullied in fifth grade often suffer from depression and begin using alcohol and other substances

When it comes to understanding bullying, “we make a lot of assumptions that aren’t based on data,” says UD psychologist Julie Hubbard, whose scholarship aims to build a stronger empirical foundation that could lead to new and more successful evidence-based programs for bullying.

Although school-based bullying prevention programs already exist, findings suggest they are not particularly effective. Thus, Hubbard, an associate professor of psychology, believes that more basic research is needed to understand why children bully and how to develop effective programs to combat bullying.

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Her area of research examines peer relations, aggression and emotion regulation in 6- to 12-year olds, the age at which the peer world starts becoming more important. She has studied peer rejection, anger management and social-cognitive processes in children and found the need to refine one key question in this population: “What more do we need to learn about aggressive children to be able to develop more effective interventions for them?”

Hubbard has specifically focused on two types of aggression — reactive and proactive — in an effort to better answer this question.

Defined as defensive, retaliatory, and in response to real or perceived provocation, reactive aggression is driven by anger. Pro­active aggression, on the other hand, is deliberate and purposefully goal-oriented. Think: the kid who fights back versus the kid picking the fight. Hubbard considers bullying to be a particular type of pro-active aggression.

While there have been numerous theories and speculations that proactive aggression is characterized by lack of physiological arousal and anger, there have been far fewer studies to examine the difference, physiologically and emotionally, in these children in the moment that they engage in episodes of proactive or reactive aggression.

In the first empirical support of the theory suggesting proactive aggression is literally “cold-blooded,” Hubbard and her colleagues developed tools to measure physiological arousal and anger expression and found that proactive aggression is displayed when children are particularly calm and unprovoked. Reactive aggression, they found, tends to be “hot-tempered,” driven by anger, and marked by physiologic changes such as increased heart rates and perspiration.

University of Delaware found that kids who are bullied in fifth grade often suffer from depression and begin using alcohol and other substances.

The research team studied reactive and proactive aggression in 36 fourth- and fifth-grade boys and girls who were engaged in a simulated drawing contest project. To measure reactive aggression, the students were asked to prepare drawings on the computer, which were then critiqued, criticized and spoiled by a “virtual peer” in another room. The students were later given the opportunity to comment on their peer’s picture and spoil it if he or she chose to do so.

To measure proactive aggression, the invisible virtual peer did not comment on the children’s drawings; instead, the students were “competing” with the peer and given the opportunity to spoil the virtual peer’s picture in order to win an attractive prize.

“The reactive tasks involved peer provocation but no instrumental gain from aggression, whereas the proactive task involved no peer provocation but clear instrumental gain from aggression,” Hubbard explains.

Students who experienced more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade were more likely to have greater symptoms of depression in seventh grade, and a greater likelihood of using alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in tenth grade,” said the study’s leader, Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor in UD’s College of Education and Human Development.

The researchers observed and measured the students’ behavioral aggression (the extent to which the child spoiled the peer’s picture), their verbal aggression, facial expressions, and physiological arousal (through heart rate and skin conductance reactivity monitors).

The children in the reactive task who were most likely to spoil their peers’ pictures were the ones with increased heart rates and skin conductance reactivity, a stark contrast to the children in the proactive task, who were most likely to sabotage the peer’s pictures if they exhibited decreased heart rates and skin conductance reactivity.

The finds are revealing, but the “real trick,” according to Hubbard, is how to turn these findings into interventions.

“If we know that children’s physiology differs when they are engaging in acts of reactive and proactive aggression, then perhaps we need to do a better job of developing interventions that separately target reactive and proactive aggressive episodes in children,” Hubbard says.

“My hope is that, over time, we can develop the next generations of interventions that are better because they are based in data, not hypothesis.”

Peer victimization leads to substance use, and substance use can harm adolescent development with implications for health throughout the lifespan, Earnshaw said. Alcohol and marijuana use may interfere with brain development and can lead to injuries. Tobacco use may lead to respiratory illness, cancer and early death.

“Youth who develop substance use disorders are at risk of many mental and physical illnesses throughout life,” Earnshaw said. “So, the substance use that results from peer victimization can affect young people throughout their lives.”

Among the study’s findings, boys, sexual minority youth and youth living with chronic illness reported more frequent peer victimization in fifth grade. Age, obesity, race/ethnicity, household educational achievement and family income were not related to more frequent peer victimization.

Twenty-four percent of tenth graders in the study reported recent alcohol use, 15.2 percent reported marijuana use, and 11.7 percent reported tobacco use. Sexual minority status was more strongly related to alcohol use among girls than boys; it was also related to marijuana and tobacco use among girls but not boys.

Credit : University of Delaware

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