Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.
- Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
- The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
- The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.
Where do your enemies come from? That's the topic of a new article published in the American Journal of Sociology, which investigates school bullying, a social phenomenon that affects millions of children every year. Despite the belief that bullies are existential foes, it turns out that the bully and bullied are likely to be friends—at least, "frenemies."
Looking at 14 middle and high schools at two points in the year, the research team of Robert Faris, Diane Felmlee, and Cassie McMillan concluded that social proximity is not enough of a reason to abandon status elevation. Kids often climb over those closest to them in order to acquire greater standing in their networks—a power play that has adverse mental health effects on the bullied.
Their analysis began by comparing two parallel cohorts that create linear dominance hierarchies: chickens and summer campers. This game of dominance and ritualized submission is apparent in the barnyard and by the forest lake, as well as in high school, places where "overt aggression is not the only means by which status is attained." Prom queens, they note, "do not fight their way to their thrones." Subtler forms of bullying are often recruited.
Common wisdom has it that balance theory—the idea that enemies and friends share distinct social spaces—defines much of adolescent posturing. Not so, says this team: positive and negative ties are not as far apart as you might imagine. That's where the concept of "frenemies" comes in. Cruelty is a strange bonding tool that serves the purpose of status elevation, at least for the bully.
"In contrast to both balance theory and much of the empirical literature on bullying, which concludes that victims are isolated or marginal and thus sit at relatively large social distances from their tormentors, we extend the logic of instrumental aggression to anticipate higher rates of aggression at low social distances, between friends and among structurally equivalent schoolmates."
School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?
Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors.
Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."
Femlee elaborates on the complex dynamics of adolescence:
"These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner. Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties."
Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock
They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.
This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."
Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change.
Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Can playing video games really curb the risk of depression? Experts weigh in.
- A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health.
- Young boys who played video games daily had lower depression scores at age 14 compared to those who played less than once per month or never.
- The study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health. The study suggests that boys who play video games frequently in early adolescence (around age 11) are less likely to develop depressive symptoms throughout the following years. Additional findings in this study suggest that girls who spend more time on social media appear to develop more depressive symptoms.
How do video games and social media impact young kids?
The study gained interesting insight into the link between depression rates at age 14 and video game usage a few years earlier.
Credit: Pixel-Shot on Adobe Stock
The study's lead author, Ph.D. student Aaron Kandola, explains to Eurekalert: "Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful."
How this study was conducted:
- These findings come as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, where over 11,000 (n = 11,341) adolescents were surveyed.
- Depressive symptoms were measured with a Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (age 14).
- "Exposures" were listed as the frequency of video games, social media, and internet usage (age 11).
- Physical activity was also accounted for on a self-reporting basis.
When comparing young boys (age 11) who played video games to those who don't, the study showed interesting results:
- Boys who played video games daily had 24.3 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- Boys who played video games at least once per week had 25.1 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- BOoys who played video games at least once per month had 31.2 percent lower depression scored at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
When comparing how depression impacted young girls based on their social media usage, the researchers found that:
- Compared with less than once per month/never social media usage, using social media most days at age 11 was associated with a 13% higher depression score at age 14.
Can playing video games actually be beneficial?
There has been a lot of speculation in the past two decades about screen-time, social media, and video games. Whether it's linking video games to violence and obesity or linking social media to depression and anxiety — this seems to be a controversial question. According to the research, the answer to this question is yes, video games can be beneficial in moderation when paired with physical activity and real-life application.
Adding in some physical activity could be the difference between beneficial and harmful.
The above-mentioned study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
Previous studies have concluded there are some mental health benefits to playing video games.
A 2020 study by the University of Oxford analyzed the impacts of playing two extremely popular games at the time: Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" and Electronic Arts' "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville." The study used data and survey responses from over 3000 players in total — the games' developers shared anonymous data about people's playing habits, and the researchers surveyed those gamers separately about their well-being.
Results of this study found that time spent playing these games was associated with players reporting that they felt happier.
Additionally, previous studies (such as this University of Arizona study) have linked video game usage with new learning opportunities: "
Games like Minecraft are being used in more and more classrooms around the country. MinecraftEdu (recently purchased by Microsoft), allows teachers to structure a sandbox-style play environment around any curriculum. Students can work together to learn the scientific method, build farms, or take advantage of turtle robots to learn basic programming. Not only do these activities improve team-building skills, but they give students the chance to develop and practice technological literacy."
"Everything in moderation" is an important factor in determining whether video game use is beneficial or harmful.
While there can be some positive impacts from playing video games, research (such as this study conducted in 2013) has also shown that people who spend a predominant part of their day gaming are at risk of showing lower educational and career attainment in addition to problems with peers and lower social skills.
For centuries, universities have advanced humanity toward truth. Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks to why college campuses are suddenly heading in the opposite direction.
- In a lecture at UCCS, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt considers the 'telos' or purpose of universities: To discover truth.
- Universities that prioritize the emotional comfort of students over the pursuit of truth fail to deliver on that purpose, at a great societal cost.
- To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones: "I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different."
Imagine someone had a knife and told you, "This is a great knife. The only problem is it can't cut anything."
You'd think, Then it's not a great knife.
"Telos is the Greek word that Aristotle and others use to define the end or purpose of something," Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University Stern School of Business and bestselling coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind, says in a recorded lecture at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The telos of a knife is to cut. What, Haidt asks, is the telos of a university?
Truth—that's the purpose of higher education, Haidt says. The academy aims to be an arena where truth is sought, discovered, and explored. When the university is functioning at its best, students learn to present arguments and receive counter-arguments in pursuit of truth.
The question is then: Are today's universities achieving their purpose?
In his lecture, Haidt suggests that changes in campus culture over the past decade have rerouted university resources away from the pursuit of truth and towards creating an emotionally and intellectually comfortable environment for students.
"From out of nowhere, students in 2014 began asking for trigger warnings," Haidt says. A growing contingent among student bodies and administrators seemed to believe students were fragile and needed to be aggressively protected from "bad" ideas, offensive imagery, and provocative arguments. Students began reporting faculty, protesting speakers, and publicly shaming peers whose words made them uncomfortable.
CNN contributor Van Jones speaks onstage at the EMA IMPACT Summit in 2018.
Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Environmental Media Association
There are many places and institutions whose purpose, or telos, is comfort. But a university is not one of those places. To make that point, Haidt quotes CNN contributor Van Jones:
I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong—that's different. I'm not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym. That's the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.
By prioritizing comfort over the pursuit of truth, universities are ignoring their purpose. Higher education should be an arena of open inquiry and free expression, where ideas are exchanged, tested, and scrutinized. A liberal education should be "an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood," according to philosopher Michael Oakeshott.
What are the social repercussions if universities fail to achieve their purpose? New generations could lose more than academic muscle; they could lose the ability and inclination to pursue and prioritize truth. They could become so dependent on emotional comfort that they refuse to contemplate "what is not yet understood" in good faith, instead catastrophizing everything that doesn't fit into comfortable frameworks.
This is already happening, Haidt points out in his lecture. "We isolate young people from the adult skills that they will one day have to master," he says. This manifests in growing anxiety, depression, and other disorders among college students.
With college enrollment on the decline, and the global economy under tremendous strain, universities need to realize their telos—or they'll risk losing their essential role in society.
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Research from MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative found making college more affordable cut dropout rates and boosted degree attainment.
The benefits bestowed by a college degree are well-known. Degrees open access to job opportunities and, with them, economic stability. The average earning potential of a college graduate is roughly twice that of someone with only a high school diploma. Graduates are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to be married, and more likely to be satisfied with their life and career choices. And the number of jobs that require a degree or postsecondary school training continue to increase.
Many Americans can recite this litany, yet when it comes to attaining college degrees, the United States is woefully behind its Western peers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, America was the world leader in degree attainment by young adults a generation ago. Today, it ranks thirteenth. Nearly half of students who begin college don't finish within six years, with a quarter of low-income students dropping out by their second year.
Meanwhile, tuition continues to rise. Even after adjusting for inflation, the costs of attending a four-year public school have doubled in only three decades. Such ballooning expenses have spearheaded a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis.
For many young people looking toward a brighter future, college has become a gateway locked from the inside. As the Department of Education concluded: "Today, college remains the greatest driver of socioeconomic mobility in America, but if we don't do more to keep it within reach for middle-class families and those striving to get into the middle class, it could have the opposite effect."
Research has looked into the predicament and now suggests a daring, counterintuitive means of increasing degree completion among young people: We make college affordable.
The study groups
An aerial view of MIT and Harvard Bridge. The university's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative partnered with the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation for the study.
Credit: Adobe Stock
The study comes from MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative. Its researchers wanted to determine the effect scholarships had on degree attainment. As they put it,
"Financial aid is typically motivated by a desire to increase postsecondary attainment by making college more affordable. This raises the question of whether aid meets this test by boosting educational attainment. As with any sort of award or subsidy, it's worth considering the extent to which financial aid changes behavior. The fact that aid is motivated by the desire to increase schooling does not mean aid programs accomplish this."
To test this question, they partnered with the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, an organization that offers scholarships to first-time freshman attending public colleges in Nebraska. The researchers designed a partially randomized study around the Foundation's 2012–2016 scholarship applicants, a cohort of roughly 16,500 students seeking aid.
Because low-scoring applicants were unlikely to complete college, they were not provided a scholarship and were removed from the study. Similarly, while high-scoring applicants were awarded a scholarship, they too were removed from the study as their degree completion was likely with or without the financial abetment. This left a middle pool of applicants, each sporting a comparable level of need and college-readiness.
The Foundation awarded scholarships randomly to this middle group of applicants; those who did not receive scholarships served as the controls. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the available aid, no student was artificially denied a scholarship for the study's sake. All told, the study included 3,699 scholarship-awarded participants and 4,491 controls. Most sought degrees at four-year colleges though some matriculated into two-year schools.
As this group was comparable in areas such as GPA, colleges attended, and expected family contributions, any statistically significant difference between the recipients and the controls would provide some evidence of a causal connection between financial aid and degree attainment.
Easing the six-year itch
The researchers followed the students' college careers, from freshman year to spring 2019, and found that the scholarships did change behavior. Enrollment was only slightly higher for the aid recipients than the controls—98.7 percent compared to 96.1—but as the two groups' college careers continued, a noticeable difference emerged in dropout rates. By the end of their fourth year, only 71.6 percent of the control group remained, a dropout rate of 24.5 percent; meanwhile, the scholarship group only declined by 18 percent.
The scholarships also bolstered degree completion. Though bachelor degree completion was roughly even by the end of the fourth year, the aid recipients began to pull ahead after that. By the end of their sixth year, 71 percent of the award recipients received their degree, 8.4 percentage points more than the control. This suggests that as degree completion began to drag on longer, the infusion of extra financial resources made the final push more manageable.
The researchers not only found that aid promotes full-time enrollment, but that it benefitted historically underrepresented groups most, including non-white and first-generation applicants. These findings support a growing body of research that suggests college affordability directly impacts student decision-making and degree attainment.
The study, titled "Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students," is part of an ongoing research study. Additional reports will be released as the study continues.
What does college affordability mean?
Scholarships are one way of making college more affordable, but they are part of a much larger conversation as to what affordability means.
The ballooning cost of tuition in recent decades is another concern. Factors for this surge include a massive increase in demand, cuts in state funding, new student services, and bloated administrative compensation. While colleges could certainly rein in some of their more extravagant expenses, and legislators agree to fund more, the question of affordability goes further still.
It concerns the quality of education, whether students are dependent or independent, their resources before matriculating, what they can expect from the investment after graduation, and how much of their future income they are willing (or able) to pay. The calculus must also consider available alternatives, their costs, and their potential outcomes. It's a multifaceted balancing act between what's available, what students can afford, and what schools can offer with the resources they have available—which, of course, ties directly to the funds that schools have available.
In an op-ed for Higher Education Today, Susan Baum, a senior fellow in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute, correctly points out that a "low-cost program designed purely to train people for an occupation that is unlikely to exist in 10 years, while appearing 'affordable,' is not affordable at all."
So then, how should we think about college affordability?
Baum recommends we start the conversation with need-based considerations at the forefront. "The financial resources available to a student at the time of enrollment are critical. Students have very different starting points for measuring outcomes and value depending on their circumstances," Baum writes. But it also requires us to think beyond funding; we need to consider the resources colleges need to provide a valuable education as well as the types of experiences that students want.
If we want more students to graduate, we need to discover the right balance between moderate spending, need-based aid, and program quality, a balance that will make college accessible to all who desire to attend.
Having grown kids still at home is not likely to do you, or them, any permanent harm.
When the Pew Research Center recently reported that the proportion of 18-to-29-year-old Americans who live with their parents has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps you saw some of the breathless headlines hyping how it's higher than at any time since the Great Depression.
From my perspective, the real story here is less alarming than you might think. And it's actually quite a bit more interesting than the sound bite summary.
Even 30 years ago, adulthood – typically marked by a stable job, a long-term partnership and financial independence – was coming later than it had in the past.
Yes, a lot of emerging adults are now living with their parents. But this is part of a larger, longer trend, with the percentage going up only modestly since COVID-19 hit. Furthermore, having grown kids still at home is not likely to do you, or them, any permanent harm. In fact, until very recently, it's been the way adults have typically lived throughout history. Even now, it's a common practice in most of the world.
Staying home is not new or unusual
Drawing on the federal government's monthly Current Population Survey, the Pew Report showed that 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds are currently living with their parents, up from 47% in February. The increase was mostly among the younger emerging adults – ages 18 to 24 – and was primarily due to their coming home from colleges that shut down or to their having lost their jobs.
Although 52% is the highest percentage in over a century, this number has, in fact, been rising steadily since hitting a low of 29% in 1960. The main reason for the rise is that more and more young people continued their education into their 20s as the economy shifted from manufacturing to information and technology. When they're enrolled in school, most don't make enough money to live independently.
Before 1900 in the United States, it was typical for young people to live at home until they married in their mid-20s, and there was nothing shameful about it. They usually started working by their early teens – it was rare then for kids to get even a high school education – and their families relied upon the extra income. Virginity for young women was highly prized, so it was moving out before marriage that was scandalous, not staying home where they could be shielded from young men.
In most of the world today, it is still typical for emerging adults to stay home until at least their late 20s. In countries where collectivism is more highly valued than individualism – in places as diverse as Italy, Japan and Mexico – parents mostly prefer to have their emerging adults stay home until marriage. In fact, even after marriage it remains a common cultural tradition for a young man to bring his wife into his parents' household rather than move out.
Until the modern pension system arose about a century ago, aging parents were highly vulnerable and needed their adult children and daughters-in-law to care for them in their later years. This tradition persists in many countries, including the two most populous countries in the world, India and China.
In today's individualistic U.S., we mostly expect our kids to hit the road by age 18 or 19 so they can learn to be independent and self-sufficient. If they don't, we may worry that there is something wrong with them.
You'll miss them when they're gone
Because I've been researching emerging adults for a long time, I've been doing a lot of television, radio and print interviews since the Pew report was released.
Always, the premise seems to be the same: Isn't this awful?
I would readily agree that it's awful to have your education derailed or to lose your job because of the pandemic. But it's not awful to live with your parents during emerging adulthood. Like most of the rest of family life, it's a mixed bag: It's a pain in some ways, and rewarding in others.
In a national survey of 18-to-29-year-olds I directed before the pandemic, 76% of them agreed that they get along better with their parents now than they did in adolescence, but almost the same majority – 74% – agreed, "I would prefer to live independently of my parents, even if it means living on a tight budget."
Parents express similar ambivalence. In a separate national survey I directed, 61% of parents who had an 18-to-29-year-old living at home were "mostly positive" about that living arrangement, and about the same percentage agreed that living together resulted in greater emotional closeness and companionship with their emerging adults. On the other hand, 40% of the parents agreed that having their emerging adults at home meant worrying about them more, and about 25% said it resulted in more conflict and more disruption to their daily lives.
As much as most parents enjoy having their emerging adults around, they tend to be ready to move on to the next stage of their lives when their youngest kid reaches their 20s. They have plans they've been delaying for a long time – to travel, to take up new forms of recreation and perhaps to retire or change jobs.
Those who are married often view this new phase as a time to get to know their spouse again – or as a time to admit their marriage has run its course. Those who are divorced or widowed can now have an overnight guest without worrying about scrutiny from their adult child at the breakfast table the next morning.
My wife, Lene, and I have direct experience to draw on with our 20-year-old twins, who came home in March after their colleges closed, an experience shared with millions of students nationwide. I'll admit we were enjoying our time as a couple before they moved back in, but nevertheless it was a delight having them unexpectedly return, as they are full of love and add so much liveliness to the dinner table.
Now the fall semester has started and our daughter, Paris, is still home taking her courses via Zoom, whereas our son, Miles, has returned to college. We're savoring these months with Paris. She has a great sense of humor and makes an excellent Korean tofu rice bowl. And we all know it won't last.
That's something worth remembering for all of us during these strange times, especially for parents and emerging adults who find themselves sharing living quarters again. It won't last.
You could see this unexpected change as awful, as a royal pain and daily stress. Or you could see it as one more chance to get to know each other as adults, before the emerging adult sails once again over the horizon, this time never to return.