Youths beware of bullying by best friends

We wouldn’t expect best friends to bully each other – but they can in unexpected ways. Sometimes, bullying behaviour by young people that would usually be considered harmful is accepted by a victim, because they greatly value the closeness of their friendship.

However, Flinders University researchers have found that it’s the less potent instances of bullying that matter most – with victims identifying the pain of relational bullying from best friends, such as spreading rumours or exclusion, being especially harmful to them.

The Global Results of Peer Aggression and Wellbeing Study conducted by Flinders University researchers Dr Grace Skrzypiec and Dr Mirella Wyra has found that spreading rumours or exclusion by best friends results in greater harm to victims than if the same type of bullying was instigated by someone else.

This has implications for the future development of young people and how they conduct themselves in future relationships into their adult lives.

“When there is an emotional investment in a relationship, bullying from best friends can be explained away by a victim as not being intentional or harmful and as just joking around,” says Dr Skrzypiec. “However, when the bullying involves being excluded or spreading rumours by a best friend, it is not so easily dismissed and in fact is more harmful to the individual than if they were excluded or had a rumour spread by someone else.

“This has implications for the way in which young people who are bullied by best friends learn to behave in significant relationships – and also how some young people learn to manipulate relationships, such as romantic relationships.

“If there is an emotional investment and trust between young friends, they are dismissive of low-level abuse – or the perpetrators realise they can get away with low levels of abuse.”

Dr Skrzypiec says experiences of this kind could predispose young people to domestic violence, and she says further research is needed to assess this possibility.

“It may be that adolescents do not take such aggression seriously, even perhaps ignore it, when the aggressor is a best friend. It may be that there is a desire to maintain a best friend relationship and this weakens any perceived harm associated with non-relational aggression.”

The study – “Harmful Peer Aggression in Four World Regions: Relationship between Aggressed and Aggressor,” published by the Journal of School Violence (DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2020.1808789 – found that 65% of students affirmed experiences of peer aggression, with 57.7% saying they had experienced peer aggression that was harmful. The data was sourced from a sample of 6,864 students aged 11-16, from 12 countries.

Contrary to the researcher’s expectations, young people in all locations were less likely to report having been harmed through aggression by a best friend or by someone with whom they had no relationship at all. The only exceptions were in South Korea and Taiwan, both of which had the lowest levels of aggression.

The Flinders researchers are now about to launch a new study that will investigate how these figures have changed since the COVID-19 lockdown. “There is no excuse for bullying, teasing and ostracising individuals, particularly innocent young people, during the fear and panic over the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Skrzypiec. “In unusual times, such as these, we should remind ourselves to be thoughtful and kind to others, and do what we can to facilitate harmony and a peaceful co-existence with our families and within our communities.”

The study found that when young people are repeatedly harmed through peer aggression and bullying, one in seven (14.2%) of these victims of peer aggression were also aggressors – perpetuating a vicious cycle of bullying.

Generally, males showed a greater propensity to be involved in peer aggression than females, while the likelihood of not being involved in any peer aggression increased with age.

The report also found that young people repeatedly harmed through peer aggression were the least likely to flourish, although the effect of harmful peer aggression on a person’s wellbeing was moderated by resilience and global self-concept.

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