Understanding Young People's Experiences and Perceptions of Relational Bullying: a Mixed Methods Study
Chester, Kayleigh Louise
Aim This research sought to understand the experience and perception of relational bullying among young people in England. Background Bullying among young people has been widely acknowledged as a public health concern. Bullying behaviours can be categorised as physical, verbal, relational and cyber. Relational bullying causes harm through the systematic manipulation and damage of peer relationships and may include behaviours such as rumour spreading and social exclusion. Evidence indicates relational bullying can be detrimental for young people’s wellbeing, but it is often considered to be less harmful than other forms of bullying. Wider perceptions among adults and young people suggest these behaviours are commonly not defined as bullying, particularly in a UK context. Further, relational bullying has traditionally been perceived as a female form of aggression. The way in which relational bullying is perceived is likely to influence detection and intervention efforts; considering the potential negative outcomes for young people, relational bullying warranted further exploration from the perspective of young people themselves. The social-ecological theory has been applied within the study of bullying as it acknowledges the social context in which these behaviours happen; the social-ecological theory may be particularly pertinent to the study of relational bullying which often occurs among friendship groups. Methods The social-ecological theory was adopted as a guiding theoretical framework, positioning young people central in the research. A sequential mixed methods approach was employed, with the quantitative methodology playing a dominant role. Secondary analysis of data from 5335 young people (aged 11, 13 and 15 years old) who participated in the 2014 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study in England was undertaken. Descriptive statistics established the prevalence and demographic picture of relational bullying. A series of three multilevel regression models examined the association between relational bullying and three health and wellbeing outcomes: general self-rated health, health related quality of life (HRQL) and life satisfaction. A fourth multilevel regression model identified factors from the ecologies of young people which helped them to successfully navigate relational bullying. The quantitative findings informed 11 face-to-face interviews with young people (aged 12-18 years), providing a unique opportunity to gain in-depth insight into young people’s perspective of relational bullying and the factors which they perceived as influencing the navigation of relational bullying. Results The quantitative analysis identified 16.6% of the young people (13.7% of boys and 19.7% of girls) had experienced relational bullying in the ‘past couple of months’ prior to the survey. Multilevel regression models identified a significant association between experiencing relational bullying and reporting poorer health and wellbeing outcomes, whilst controlling for other forms of bullying and demographic variables. Possessing positive attributes in relation to body image, general self-efficacy, family activities and family support significantly increased the odds of reporting improved wellbeing amongst those who experienced weekly relational bullying. Thematic analysis of qualitative data resonated with the quantitative findings, also illustrating the harmful effects of relational bullying and identifying internal (e.g. personal wellbeing) and external (e.g. the family) resources which young people perceived as supporting them through relational bullying. Further, the qualitative findings provided insight into the perspectives and experiences of young people, including the role of social media and friends in relational bullying. Both the quantitative and qualitative findings were united in order to inform the development of the Young People’s Relational Bullying model, which provides a visual illustration of how young people experience and perceive this form of bullying. Conclusions Relational bullying is significantly associated with the health and wellbeing of young people. Bullying interventions, and those which help enable young people to manage friendships and peer relationships successfully, are likely to have considerable reach in terms of improving the health of young people. The results challenge the assumption of relational bullying as a female problem, with both boys and girls reporting equal levels of distress from relational bullying. The research identifies factors from the young person’s perspective which may help and hinder the navigation of relational bullying - the family plays a crucial role in mitigating the negative effects, supported by both the quantitative and qualitative results. The Young People’s Relational Bullying model provides a framework for understanding relational bullying, with a focus on the young person’s perspective. Considering wider inconsistent understandings of relational bullying it was important to recognise how young people themselves experience these behaviours. While this study specifically focused on relational bullying, the results are likely to have relevance to other forms of bullying.
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