The severity of and intentionality behind bullying go hand in hand to predict negative mental health effects on bullying victims, according to recently published research out of Clemson University.
Skye Wingate, an assistant professor in Clemson’s Department of Communication, found that when bullying messages were severe — whether they occurred frequently or not — and the victim perceived those messages to be about innate characteristics that victims cannot change (race, gender, sexuality), the effects on mental health were the most negative for the victim.
The research, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, is novel because of its examination of bullying severity and intention as opposed to the frequency of bullying, which is often the metric used when examining the effects of bullying on a victim.
“The frequency of bullying is certainly important, and our study still accounted for it, but I wanted to establish a more nuanced indicator or methodology to get at the unique levels of intensity within bullying experiences,” Wingate said. “No two communications or situations are the same, so I felt that we should tap into that complex aspect a little more.”
Wingate and research assistants collected data using surveys from college-age students and then coded their responses to open-ended questions to gauge levels of bullying severity and then levels of the victim’s emotional reaction, hurt, depression and general anxiety.
Wingate also assessed the perceived goals of the bully, separating them into three different categories: upward-mobility goals, personal-attacking goals and highlight-differences goals. Bullies with upward-mobility goals often used attacks to “climb the social ladder” by ridiculing peers. Personal attacks were often motivated by revenge or envy. Targeting someone to highlight differences covers a wide range of reasons, from the victim being perceived as “not an average person” to them not conforming to a social norm.
Coded responses provided the data that revealed the relationship between all of these factors. Wingate said the topic contains so many variables and exceptions that boiling it down to a simple equation or predicted outcome is impossible, but the data can begin to reveal how these factors relate to one another.
“Calling this a complicated topic in the field of communication is an understatement,” Wingate said. “You have to consider multiple perspectives, the actual intention and the perception of it. But it’s clear to me that you can trust recollection more than one might think; memory isn’t perfect, but you’d be surprised how many respondents remember what was said to them in exact, quotable detail. Those severe attacks stuck with them, and it shows.”
Wingate said the results suggest that severity and goal inferences are moderating factors in mental health outcomes stemming from bullying. She said these findings may be the most useful for coping or prevention programs designed to counsel victims of bullying or prevent it from getting out of hand in various settings.
“If a counselor recognizes how a person feels and more importantly sees how a victim appraises a situation, they can then work to change the inference the victim has about the bully’s intention,” Wingate said. “This makes it easier to reframe a situation and promote a narrative that we’ve seen is less hurtful — such as a personal attack or something motivated by envy — as opposed to something aimed at a quality a person can’t change.”
Wingate is encouraged by the findings of the study and sees it as a launch pad for future work, specifically in areas of severity and intention behind bullying behavior. For example, she looks forward to follow-up studies that tease apart the ways in which a victim makes inferences about the bullying behavior they’ve encountered.
Wingate began exploring the topic of cyberbullying as a volunteer research assistant at the University of Alabama. Through her research, Wingate encountered the story of Jamey Rodemeyer, a teenage activist against homophobia and homophobic bullying who committed suicide in September 2011 due to bullying he experienced online. This and other incidents motivated Wingate to examine the effects bullying have on victims and the gaps in current research that might be filled in from a communication and message content perspective.
Joseph Mazer, professor and chair of the Department of Communication in the Clemson University College of Behavioral Social and Health Sciences, said Wingate’s research sheds light on an all-too-common negative communication behavior. Mazer said Wingate’s bullying research through the lens of communication aligns with the College’s mission to positively impact people and communities.
Mazer said this field has only become more complicated since the introduction of social media and its increase in cyberbullying, which allows bullies to launch attacks anonymously and gives victims little respite from their torment.
“The perception of bullying has shifted from being a normal part of growing up to a pressing social and public health issue,” Mazer said. “Professor Wingate’s research helps us better understand how these hurtful messages function through technology and affect communication between and among people and communities.”
The Department of Communication is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.
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