Bullying beliefs challenged

Oct 02, 2003, vol. 28, no. 3
By Carol Thorbes

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Sherry Van Blyderveen's master of arts thesis in psychology is already changing conventionally held beliefs about school bullying.

Even before the graduand has crossed convocation mall this fall to receive her degree, she is fielding media and research queries about Peer Victimization in British Columbia Youth.

Her study is one of the first to look at several novel risk factors and outcomes associated with youth becoming victims of their peers.

Van Blyderveen's research isolates disability and body size (underweight/overweight) as risk factors in bullying.

Van Blyderveen (left), a Burnaby resident originally from Burgessville, Ontario, found that ethnicity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status are not key risk factors for peer victimization.

“I think all of us tend to theorize why youth are bullied by their peers based on what we believe are risk factors,” says Van Blyderveen. “My study tested those beliefs.”

Van Blyderveen is one of the first researchers to specifically study changes in peer victimization among youth in grades 7-12. She found that peer victimization peaks in Grade 9, when students are usually aged 14.

“I think it has to do with the fact that Grade 9 is the transition year from middle to high school and is potentially stressful,” theorizes Van Blyderveen.

She also found that students who have good relationships with teachers, not just parents, are less likely to be victimized.

“My sense is that both of these types of relationships help kids learn how to relate socially to others, including their peers,” says Van Blyderveen.

She notes that victims of bullying are more likely to display several problems - suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, poor general physical health, drug use, poor body image, eating disorders and poor academic performance.

“Whenever a kid has any one of these behaviours it should raise a red flag for parents or teachers that something is wrong,” cautions Van Blyderveen.

“Kids who are depressed or socially withdrawn are often overlooked because they don't pose a problem in the classroom.”

Her conclusions are based on an analysis of an adolescent health survey conducted every few years by the McCreary Centre society, a non-profit organization researching youth health in B.C.

The society's sample size - almost 26,000 male/female students, grades 7-12, aged 12 to 19 in B.C. private and public schools - lends credibility to Van Blyderveen's results. It represents 10 per cent of B.C.'s student population.

The survey asked young people the number of times annually they experienced direct physical and verbal attacks, and physical threats (verbal but implied physical harm).

Now pursuing her doctoral research in psychology at SFU, Van Blyderveen is exploring the extent to which certain clusters of risk and outcome factors are predictive of peer victimization.

Van Blyderveen hopes to publish an academic article based on her master's findings. She has created a public summary of her findings, which will appear on the McCreary Centre society's website.

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