Bullying can have a damaging effect on children’s health and wellbeing. Attempts to prevent such aggressive behaviour in schools have not always been successful. ERC grantee Christina Salmivalli is unravelling the factors at play in persistent bullying and victimisation. Her research combines longitudinal data with genetic risk analysis and video experiments to deepen the understanding of this painful social phenomenon.
A few decades ago, Christina Salmivalli and her team pioneered the now widely used KiVa anti-bullying program, which offers evidence-based materials and tools for schools to tackle bullying. Her ERC-funded project CHALLENGE looks at the continuing difficulties. “Anti-bullying interventions in schools are effective in reducing the prevalence of bullying, but they do not erase the problem completely. There are too many children still suffering,” she says.
Salmivalli points to what she calls the healthy context paradox. “Our recent studies show that in a context where the overall level of bullying has gone down, those who continue to be victimised are even more maladjusted. They cope less well compared to children who are bullied in a school where many others are also targeted.”
The adverse effects for victims’ adjustment in schools with strong anti-bullying norms inspired her ERC-funded research: why do some children continue to bully others? What went wrong for those who remain victim of abuse? Salmivalli: “We want to understand how typical those failures are, and what are the different factors that explain them. Perhaps certain personal characteristics put some children more at risk of persistent victimisation than others. Maybe it is the classroom context or the home-school collaboration, or the intervention itself, and how adults were addressing the bullying.”
CHALLENGE uses video vignettes to register children’s responses to interventions. Salmivalli: “We have recorded videos with teachers who are talking to a student who has been bullying a peer. The teachers take different approaches. In some videos, they tell the students to stop bullying immediately because it is not acceptable in school. In other videos, the teacher takes a more empathetic approach and says, ‘there is a classmate, who is having a hard time, and probably feels afraid to come to school. Certain things have happened, and maybe you can do something to help this student.’ We show these videos to students. We ask them to imagine that they have been bullying a peer, and to tell us how they perceive the teacher in the video; what emotions they would experience in the situation; how strong their intention would be to stop bullying after the discussion.”
“Of course, the ecological validity of these video experiments is not very high because the students speak about an imaginary situation”, Salmivalli continues. “For this reason, we are also collecting longitudinal data in 36 Finnish schools over a period of several years. We have developed a mobile app through which teachers are reporting each case of bullying in which they intervene. We have instructed them to use different approaches when they speak to children who have been bullying others, similar to the videos. In this way, we can collect real life data about how children respond.“
Besides behavioural aspects, CHALLENGE explores the interaction between genetics and a child’s susceptibility to the effects of a bullying intervention. Psychological traits have a high degree of genetic influence, which means that there are factors within a child which evoke being victims or cause them to be bullies.
“We are taking saliva samples from young adults who took part in the KiVa anti-bullying programme when they were school-aged children”, Salmivalli explains. “From these samples, we extract their DNA to calculate their polygenetic risk scores. These are estimates of an individual’s chance, based on their genetics, to develop depression or anti-social behaviour or some other risk factors for victimisation or for aggressive behaviour. Since their genes have not changed since their childhood, we can compare the genetic risk to the KiVa data we collected 13 years ago. We look at the effects of the KiVA intervention, and how it might moderate genetic risk.”
By looking at factors that make the failure of bullying prevention more likely, Salmivalli and her team hope to make a leap forward towards understanding persistent bullying. “I have been researching bullying for a long time”, she says. “Digging deeper to try to understand what we need to do better, and how we can tailor existing approaches to fit the different needs of children, has become very important to me. We are collecting data in many schools, over the years, so we are actually tracking the interventions that are taking place. What approaches work the best for which child? We are looking at how children’s individual characteristics affect their susceptibility to different intervention approaches. For me, this research is the next big step forward.”
Christina Salmivalli is a professor of psychology and the deputy head of the INVEST Flagship at the University of Turku in Finland. She earned her doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Turku in 1998. Her research, on social and personality factors of school bullying, won the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters doctoral dissertation award in 1999. In 2017, she was the recipient of the Finnish Science Award. Salmivalli has held several visiting professorships, including positions at the University of Stavanger in Norway, at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, and at Shandong Normal University in Jinan, China.