Schoolyard Blues: Impact of Gossip and Bullying

Children who are shut out at school face more challenges academically and socially.

What the Research Shows

Physical and verbal bullying can be serious problems in children's social lives, but psychologists are finding that other, more subtle forms of peer maltreatment can also wreak havoc on adjustment. Recent studies of peer exclusion and malicious gossip shed light not only on the harmful impact of social snubs, but also how these behaviors change as children mature.

First, social exclusion by peers can send kids spiraling down both socially and academically. A 2006 longitudinal study of 380 students from ages five to 11 years old found that children rejected by their peers are more likely to withdraw from classroom activities and suffer academically. Children who are shut out start trying to avoid classrooms and school to spare themselves more pain.

The 2006 study, by Buhs, Ladd and Herald, also tried to answer a chicken-egg question. It had been thought that children rejected the shy or withdrawn among them. This study, however, showed that exclusion can independently add to or increase the problems linked to social withdrawal. What's more, peer rejection appeared in this study to be one of the strongest predictors of a child's academic success.

Other studies have looked at the role of gossip and rumor, which are not ordinarily used maliciously. In fact, research suggests that when younger children who are close friends gossip, they're usually just venting and bonding - 93 percent of the time, they don't mean to hurt anyone.

However, gossip gone bad can be devastating to its targets. This form of social aggression, according to psychologist Marion Underwood, PhD, hurts the giver and the taker. Underwood has found that for children, being victimized by social aggression (including gossip) is associated with poor self-concept, especially for girls. Other studies show that victimization is associated with loneliness, depression and anxiety.

The pattern changes as children grow up. Psychologists Antonius Cillessen, PhD, and Lara Mayeux, PhD, followed 905 children from the ages of 10 to 14. Those who others rated as socially aggressive - for spreading gossip about peers or intentionally excluding others from games - are more popular at the young end of the age range. That may be because children can use gossip to form social alliances, just like adults. However, heavy gossip backfires by early in high school. Popular fifth-graders, who rated high in gossip, were also well liked by their peers, but by ninth grade, popularity and likeability were negatively correlated to gossip.

What the Research Means

Rejection hurts. Although not as visible as bullying, exclusion forecloses social opportunities in the classroom and leads its victims to withdraw even further, with implications not only for their social skills but also their academic performance.

At the same time, schoolyard gossiping waxes and wanes. The rumor mill seems to be most active in middle school, the peak years for adolescent relational aggression. For children and parents dealing with middle-school social issues, relief is just around the corner. By the start of high school, negative gossip turns kids off and loses its social power.

How We Use the Research

Confirming that social exclusion leads to social withdrawal, not the other way around, should help teacher, parents and students not to blame the victim but rather address the true cause of the problem - other kids' rejection. And when it comes to gossip, one study found a way to cut it off before things get bad. Donna Eder, PhD, recorded the lunchtime chat of 78 middle-school students. When a teen offered up a bit of gossip, others responded encouragingly about 80 percent of the time, confirming and even elaborating on the information. Once that happened, other kids rarely disagreed. However, if someone countered the gossip right away, the others were more likely to dissent. Refuting rumor or gossip right away may well clear the social air.

Cited Research

Buhs, E., Ladd, G., & Herald, S. (2006). Peer exclusion and victimization: Processes that mediate the relation between peer group rejection and children's classroom engagement and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1).

Cillessen, A. H. N., & Mayeux, L. (2004). From censure to reinforcement: Developmental changes in the association between aggression and social status. Child Development, 75, 147-163.

Dingfelder, S. F. (2006, April). Whispers as weapons. APA Monitor on Psychology, 62-63.

Eder, D. (1991). The structure of gossip: Opportunities and constraints on collective expression among adolescents. American Sociological Review, 54(4),494-508.

Underwood, M. K. (2003). Social aggression among girls. New York: The Guilford Press.

American Psychological Association, March 29, 2006