Moral disengagement and bullying behaviour

Moral disengagement and bullying behaviour

What was the aim of this research?

Bullying is a significant problem in schools and often results in a range of negative outcomes, such as anxiety and depression. It involves different types of behaviours such as physical (eg. being kicked), verbal (eg. being teased, called names), social (eg. rumours, negative gossip, mean facial expressions), or online (eg. cyber-bullying). This research was focussed on social bullying, which occurs when a child feels powerless to stop harmful behaviours that intentionally and repeatedly damage that child’s self-esteem and social status.

The first aim of this research was to examine whether moral disengagement occurs in social bullying. Moral disengagement occurs when students rationalise and justify their bullying behaviours. Young people monitor and evaluate their behaviour in terms of their own moral standards. Their self-worth is enhanced when they behave in line with their moral standards, while self-blaming occurs when they behave in a way that is inconsistent with their moral standards. Moral disengagement occurs when they are able to remove the blame even when their behaviour is not consistent with their morale standards. For example, an adolescent may justify excluding others by saying that it doesn’t really cause the person any harm. This process of disengaging from moral standards allows the adolescent to protect themself from negative feelings (eg. shame, guilt) associated with bullying.

The second aim of the research was to examine whether students who justify social bullying (by using moral disengagement) may promote these harmful behaviours within their very best friendship and whether this would be associated with increased social bullying. Previous research has shown that very best friends can influence their friend’s involvement in a range of aggressive behaviours.

How did we do it?

Seven hundred and ten adolescents (in grades 7 and 9) from eight Sydney high schools completed a survey at school. They were asked questions about social bullying (eg. “have you spread rumours about a kid?”) and moral disengagement (eg. “it is alright to spread rumours about someone who has said mean things about your family”). They were also asked to nominate their very best friend within their grade at their school, and then were asked questions about how positively they viewed this friendship (eg. my very best friend tells me I am good at things”). All adolescents had permission from their parents to complete the survey.

What did we find?

We found that higher levels of moral disengagement were associated with increased social bullying. That is, adolescents who disengaged from their moral standards and justified immoral behaviour, were more likely to socially bully other adolescents. This is one of the first studies to show that moral disengagement is an important factor in social bullying situations.

We also found that the more one’s very best friend justified bullying (through moral disengagement), the more the adolescent was likely to socially bully others. We know from previous research that adolescents who bully can have very close friendships, and that these friendships can contain a lot of positive qualities, such as guidance, companionship, and caring. This study found that adolescents were influenced by their very best friend’s moral disengagement (or justification of bullying) and increased their social bullying, but only when the adolescent had a friendship characterised by these positive features.

What does this mean in practice?

While peer friendships are usually viewed as protecting against the negative effects of social bullying, this research suggests that these friendships can also foster social bullying. It is important for practitioners to address moral disengagement when working with adolescents who bully in social and other harmful ways.

Citation: Fitzpatrick, S., & Bussey. K. (2017). The role of moral disengagement on social bullying in dyadic very best friendships. Journal of School Violence. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/15388220.2017.1355810

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