Research News

UB researchers taking new approach to reduce teen bullying, sexual harassment

Teen girl supporting sad crying friend in school setting.

Bystander intervention training empowers peers who see and hear about incidents of bullying or sexual harassment to get involved, whether by reporting the incident or trying to help the person directly by making sure they are safe and/or supporting them.


Published November 5, 2019

headshot of Amanda Nickerson.
“We’re taking some approaches — the social norms, the bystander intervention — that are being used at college and university campuses … and integrating them a little earlier with the hope this may be something that adolescents can connect with. ”
Amanda Nickerson, director
Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention

UB’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention has earned a $1.38 million grant to develop and test an approach to reduce bullying and sexual harassment in high schools.

The three-year grant responds to what Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center, says was a need to find more effective programs designed to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in adolescents.

The grant awarded by the Institute of Education Sciences will support development of a social norms campaign and bystander intervention training to reduce bullying and sexual harassment in high schools. Essential to the approach is going into high schools to get feedback from adolescents who are considered to be peer leaders.

“A recent study looking at the effects of all the prevention programs found bullying prevention can be effective in elementary school, but starting at grade seven, we’re not doing so well,” says Nickerson, principal investigator for the IES grant and inaugural director of the Alberti Center. She has become a prominent national spokeswoman on bullying, school violence and the effect on victims.

“And when you get to eighth grade and high school, it looks like some of these programs are even perhaps doing some harm.

“In some ways,” she says, “this study is in response to that.”

New approach needed for adolescents

The three-year study being done in conjunction with UB’s Department of Communication and School of Nursing goes to the source of the issue: teenagers attending high school, and in particular influential peer leaders. The approach seeks to avoid the mistakes of previous studies on preventing bullying.

“Having a program that says ‘Bullying is bad, and don’t do this’ and ‘Listen to us about what else you could be doing’ … the thought is students are not going to respond to that,” Nickerson says.

“They need something that is going to be student-led, student-driven, uses their input, and really gets the dynamic of the situation for them.”

While the top-down, traditional bullying prevention programs don’t work as well in adolescence, these “bystander intervention approaches,” which are being used in colleges and universities to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, show better results, according to Nickerson.

“The idea behind bystander intervention is we will try to empower the people, the friends, the peers who see and hear things happening,” she says. “Then we hope to teach them the skills to safely and effectively get involved. Whether that be indirectly by reporting it, or directly by trying to help in the situation and getting someone safe and/or supporting the person that it’s happening to.”

The first year of the grant is focused on developing and testing the social norms campaign, Nickerson says, where researchers try to determine students’ attitudes, behaviors surrounding bullying and sexual harassment, and intervening as a bystander. The researchers then will share the data with the students, telling them “this is what the kids in your school are saying,” Nickerson says. “They are saying they don’t think this is OK or the most effective way to intervene is to do this.

“The idea behind this is if we challenge people’s thinking, if they have evidence that shows ‘Oh, this is what other kids in my school are actually saying. This isn’t just a random campaign. This is something from my peers.’ … if those messages are out there and promoted, that may start to change their way of thinking and attitudes, and hopefully their behavior.”

The second year will focus on bystander intervention training, which aims to teach a select group of peers how to recognize bullying situations, how to accept responsibility for intervening, and teaching them different actions to take when they come into contact with bullying behavior, Nickerson says.

The third year will test the first two parts — the social norms campaign and the bystander intervention training — in a separate school, comparing the results to a school that does not have this program.

Work to be done at Williamsville high schools

The three high schools chosen for the research are in the Williamsville School District. Researchers will spend the first two years at Williamsville East, which will be the development school. Work during the third year will take place at Williamsville North and South, where researchers will test what they have developed the first two years at Williamsville East. Work on the grant began in July and continues this semester at Williamsville East. The three-year grant will end in December 2022.

Nickerson says the grant is especially valuable because it is interdisciplinary, involving UB’s Department of Communication and the School of Nursing.

“There is so much potential for this grant to make an important difference in identifying replicable methods to reduce bullying and sexual harassment in this age group,” says Thomas Feeley, co-investigator and professor in the Department of Communication.

“First, the use of social norms campaigns is proven to be a powerful method to influence peers’ prosocial behaviors. Social norms tell students what their peers are thinking and doing, and are often influential in shaping their future behavior,” Feeley says.

“Another interesting aspect of this grant is our suggestion to use ‘central’ kids to seed messaging about intervening when they observe harmful behavior. We hope to use social network measures to identify kids in the school who a majority of kids relate to and trust for our training program.”

Jennifer Livingston, also co-investigator and associate professor in the School of Nursing, will supervise the sexual harassment part of the grant.

Grant also to address sexual harassment

“Sexual harassment is a common problem in high schools and one that is frequently ignored or overlooked,” she says. “For adolescents, being attacked on the basis of their gender, sexual attraction or sexual desirability can interfere with the healthy development of sexual identity and sexuality. This is particularly perilous for adolescents as they seek to establish romantic and sexual connections with others.”

Livingston says research suggests that those who see themselves as unattractive, unlovable or valuable only as an object of desire may be more likely to engage in high risk behavior, including substance use, dating violence and risky sex.

“Cultivating an atmosphere of respect and responsibility in our high schools is critical to students’ health and safety,” she says.

Nickerson notes that bullying continues to be an issue across the country. And the sexual harassment component of the grant is especially valuable, she adds.

“You don’t need to go any further than the news or Twitter, especially in the last two years with the #MeToo movement, to know this is an issue that is not going away and is very pervasive,” she says.  “Quite frankly, we don’t pay as much attention to that, especially in K-12 schools.

“Part of what I think is exciting about this grant is we’re taking some approaches — the social norms, the bystander intervention — that are being used at college and university campuses to address related issues and integrating them a little earlier with the hope this may be something that adolescents can connect with.”