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New Tactic Could Help Identify Bullies

Update Date: Jul 12, 2012 02:48 PM EDT

This video illustrates the applications of new research led by Douglas Gentile, an ISU associate professor of psychology, on bullying in schools. Video by Alex Murphy, ISU News Service

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide - nearly seven percent have attempted it. According to an ABC News report, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

These statistics are alarming and several states have implemented anti-bullying laws. But, how do high school administrators deal with this rising problem when they sometimes don't even know it's happening.

An Iowa State University researcher, Douglas Gentile, said he has come up with a new tactic that may help school administrators identify students that are aggressive and possibly bully other students.

"As you gain risk factors, the risk of aggression goes up disproportionally," said Gentile, who also runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State. "Having one or two risk factors is no big deal. Kids are resilient -- they can handle it. You get to three and there's a big jump. When you get out past four risk factors, risk is increasing at a much higher rate than you would expect."

One of the risk factors that Gentile focused on was media violence and its effect on children. He studied 430 students in grades 3- 5 between 7 and 11 years old. The children and their teachers were surveyed twice in a school year. Physical aggression was measured using self-reports, peer-nominations and teacher reports of actual violence. Information about the students' three favorite TV shows, video games and movies was recorded including how frequently they watched or played it, and how violent it was..

According to Gentile, the effects of media violence exposure may actually be underestimated by previous scientific measures. They contend the study is one of the first to put several of the pieces together to show how the risk factors work together to predict future aggression.

"This new statistical approach [relative weight analysis] actually allows us to get probably the most accurate assessment of how much each variable [risk factor] contributes to likely aggression, in combination with the others," Gentile said. "It becomes clear that media violence is very similar to other known risk factors."

In addition to media violence exposure, the remaining risk factors are bias toward hostility, low parental involvement, gender, physical victimization and prior physical fights.

"Most of the risk factors for aggression are really hard to change," Gentile said. "You can't easily change whether your child has previously been in a fight or bullied. That's what makes this [media violence] different is that it's actually fairly easy to control compared to most of the other risk factors. But how it acts as a risk factor is exactly the same as all others. It's not the biggest, it's not the smallest, it's actually right there in the middle of the pack."

Gentile said his new approach could help control the bullying pandemic.

"If we are concerned about bullying in schools, then this approach has real world implications for helping to target the kids who are at higher risk for bullying behavior so we could use our limited resources more effectively to reduce bullying in schools," Gentile said. "We could profile kids by measuring their risk factors. In fact, I can get over 80 percent accuracy knowing only three things -- are they a boy, have they gotten in a fight within the past year, and do they consume a lot of media violence? When you get out to having six risk factors, then we can predict with 94 percent accuracy which kids will get into fights in the coming year. We just can't predict which day."

The study was published in the July issue of the Psychology of Popular Media Culture -- a journal by the American Psychological Association .

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