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Over the 2012-2013 academic year, schools with students promoting the anti-bullying messages had a 30 percent drop in reports of student conflicts, the researchers found.
Schools with the largest numbers of these "social influencers" had the largest declines in student conflict, the findings showed.
The study included students from 56 New Jersey middle schools who had strong social influence within their peer groups. These kids weren't always the most popular kids in a particular grade, but had influence in their peer group.
The investigators selected the teens using a tool called social network mapping that allowed them to identify the kids who had the most connections, both online and off.
The researchers asked the kids to spread messages about the dangers of bullying and more positive ways about handling conflict. These anti-bullying messages were promoted through methods such as Instagram, print posters and colorful wristbands.
The study was published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We designed our own curriculum because current programs address problems as defined by adults, and they aren't necessarily fitted to each individual school environment," lead author Elizabeth Levy Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, said in a university news release.
"We think the best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices. Encouraging their own messages to bubble up from the bottom using a grassroots approach can be very powerful," she added.
Paluck said the innovation in this study came from using student social networks to choose kids to spread more positive messaging.
"When adults choose student leaders, they typically pick the 'good' kids. But the leaders we find through social network mapping are influential among students and are not all the ones who would be selected by adults. Some of the students we find are right smack in the center of student conflicts. But the point is, these are the students whose behavior gets noticed more," she explained.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Princeton University, news release, Jan. 4, 2016