Research Spotlight – Adolescent Bullying and Moral Disengagement

Our study sought to examine the relationship between moral disengagement and bullying over time in an adolescent sample. Moral disengagement occurs when an individual uses cognitive mechanisms to justify immoral behavior so they may achieve absolved guilt for their actions. The study assessed moral disengagement and bully behavior longitudinally over three semesters for students in fifth to ninth grade. Because previous literature has suggested the strong link between bullying and moral disengagement, it was of interest to determine whether moral disengagement was a precursor to bullying, whether bullying was a precursor to moral disengagement, or if the variables had a reciprocal relationship. It was also of interest to determine whether grade and gender predicted these variables over time.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Moral disengagement was found to predict bullying sixth months later. Males and older students used a greater amount of moral disengagement than females and younger students. Males participated in a greater amount of bullying perpetration. Although in general older students engaged in less bullying, older students who reported higher levels of moral disengagement at Time 2 actually engaged in more bullying behavior at Time 3.

How are these findings important in practice?

Our study demonstrates the strong relationship between moral disengagement and bullying using a developmental perspective. Thus, moral disengagement is an important social-cognitive variable to consider when designing interventions to target bullying at schools. In implementing bullying prevention and intervention strategies, it is important for teachers and parents to focus on males as well as older students who show higher levels of moral disengagement. Anti-bullying interventions also need to be developmentally appropriate for different age groups. For example, for middle school students who care deeply about peer acceptance and loyalty to friends, talking about peer influences on bullying will be a good moral dilemma to discuss.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

In order to increase the generalization of our findings, future studies should include more minority students and recruit from urban and rural schools. Because student self-report data was used to assess bully perpetration in the current study, peer and teacher nominations are also recommended to ensure perpetrators are not being underreported due to social desirability. More longitudinal work over a longer period of time and with a larger sample size are also warranted to assess the mediation effects with greater precision.

Link to the primary paper

Wang, C, Ryoo, J. H., Swearer, S. M., Turner, R., & Goldberg, T. S. (2016). Longitudinal relationships between bullying and moral disengagement among adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1007/s10964-016-0577-0

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Latest update: January 28, 2017
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