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Adolescents’ Experiences of Peer Victimization Across Middle School: When Do Friends Help Alleviate Distress?

  • Author(s): Schacter, Hannah Lindsay
  • Advisor(s): Juvonen, Jaana
  • et al.

This dissertation consists of three studies examining associations between peer victimization and maladjustment across the middle school years and investigating whether friendships mitigate the distress of victimized adolescents. These studies rely on data drawn from two different longitudinal school-based studies of ethnically diverse early adolescents’ social and psychological adjustment in varying school contexts. Presuming that students who are victimized and friendless are at heightened risk for maladjustment, in Study 1 I investigate whether attending school with prosocial peers can alleviate the psychosocial distress of adolescents who are bullied and have no friends during their first year of middle school. Results from multilevel modeling indicate that being victimized and friendless makes students feel more anxious, lonely, and unsafe a year later when they go to school with less supportive peers; however, friendless victims are protected from distress when their grademates are more prosocial (e.g., stand up for the bullied). The findings suggest that victims without friends can be buffered from socio-emotional difficulties if they receive social provisions similar to those provided by friendships (e.g., support, security) from their peers at school. Extending beyond a focus on whether students have any friends, Study 2 considers the quality and characteristics of adolescents’ best friendships. Perceptions of best friend emotional support and best friend victimization are investigated as moderators of short-term links between victimization and internalizing symptoms in the last year of middle school. It is hypothesized that the protective effects of emotionally supportive friendships vary depending on whether or not youth perceive their best friends as also mistreated by peers. Multivariate multilevel modeling reveals that perceiving a best friend as caring and supportive protects peer victimized boys from feeling more depressed, regardless of whether they think the best friend is also bullied. For girls, perceiving a best friend as emotionally supportive only weakens victimization-internalizing links when girls perceive their best friend as nonvictimized; when bullied girls can rely on and talk about their problems with a best friend who they think is also picked on, they feel more depressed and anxious. The findings suggest that friendships characterized by high levels of support and self-disclosure can generally make adolescents feel less distressed in the face of peer mistreatment, but such intimacy can “backfire” when girls perceive their best friend to be enduring similar social stress. Study 3 builds on Studies 1 and 2 to examine the effects of peer victimization and friends’ victimization on adolescents’ depressive symptoms, somatic complaints, characterological self-blame, and perceived safety across all three years of middle school. Capitalizing on four waves of data, I extend past research on individual differences in victimization and adolescent well-being to investigate whether students feel greater distress during school years when they experience increased victimization (i.e., within-person changes). A central goal is to determine whether these maladaptive associations are mitigated among youth whose friend group experiences more victimization across middle school. Rather than focusing on students’ self-perceptions of a best friend’s victimization (i.e., Study 2), here I examine the average victimization reported by all of adolescents’ nominated friends across 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Results from three-level multilevel models reveal both between- and within-person effects of victimization on adjustment difficulties. Moreover, students are buffered from victimization-related distress (at the between- and within-person level) when they affiliate with friends who are more victimized during middle school. In other words, sharing social plight with friends alleviates victimization-related maladjustment. By considering whether adolescents have friends, the quality of their friendships, and the social experiences of their friends across the middle school years, these studies extend our understanding of the complex ways in which friendships do (and do not) protect victimized youth from distress.

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