Finding a link between humour and bullying in schools

Thursday, 09 May 2013


Psychologist Siân Jones has found a link between styles of humour schoolchildren use and the likelihood they will be bullied in a project she hopes could help combat bullying.

There’s a clear link between the type of humour a child uses and their susceptibility to being bullied by their peers, according to the major new study project headed by Dr. Claire Fox at Keele University, alongside Oxford Brookes and the University of Strathclyde.

Siân, who joined Oxford Brookes' Department of Psychology, Public Health and Social Work in January from Keele, found children who use self-defeating forms of humour (such as making fun of low points about themselves or criticising themselves to make others laugh) were more likely to be bullied than those who use more positive forms of humour. And if a child is bullied, there is an increase in the use of self-defeating humour over time so victims of bullying are often trapped in a vicious cycle.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the research examined the links between how 11-13 year olds use different styles of humour and the problem of bullying in schools. The two-year study involved 1, 234 children who were questioned at the beginning and end of each school year.

Siân explained: "Self defeating humour is not laughing with others about something problematic that has happened because that's quite positive: it's getting others to laugh at something I see as fundamentally negative about me."

She is now looking at building on the results of the project. The negative use of humour is nurtured behaviour influenced by a child's social environment so it is hoped the next steps will be to see whether it is possible to teach children how to use humour to enhance their resilience.

It should also be possible to train teachers in this area. "This is something that can be passed onto teachers to stamp out bullying. We are very much hoping humour and bullying can be integrated into teacher training programmes, maybe by raising teachers' awareness of children in their class behaving in that way. This could be a red light to them."

Siân's interest in this field grew out of her work into group dynamics and social identity theory: "Social identity has a role in the maintenance and resistance of bullying. Children may bully each other as a way of belonging to a group. But equally, if a group gets angry together because one of them is getting bullied they feel more ready to help that victim.

"It's about the role of self-esteem in bullying and how lonely children feel, as well as humour use. We know that friends are important, too, because having lots of friends can really buffer children from the negative effects of bullying. So the questions I'm asking are about who the child's friends are, and what humour they are using."

Four types of humour used by children identified in the study

Positive humour
• Self-enhancing humour, e.g. 'If I am feeling scared I find that it helps to laugh'.
• Affiliative, e.g. 'I often make other people laugh by telling jokes and funny stories'.

Negative humour
• Self-defeating, e.g. 'I often try to get other people to like me more by saying something funny about things that are wrong with me or mistakes that I make'.
• Aggressive, e.g. 'If someone makes a mistake I will often tease them about it'.

You can find Siân's blog about the project on these web pages.