The researchers engaged groups of influential students in 56 New Jersey middle schools to spread messages about the dangers of bullying and school conflict.

Using messaging platforms such as Instagram, print posters and colourful wristbands, the selected students were encouraged to discuss in their own voices positive ways to handle conflict, using terms with which their peers could identify.

The research team wanted to test whether certain students, who they label 'social referents' or social influencers, have an outsized influence over school climate or the social norms and behavioural patterns in their schools.

These social referents were not necessarily the most popular kids school-wide, but rather students who demonstrate influence within their smaller peer group.

All activities were designed to test whether, by making their anti-conflict stance well known, these social influencers could shape their peers' behaviours and social norms.

In the course of a year, the middle schools that employed social referents saw a 30 percent reduction in student conflict reports.

The study was published in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

 

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