UB psychologist to study friendship and victimization in adolescents

An adolescent girl in the foreground looking at a phone while another group of adolescent girls, also using phones, look at her in an unfriendly way.

Release Date: May 20, 2024

Julie Bowker, PhD, professor of psychology at UB.
“These experiences are impactful, but they might look different from what we know about what happens in school. ”
Julie Bowker, PhD, professor of psychology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Julie Bowker, PhD, a professor of psychology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, has received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate previously unexplored aspects of friendships and peer victimization experiences during early adolescence.

Peers profoundly impact the psychological health of adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14. Victimization contributes to many psychological difficulties. Friendships can foster well-being. It’s a critical point in the life course, but clinicians, counselors and researchers are hampered by the limitations found in the current literature.

Previous research in this area has mostly collected information during the school year and within the school setting. That work has produced meaningful results, but the social world of adolescents is much bigger than just the classroom and playground.

And that’s where Bowker’s study will distinguish itself from earlier work.

“We know virtually nothing about adolescents’ peer experiences during the summer,” says Bowker, the grant’s principal investigator and an expert in interpersonal relationships and emotional development in adolescence. “We also don’t know much about friendship and victimization in the neighborhood or in after-school activities.

“These experiences are impactful, but they might look different from what we know about what happens in school.”

To capture a broader sweep of adolescent life, Bowker will use a novel approach to study these influential adolescent experiences by collecting her data from a diverse sample at various times and across multiple locations. Using this kind of context-dependent model will provide her lab with insights that promote a more complete understanding of adolescent peer experiences. Bowker will examine what she calls “the where, when and what” of friendship and victimization.

It’s entirely new ground in this field. And better understanding the safe spaces and hot spots for victimization could help steer youth away from risky places and guide them toward positive peer experiences.

“It’s a transformative project that can lead to the improvement and development of specific clinical interventions, while also providing details about the contexts in which best friends can be most helpful and harmful,” she says. “Uncertainty about where these experiences are happening, when they’re occurring, and what specifically is going on has made it difficult for clinicians to understand what to target or leverage to have the greatest impact.

“This study will address those shortcomings and through the diversity of our sample, give us information on the specific needs of marginalized groups.”

The project began with a community recruitment of 300 participants.

The participants are shown how to complete the study’s measures online, either on a smartphone or PC. Surveys and daily diaries will provide Bowker with data where interactions take place, the nature of the experience, the time of day and point in the week.

“This study will also add to our limited knowledge about potential ‘summer slides’ in friendship support,” says Bowker. “We’ll have new information about moving into the summer, when young adolescents who can’t drive and are dependent on their parents for peer interaction might not have the same contact with friends. This could mean that many young adolescents experience a decrease in friendship support during the summer months.

“If that’s the case, then it would tell us that perhaps school counselors should provide booster sessions about how to increase support and re-establish connections when students transition back into the school year.”

The project began in 2023 and will continue to 2026. Bowker says she’s looking forward to the next two years of this rewarding project.

“We have great diversity in our Western New York schools, in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status,” she says. “This allows us to capture many demographic differences within early adolescence and we’ll be able to have a clearer picture about the differences that matter for understanding friendship and victimization.”

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