Gossip on the Playground: Changes Associated with Universal Intervention, Retaliation Beliefs, and Supportive Friends

By Low, Sabina; Frey, Karin S. et al. | School Psychology Review, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Gossip on the Playground: Changes Associated with Universal Intervention, Retaliation Beliefs, and Supportive Friends


Low, Sabina, Frey, Karin S., Brockman, Callie J., School Psychology Review


Historically, little attention has been paid to sex differences in aggression, but we now recognize that girls are more likely to display aggression in a socially manipulative manner (e.g., rumors, gossip, and social exclusion) compared to physical or verbal forms of aggression. The intent to harm or manipulate someone's social relationships or social status has been referred to as relational aggression (e.g., Crick & Grotpeter, 1995), and other times as indirect (Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992) or social aggression (Underwood, 2003). Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably (Archer & Coyne, 2005), Xie, Swift, B. Cairns, and R. Cairns (2002) point out that some aspects of social aggression are directly confrontational (e.g., social exclusion, insults), whereas others, such as gossip and rumor spreading, are not. In addition, there are important distinctions and discriminations between indirect and relational aggression (see Goldstein, Tisak, & Boxer, 2002). Despite this, very few basic or applied studies attend to these distinctions, leaving us with little knowledge of the ability for prevention programs to target relational forms of aggression. Relational forms of aggression may not have the same tangible harm as physical forms of aggression, but still warrant attention, as victims of relational aggression suffer socially, emotionally, and academically (via school refusal; Crick & Bigbee, 1998; Crick et al., 2001; Crick & Nelson, 2002). Furthermore, relational aggression, just like physical aggression, is more likely to take place within the peer ecology at school, and contribute to a hostile and unsafe environment.

Defining Playground Gossip

Although both physical and relational aggression have overt and covert manifestations, physical aggression is arguably easier to observe (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004). Despite this, there is growing evidence that relational aggression is observable (Goodwin, 1982; Putallaz et al., 2007), and that complex forms of relational aggression, such as malicious gossip, can be captured with observational methodology (Foster, 2004).

The current investigation focuses on malicious playground gossip. Videotapes of playground interaction loaned by Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig indicated that gossip was observable on the playground and occurred relatively frequently in the upper elementary grades. In some circumstances, the gossip was semipublic in nature. A student or students would speak negatively about a third party that was not among the listeners. Group members would laugh, gesture, or look "meaningfully" in the direction of an isolated, unhappy-looking student. In vivo observations confirmed that these behaviors, along with more discreet episodes of gossip, were common on playgrounds. In addition to the videotapes, ethno graphic studies (for review, see Foster, 2004) suggest that gossip is a complex behavior, and observational methods may provide important information about the form.

Relatively few observational studies have examined relational aggression during early adolescence. However, there have been studies of relational aggression during other developmental periods (e.g., Ostrov et al., 2008; Putallaz et al., 2007). The playground was selected for observations because previous research indicates that most aggression occurs in less structured and less supervised environments (Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; Olweus, 1991; Pepler, Craig, Ziegler, & Charach, 1994), and it offers enhanced external validity to reports because of the spontaneous nature of behavior captured (Pepler & Craig, 1995). In addition, this natural setting is arguably an ideal place to understand the nuances of childhood peer relations, because this is where much play occurs, providing the opportunity for prosocial skills to develop, as well as conflict and aggression (for review, see Leff, Costigan, & Power, 2004; Leff et al. …

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