A new Canadian study seeks to flip the script on the common stereotype that teens are likely to be mean-spirited.
The teen years can carry a negative reputation, often depicted in mainstream media, as perpetrators of bullying, cyber harassment or schoolyard battles, say the researchers.
The new study focused on counterbalancing the commonly-used “bullying literature” to raise the discussion of kindness. Through this, the researchers seek to disrupt the notion that bullying is common by showing how adolescents demonstrate kindness.
“There’s been a shift in schools in recent years to move away from anti-bullying initiatives to efforts that embrace and promote pro-social behaviour,” says Associate Professor John-Tyler Binfet, a researcher in the School of Education from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan. “There is an emphasis on kindness throughout school curriculum, but little is known about how youth actually enact kindness.”
For the study, Binfet and his research team surveyed 191 Grade 9 Okanagan Valley students to determine the extent they see themselves as kind in online and face-to-face interactions. The students were then asked to plan and carry out five acts of kindness for one week.
Overall, the students participated in 943 acts of kindness, with 94 percent of the teens completing three or more of their assigned acts. The kind acts ranged from helping with chores, being respectful, complimenting or encouraging others and giving away items like pencils or money for the vending machine.
“When encouraged to be kind, they surpassed expectations. It was interesting to see how adolescents support others with nuanced ways of helping that included helping generally, physically, emotionally and with household chores,” says Binfet.
“As educators and parents model kindness or provide examples of kindness, showcasing examples of subtle acts might make being kind easier for adolescents to accomplish.”
Most of the participants enacted kindness to people they know, most frequently to family members, friends and other students. As the bulk of the kind acts took place at the school, the findings show positive effects for school climate, student-to-student relationships and student behavior.
Following the one-week challenge, the students were interviewed once again to see how their perception of their own kindness had changed. The results revealed a significant increase in their self-ratings of face-to-face and online kindness.
“This has implications for school-based initiatives seeking to encourage kindness among students who may say, ‘but I’m already kind’,” says Binfet. “The findings suggest that by participating in a short kindness activity, students’ perceptions of themselves as kind may be boosted.”
For years, Binfet’s research has focused on counterbalancing the bullying literature to elevate the discussion of kindness. Through this latest study, his goal is to challenge the negative stereotypes of teens.
“I think adolescents can be misperceived, especially in schools. By understanding how they show kindness, parents, educators and researchers can gain insight as to how they actualize pro-social behaviour,” says Binfet. “We can find ways to best structure opportunities for youth to be kind to help foster their development.”
The study, titled “Kinder Than We Might Think: How Adolescents are Kind” is published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology.