Peer Victimization, Internalizing Problems, and the Buffering Role of Friendship Quality: Disaggregating Between- and Within-Person Associations

Background

Previous studies have often shown that adolescents who experience more peer victimization also report more depressive symptoms and anxiety. However, it is unclear whether this finding also applies to within-person processes. In other words: Do adolescents experience more depressive symptoms and anxiety at moments when they also experience more peer victimization? This would mean that adolescents are not stuck in a negative pattern, and that change for the better is possible. Furthermore, the association between victimization and internalizing problems may be weaker for adolescents with higher levels of friendship quality, as they experience more social support in the face of adversity, but results are mixed. This study aimed to test the association between peer victimization and internalizing problems on the between- and within-person level, while also testing the buffering effect of friend support and conflict.

Method

The sample consisted of 497 adolescents (56% boys) who were 13.03 years old at Wave 1 (SD = 0.45, ranging from 11.68 to 15.56). They participated in a 6-wave longitudinal study with annual questionnaire assessments. Data were analyzed using multilevel mixed models in RStudio using the “lme4” package. This allowed us to test disaggregated between-person effects (i.e., individuals’ average scores) and within-person effects (individuals’ over-time variation around their own average) in one model.

Results

In line with previous research, results showed that adolescents who experienced more victimization also reported more depressive symptoms and anxiety. The same pattern was found on the within-person level: When adolescents reported more peer victimization than usual, they experienced more depressive symptoms and anxiety as well. Furthermore, there was a significant buffering effect of support on the between-person but not the within-person level. Friend support did not show a cross-level buffering effect either, suggesting that adolescents average level of friend support does not make them less vulnerable to fluctuations in victimization. Sensitivity analyses showed that these results remained when controlling for age or friendship stability, or when examining relational and physical victimization separately.

Conclusion

These findings suggest that when adolescents experience more peer victimization, they also experience more depressive symptoms and anxiety. This highlights the idea that adolescents may change, and means that individual interventions may be useful. Although adolescents with higher average friendship quality had a weaker association between victimization and internalizing problems, they were not less sensitive to increases in victimization. This study shows the impact of peer victimization, which may be only partly buffered by friendship quality. It also shows the importance of disaggregating between- and within-person effects: Although within-person findings may mirror between-person findings, this is not always the case, and they reflect different processes.

Contact: e.l.bernasco@uu.nl

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