Do people ever consider the possibility that, if they’re exposed to increased reports about a social problem, it’s the reporting that has increased rather than the problem? It’s increasingly clear that this is the case with school bullying: Only news reports about it have increased, not the behavior itself. In fact, both bullying and fear of it are down among US middle school students (the grade levels that tends to experience bullying most), Education Week reports, citing new numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics.
This is data reflecting both physical and verbal aggression. For all students in grades 6-12, “hate-related graffiti” in school classrooms, bathrooms, hallways, etc. “dropped from about 36% in 1999 to about 28% in 2011. The rate of students who reported fearing an attack or harm at school at all has also dropped dramatically, from nearly 12% in 1995 to less than 4% in 2011. For black and Hispanic students, it’s an even more encouraging shift—from more than 20% of both groups of students worried about being attacked at school to less than 5% in 2011 [the latest figures available].”
74% decline in school violence
The decline in actual physical violence in schools is even more dramatic: It was down 74% between 1992 and 2010, according to the latest US Department of Justice data, which was cited by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in a paper he published last January.
“The surveys that reflect change over the longest time periods, going back to the early 1990s, consistently show declines in bullying and peer victimization, some of it remarkably large. The more recent trends, since 2007, show some declines, but less consistently.” This is true internationally too. Dr. Finkelhor cited a study of bullying in the journal Social Psychology of Education showing a decrease in bullying in all nine data sets the authors reviewed.
What about cyberbullying? Online harassment increased from 6% in 2000 to 9% in 2005 to 11% in 2010 between, and it’s interesting to note that it increased less between 2005 and ’10 than in the first 5 years tracked. Because social media is very much a reflection of school social life for young people, the peer aggression seen in social media is a lot like the peer aggression seen on school bathroom walls. So once it finds its “dead level,” it will probably decline in the same way verbal and written aggression have.
So why do we so often default to worst-case scenarios where young people are concerned? Bullying is a problem but not a growing one, and far from the epidemic it’s sometimes reported to be in the news media. And there are other positive social indicators: both homicide and suicide rates are down among young people, Finkelhor reported.
Besides consumer education and crime prevention at the societal level, he offers two other possible explanations for this downward trend in victimization of self and others:
- Psychiatric medications and better access to mental healthcare
- Digital media and communications on phones and the Web.
The rise of social media is another thing people don’t typically think of as a positive force in society. But consider this point from Finkelhor: “These technologies may have dampened crime and bullying by providing more ways of summoning help, more forms of social surveillance, and engrossing activities that undermine forms of alienation that lead to crime” (more on that here).
None of which is to say the problem has been solved. Parts of it – e.g., harassment and bullying of LBGT youth and students with disabilities – still need a great deal of attention and effort. But over all, Finkelhor wrote “advocates and young people should feel inspired. Change can happen and it can get better.” And I propose that, if we adults can collectively show greater acceptance that most young people are kind and respectful toward each other most of the time they will respond positively to that confidence and respect in them.
- “Bullying & peer victimization: Clearer terms, better definition”
- “Social cruelty on Ask.fm & the whack-a-mole tendency”
- “Invaluable social-literacy lessons from an anti-bullying conference”
- “More signs that what works offline works online too”
- “Online risk in kids’ own words: A research milestone”
- “How teens view ‘the drama’”