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Major update on bullying, cyberbullying in the U.S.: Study

Depending on the survey, bullying's decreasing or flattening out. Orange: School Crime Supplement of Nat'l Crime Victimization Survey; Blue: School-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey; Red: The Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey; Green: Nat'l Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence [Source: Nat'l Academies]

Depending on the survey, bullying’s decreasing or flattening out. Orange: School Crime Supplement of Nat’l Crime Victimization Survey; Blue: School-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey; Red: The Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey; Green: Nat’l Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence [Source: Nat’l Academies]

Bullying. Why haven’t we solved this social problem yet? Because, according to an important update from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine, bullying is one very complex problem.

“Composition of peer groups, shifting demographics, changing societal norms, and modern technology are factors that must be considered to understand and effectively react to bullying in the US,” wrote the authors of “Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy & Practice” released this month. Not much is left out of that equation, and possibly the most complex part is that it’s a “group phenomenon, with multiple peers taking on roles other than perpetrator and target. Peers are a critical factor because they influence group norms, attitudes, and behavior,” according to the report. Each of those peers has his or her own personality, gender identity, psychosocial makeup, abilities and/or disabilities, family environment and other factors, right?

Cyberbullying seems to have peaked in 2011: Gold: School Crime Supplement of Nat'l Crime Victimization Survey; Blue: School-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey; Red: The Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey; Green: Nat'l Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence [Source: Nat'l Academies]

Cyberbullying seems to have peaked in 2011: Gold: School Crime Supplement of Nat’l Crime Victimization Survey; Blue: School-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey; Red: The Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey; Green: Nat’l Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence [Source: Nat’l Academies]

But we’re learning a lot – and, since the arrival of cyberbullying, likely faster than ever before in the history of social aggression. We have better definitions, a better handle on the scope of the problem and better knowledge of what we still don’t know and need to study.

So new clarity comes with this report. It also reflects greater than ever consensus across many fields working with youth – education, law and policy, pediatrics, neurobiological development, criminology, technology and clinical and developmental psychology.

Here’s just a sampler, just a dozen insights from this major update on bullying and cyberbullying:

  1. Latest numbers: Based on the authors’ comprehensive lit review, school-based bullying affects 18-31% of U.S. youth overall; cyberbullying 7-15%.
  2. Prevalence increases for some young people: LGBT youth (25.6-43.6%), youth with disabilities (1.5x), obese youth (increased risk but it often co-exists with other risk factors).
  3. Definition of bullying: The report supports the Centers for Disease Control’s definition, so we’re talking about “bullying” when: the people involved aren’t siblings or current dating partners; there’s a power imbalance; the aggression is repeated or likely to be repeated; it could inflict harm on the target that’s physical, social, psychological or educational.
  4. The digital version: Cyberbullying “should be considered in the overall context of bullying,” not something separate. The two are aligned in more ways than not. They’re aligned in terms of risk factors, negative consequences and interventions that work on both, the authors write, but different in some ways (e.g., cyberbullying can be anonymous and 24/7 and can go “viral,” the digital version of “repetition”).
  5. Whole school approaches: “Positive relationships with teachers, parents and peers appear to be a protective factor against bullying.”
  6. What doesn’t work: Suspension and “zero tolerance” policies appear to be ineffective.
  7. Prevention education’s impact so far: The effects of school-based bullying prevention programs in the U.S. “appear to be relatively modest.”
  8. Wide range of consequences: One of the authors’ tasks was to provide a comprehensive report on the state of the science on bullying’s consequences. They found a range of them in three categories: biological (sleep, headaches, gastrointestinal, depression, cognitive issues, anxiety, emotional regulation problems, substance abuse); neurobehavioral (from stress and trauma); and psychological (aggressors, targets, bystanders “are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide, BUT it’s important to note…)
  9. Suicide, school shootings: “There is not enough evidence to conclude that bullying is a causal factor for youth suicides or a causal factor in school shootings.”
    School violence, social stigma: Look at how programs that address violence and delinquency would help with bullying; coordinate work on how social stigma relates to bullying as well as discrimination.
  10. Multiple approaches: The authors concluded that “multicomponent schoolwide programs appear to be most effective at reducing bullying … in the U.S.” and wherever student populations are diverse. But we need to know more about layered and specialized approaches (not just schoolwide programs but also prevention and intervention designed for students more at risk). We also need to know more about the effectiveness of student peer mentoring – the role of peers and bystanders in bullying prevention and intervention.
  11. Laws: 50 states and the District of Columbia have anti-bullying laws; 49 states and D.C. have anti-cyberbullying laws, but there’s little research on what effects laws have on reducing bullying, and laws need to be evidence-based.
  12. Collaboration’s effect: “There is a strong need” for more programming and “effectiveness research” on collaboration among various parts of the school and wider community – e.g., parents, school resources officers, healthcare practitioners, community-based organizations (clubs, sports, etc.) and industry.

These are just highlights. No set of bullet points can do justice to a milestone report like this, but two observations from the focus groups part of this research say so much about how far we’ve come in our understanding and treatment of bullying and cyberbullying:

Before you get angry, before you think of all the mean things you could say, just take time, take a breath, and think about what they’re thinking. And that’s how you solve it, that’s how you help the bully. You ask them about it.

Whether or not this participant in the young adult focus group had been trained in social-emotional learning, he or she is reflecting what it teaches, and SEL is one of the components these authors and many other researchers have identified as a key part of bullying prevention in schools.

The other highlighted quote is another widely recognized insight in this society:

We should pay attention to the bully, too: Appropriate consequences for bullying should happen, including punishment, but we also need to ask what kids are going through that makes them want to bully. We need to actually talk to everyone, not accepting bullying but accepting that everyone is going through their own challenges and has their own needs. Bullies should be part of the solution and should not be isolated or ignored.

“Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice” is the result of public information-gathering sessions, a comprehensive review of the research in North America and Europe, and focus groups with school personnel, young adults who’d been exposed to bullying and representatives of philanthropic and community organizations.

Related links

Teens' favorite social media apps and services, a chart in the National Academies report

U.S. teens’ favorite social media apps and services (from top): Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Google+, Vine, Tumblr, various other services [Nat’l Academies chart based on 2015 data]

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