In the Fight Against Bullying, a Glimmer of Hope

This post was originally published on this site
The Checkup

In recent years, educators, pediatricians and parents have worried a great deal about bullying and the effects it can have on children, and the question of whether school programs and policies can make a difference.

A new study suggests that things can indeed get better.

In the study, published in May in the journal Pediatrics, researchers looked at data from 10 years of student surveys about bullying in Maryland schools. They saw a decrease in 10 of the 13 indicators of bullying they were measuring.

Catherine Bradshaw, a professor and associate dean at the University of Virginia and the senior author of the study, has been collaborating with school districts in Maryland for more than a decade, administering a detailed online survey on school climate and bullying to nearly 250,000 students from grade 4 to grade 12. Students were asked whether they had been frequent victims of bullying, or frequent perpetrators, and asked in more detail about physical bullying (pushing and slapping), verbal bullying, relational bullying (spreading rumors), and cyberbullying. They were also asked if they had seen other people being bullied. And finally, they were asked about some attitudes relevant to bullying (“Bullying is a problem at this school,” for example), and about feeling safe at school.

Over the period of the study, from 2005 to 2014, students’ reports of being bullied in all of those ways decreased, as did reports of perpetrating bullying, and of witnessing bullying. And more students reported feeling safe at school.

So in these Maryland school districts, things were getting better, and the improvement tended to accelerate around 2010. The study did not involve instituting anti-bullying programs, nor did it account for what practices were in place in participating schools. Therefore the researchers could not attribute the improvement to particular programs.

“It’s very exciting,” Dr. Bradshaw said, “but we need to be very clear that although there is some good news, we’re still seeing 20 percent of kids not feeling safe at school. We haven’t solved this problem, but it gives us hope that policies and practices may have improved things.”

“The Maryland data is a very large sample over 10 years controlling for a number of different variables,” said Stephen Leff, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who was a co-author of a commentary on the study. “It really does provide a unique picture window.” On the other hand, he said, this study doesn’t really tell us why the behaviors are going down or attempt to measure the impact of the bullying that still goes on.

Cyberbullying in particular, even if the rates are low, “can have such a negative impact,” Dr. Leff said, and can do great harm to a whole peer group, or to school culture more generally. “I want to caution schools and parents that it’s still quite a problem, its frequency may be down, but the issue and the impact I think is still great.”

Dr. Andrew Adesman, the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, argued in a comment on the Maryland study that these findings are not reflective of national trends. He said that cyberbullying is pandemic among high school students. The Maryland data, he said in an email, “include some high school students but mostly younger students, and while it is encouraging that these rates are decreasing in Maryland, that may not reflect what is happening nationally among high school students.”

Dr. Adesman cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System which showed no overall decrease in the prevalence of high school students being bullied on school property in recent years, though the same survey did show a decrease among Maryland high school students.

He also stressed the danger of bullying and the damage it can do, particularly cyberbullying, which he said has “amplified the impact, morbidity and the potential mortality.” The ramifications of cyberbullying, he said, can go well beyond the moment, because what is posted online can hang around in cyberspace and can so easily spread to include more people. “It is estimated that 20 percent of suicides in teens and young adults are due to bullying, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this age range,” he said in an email.

A 2014 analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics examined data from many studies and concluded that bullying was linked to both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, with cyberbullying most likely to be linked to suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Bullying remains a tremendously important issue for parents to be aware of, and the online side of bullying is as dangerous to adolescents as it is opaque to many parents; there is an excellent federal government website on bullying, and a helpful set of information for parents on cyberbullying available as well from Common Sense media.

“Take it seriously if your child tells you they’re being bullied online or with text messages,” Dr. Leff said. “Don’t as a response take away the technology.” Doing that may make children less likely to tell adults when cyberbullying is going on, and it won’t change the behaviors or the emotions. Instead, parents should open lines of communication and talk this through.

In talking with parents who are concerned about a child who has reported being bullied, Dr. Leff said, “it’s always important as a parent to stay calm, to be able to listen, to be able to hear about the situation calmly, not reacting emotionally.” This is no easy assignment, he acknowledged.

Parents need to get the facts, he said, and understand whether what has taken place is really bullying, which is generally defined as repeated use of aggression physically, socially or electronically, in the context of a power imbalance. Ask questions. Get the child to describe what happened and what led up to it, where it happened and how long it has been happening.

And then, Dr. Leff said, he and his colleagues advise parents to reach out to the school, but not to directly contact the parents of the bully.

“What we often tell parents is set up a meeting with the principal, stay calm — then to find a point person at the school that their child can talk to when there’s a problem.” Parents should ask for a plan in writing as to how the situation is going to be addressed, and how the school is going to monitor what is going on.

“I think the main message is there’s room for some optimism, we are really better understanding what works and how it matches the needs of the school,” Dr. Leff said. “But there’s still way too many kids being bullied physically as well as socially and electronically.”

The school programs that have demonstrated the greatest impact in other studies, cited in Dr. Leff’s commentary, are whole-school approaches that involve students, teachers and parents, which may help students develop skills in problem-solving and empathy and learn to be “positive bystanders.”

But such programs work only when properly implemented, so schools need to find programs that match their needs. If the decrease seen in Maryland is at least in part a result of effective antibullying programs in schools, it becomes even more important to help schools choose the right programs.

“We haven’t solved this problem,” Dr. Leff said, “but it gives us hope that policies and practices may have improved things.”