"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Are anti-bullying programs making the problem worse?

Sept. 12, 2013
Courtesy of Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as Ar­ling­ton
and World Science staff

Stu­dents at schools with an­ti-bul­ly­ing pro­grams may ac­tu­ally face an in­creased risk of be­ing bul­lied, a study has found. The re­search raises dis­con­cert­ing alarm bells about an­ti-bul­ly­ing ini­tia­tives that have be­come stand­ard at schools across the Un­ited States.

A pos­si­ble ex­plana­t­ion is that “the stu­dents who are vic­tim­iz­ing their peers have learn­ed the lan­guage from these an­ti-bul­ly­ing cam­paigns and pro­grams,” said Seokjin Jeong, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as Ar­ling­ton and lead au­thor of the stu­dy.

“The schools with in­ter­ven­tions say, ‘You should­n’t do this,’ or ‘you should­n’t do that.’ But through the pro­grams, the stu­dents be­come highly ex­posed to what a bully is and they know what to do or say when ques­tioned by par­ents or teach­ers.”

Pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Crim­i­nol­o­gy, the study sug­gested that fu­ture ef­forts should fo­cus on more soph­is­t­icated strate­gies rath­er than just bul­ly­ing pre­ven­tion pro­grams and se­cur­ity meas­ures. Fur­ther­more, giv­en that bul­ly­ing is a rela­t­ion­ship prob­lem, re­search­ers need to bet­ter iden­ti­fy the bully-vic­tim dy­nam­ics in or­der to de­vel­op pre­ven­tion poli­cies ac­cord­ing­ly, Jeong said.

A grow­ing body of re­search in­di­cates that stu­dents ex­posed to phys­i­cal or emo­tion­al bul­ly­ing suffer higher risk of anx­i­e­ty, de­pres­sion, con­fu­sion, low­ered self-es­teem and su­i­cide.

Jeong and his co-au­thor, Byung Hyun Lee, a doc­tor­al stu­dent at Mich­i­gan State Uni­vers­ity, an­a­lyzed da­ta from the Health Be­hav­ior in School-Aged Chil­dren 2005-2006 U.S. stu­dy. The World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion-spon­sored  study has been con­ducted eve­ry four years since 1985. The sam­ple con­sisted of 7,001 stu­dents, ages 12 to 18, from 195 dif­fer­ent schools.

The da­ta pre­ced­ed the highly pub­li­cized, 2010 “It Gets Bet­ter” cam­paign founded by syn­di­cat­ed col­umn­ist and au­thor Dan Sav­age and pop­u­lar­ized by YouTube videos fea­tur­ing an­ti-bul­ly­ing tes­ti­mo­nials from prom­i­nent ad­vo­cates.

The Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as re­search­ers found that old­er stu­dents were less likely to be vic­tims of bul­ly­ing than young­er stu­dents, with se­ri­ous prob­lems of bul­ly­ing oc­cur­ring among sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The most per­va­sive bul­ly­ing oc­curred at the high school lev­el.

Boys were found to be more likely than girls to be vic­tims of phys­i­cal bul­ly­ing, but girls were more likely to be vic­tims of emo­tion­al bul­ly­ing. Lack of in­volve­ment from par­ents and teach­ers were found to raise the risk of bul­ly­ing vic­tim­iz­a­tion. The find­ings are all con­sist­ent with past stud­ies. Race or eth­ni­city were not found to be a fac­tor in vic­tim­iz­ation risk.

* * *

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Students at schools with anti-bullying programs may actually face an increased risk of being bullied, a study has found. The research raises disconcerting alarm bells about anti-bullying initiatives that have become standard at schools across the United States. A possible explanation is that “the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs,” said Seokjin Jeong, a criminologist at the University of Texas Arlington and lead author of the study. “The schools with interventions say, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that.’ But through the programs, the students become highly exposed to what a bully is and they know what to do or say when questioned by parents or teachers.” Published in the Journal of Criminology, the study suggested that future efforts should focus on more sophisticated strategies rather than just implementation of bullying prevention programs along with school security measures such as guards, bag and locker searches or metal detectors. Furthermore, given that bullying is a relationship problem, researchers need to better identify the bully-victim dynamics in order to develop prevention policies accordingly, Jeong said. A growing body of research indicates that students who are exposed to physical or emotional bullying experience a significantly increased risk of anxiety, depression, confusion, lowered self-esteem and suicide. In addition to school environmental factors, researchers wanted to know what individual-level factors played a key role in students who are bullied by peers in school. Jeong and his co-author, Byung Hyun Lee, a doctoral student in criminology at Michigan State University, analyzed data from the Health Behavior in School-Aged Children 2005-2006 U.S. study. The HBSC study has been conducted every four years since 1985 and is sponsored by the World Health Organization. The sample consisted of 7,001 students, ages 12 to 18, from 195 different schools. The data preceded the highly publicized, 2010 “It Gets Better” campaign founded by syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage and popularized by YouTube videos featuring anti-bullying testimonials from prominent advocates. The University of Texas researchers found that older students were less likely to be victims of bullying than younger students, with serious problems of bullying occurring among sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. The most pervasive bullying occurred at the high school level. Boys were found to be more likely than girls to be victims of physical bullying, but girls were more likely to be victims of emotional bullying. A lack of involvement and support from parents and teachers was likely to increase the risk of bullying victimization. These findings are all consistent with prior studies. Race or ethnicity was found not to be a factor in whether students were bullied.