Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice

by May 20, 2016

Bullying has long been tolerated as a rite of passage among children and adolescents. There is an implication that individuals who are bullied must have “asked for” this type of treatment or deserved it. Sometimes, even the child who is bullied begins to internalize this idea. For many years, there has been a general acceptance and collective shrug when it comes to a child or an adolescent with greater social capital or power pushing around a child perceived as subordinate. But bullying is not developmentally appropriate; it should not be considered a normal part of the typical social grouping that occurs throughout a child’s life.

Although bullying behavior endures through generations, the environment is changing. Historically, bullying has occurred at school, the physical setting in which most of childhood is centered and the primary source for peer group formation. In recent years, however, the physical setting is not the only place bullying occurs. Technology allows for an entirely new type of digital electronic aggression—cyberbullying—which takes place through chat rooms, instant messaging, social media, and other forms of digital electronic communication.

Although the public health community recognizes that bullying is a problem, it has been difficult for researchers to determine the extent of bullying in the United States. The prevalence data available indicate that school-based bullying likely affects between 18-31 percent of children and youths, and the prevalence of cyber victimization ranges from 7 percent to 15 percent of youths.

Composition of peer groups, shifting demographics, changing societal norms, and modern technology are contextual factors that must be considered to understand and effectively react to bullying in the United States. Youths are embedded in multiple contexts and each of these contexts interacts with individual characteristics in ways that either exacerbate or attenuate the association between these individual characteristics and bullying perpetration or victimization.

Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice evaluates the state of the science on biological and psychosocial consequences of bullying as well as the context, scope, and impact of the problem. The report also outlines next steps in prevention for policymakers, parents, educators, healthcare providers, and others concerned with the care of children.

A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine – a leading independent research organization – said bullying is a serious public health problem.

Children who are bullied are more likely to suffer a variety of psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety, and are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. Youth who are bullied also report various physical symptoms, including headaches, sleep disturbances and stomach pain, said Jonathan Todres, professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law who served on the study committee.

“In many cases, the mental health consequences of bullying persist into adulthood,” Todres said.

And it’s not just the targets of bullying who suffer.

“Children who bully others and bystanders who witness bullying are also at greater risk of adverse mental health consequences,” he said.

The Academies report identified a number of ways to advance anti-bullying efforts, including training for teachers and others who work with children and adolescents to identify bullying and calling for social media companies to develop policies and programs for preventing and responding to the increasing amount of cyberbullying.

Law has played a key role in responding to many public health issues, from infectious diseases to road safety to tobacco use, Todres said. To ensure it does the same for bullying prevention, the Academies report calls for an annual meeting among policymakers, social scientists and professionals who work with children to review research that assesses the implementation and effect of anti-bullying laws and policies.

“The aim is to develop better evidence and ensure that research informs decisions Congress and the state legislatures make to address bullying,” he said.

“From policymakers to parents, tech companies to teachers, we all have a role to play in preventing bullying and ensuring safe environments for children,” Todres said. “Building upon evidence-based research can ensure that we are not just responding to bullying, but that we are responding effectively.”

The full report is available online at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BCYF/Science_on_Bullying/index.htm.

Jonathan Todres researches and writes on a range of issues related to children’s rights and child well-being. He co-authored a book, Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, published in 2016. For more information, visit law.gsu.edu/profile/jonathan-todres. You can read his article about bullying published on The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/why-bullying-needs-more-efforts-to-stop-it-58678.

Sponsors: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Highmark Foundation, National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Foundation, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. •

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