Anti-Bullying Programs Could Be a Waste of Time

Bullying has been declining for over a decade, but data suggests that's not because of anti-bullying programs

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A new study recently published in the Journal of Criminology suggests that the anti-bullying programs that have become popular in many schools may not be as useful as previously thought. The authors examined 7000 kids at 195 different schools to try to determine child and school influences on bullying. Surprisingly, the authors found that children who attended schools with anti-bullying programs were more likely to experience bullying than children who attended schools without such programs.  In fairness, the data is correlational, so it’s not possible to say that anti-bullying programs necessarily led to more bullying.  One could argue that, perhaps, schools with bigger bullying problems were more likely to implement anti-bullying programs.  Nonetheless, this data suggests such programs may not be terribly effective.

(MORE: “Sticks and Stones”: Does Facebook and Twitter Give Bullying More Power?)

This is not the first study to suggest that anti-bullying programs may be over advertised. I conducted with colleagues Claudia San Miguel and John Kilburn a statistical review of anti-bullying program outcomes back in 2007 which concluded that most such programs don’t work well.  At the time, we commented that many such programs seemed targeted toward adults fears and misconceptions and failed to truly understand bullying from children’s perspectives.  To be fair, other scholars are more sanguine about such programs. In the Journal of Experimental Criminology, Maria Ttofi and David Farrington suggested that anti-bullying programs can be effective.  But my own read of the data is that most anti-bullying programs cause only marginal changes in bullying behaviors and may not be worth their cost.

Granted, not all programs are alike and some may be better than others. Programs that appear to inflate bullying statistics, use fear messages to sell their product and make exaggerated claims of successfulness should particularly raise alarm bells for schools.  Programs that attempt to understand the motives behind bullying, focus on reinforcing positive behavior among students while also training staff to address all aggression, not just bullying, may have the best promise for success.

But the bigger and better reality check is that bullying behavior has actually been declining. Researchers David Finkelhor and colleagues surveyed children in 2003 and again in 2008 and found that they were being exposed to less violence across the board, including bullying. Across most indices, most deviant youth behavior has also been improving—smoking, drinking, violence, pregnancy, suicide.  It’s impossible to say why for sure, but I believe it’s part of a larger trend and not the result of anti-bullying programs.

(MORE: Society is Coarser—but Better)

Bullying was undeniably a problem that needed to be brought out of obscurity, but the issue has arguably now gotten too much attention. Such hype can lead to other problems such as the use of bullying accusations themselves as weapons in peer conflicts and overly harsh “zero tolerance” policies that over punish minor infractions  and may exacerbate the isolation that can lead to bullying in the first place. Now that bullying has been reduced, we need to be careful that it doesn’t distract us from other pressing problems besetting our nation’s schools.

11 comments
ThomasEReed
ThomasEReed

Anti-bully programs were mostly cover-your-ass activities promoted by school administrators. They knew there was nothing they could do to stop bullying, but that when it happened they would be politically and legally liable. So they printed up a bunch of slogans on pencils and gave them away, pretending that this would stop weak, gay and vulnerable kids from being mauled or killed. And now they will go around crowing that they've "ended bullying."

MartiWilliams
MartiWilliams

One of the ways to stop bullying is to teach kids to be more compassionate. Yeah, I sound like a bleeding heart liberal, but un less kids can put themselves in someone elses place, then all of the anti bullying rhetoric is for naught. To give the 'time honored' admonishment to 'play nice' makes no sense to a 3 year old. or to demand a child share his beloved toy, leads to a multitude of problems. Bullying being only one.

ChrisSmith215
ChrisSmith215

I'm hard pressed to take a particular stance on this topic as I believe the author is in fact on to something.  However, to lump an act like "suicide" under the umbrella of "deviant youth acts" is for all intents and purposes, ignorance at its worst.  "Smoking, drinking, violence, pregnancy, suicide" are "deviant?"  Here in lies the real problem:

We are so quick to identify an act as something else that we stop the search for the source of said outbreak.  We develop arguments for said actions and must find a title to place those actions.  We want to "fix" things in this country in such a desperate fashion that we ignore the root of the problem.  Pardon the trivialization but when are people going to start identifying the "why" instead of always trying to find the "who?"

Bullying is terrible; however, let us also remember that calling someone a name and making their "social" existence a living hell is a lot different than the child that is physically harmed at the hands of someone else.  We operate with way too many qualifiers and that is the problem.   The most maddening part of all of this is the righteousness of some that assume Anti-Bullying Programs will fix the issues.

You want to stop bullying?  Empower children to become spokespeople for themselves.  This notion that it takes adults to implement programs to help "fix" the problem is where we lose sight of solutions and rely only saying, "look at what we're doing."  It's not enough.  However, a program is only as good as those that are willing to hear the message.  Think I'm wrong?  Why do you vote the way you do?  You vote the way you do because you believe in the vision and mission of whatever party you are affiliated and if you have no affiliation, then a person has their reasons for that as well.  I've heard racists speak, Tea Party members prattle, misogynists drone on, and religious zealots pontificate.  Guess what?  I'm disgusted by racism, laugh at government ideologues, believe men and women are equals, and I'm somewhere in between Athiest and Agnostic.  (But you're an adult, Chris, it's different for adults.)

Place a group of three year old children from every race and religion in a sandbox and guess what those three year old children are going to do?  They are going to play.  Some may play rougher, some may be introverts, others extroverts and the labeling can go on and on.  However, if one of the bigger children goes over and steals a toy out of the hands of another child, we could technically call them a "bully."  Perhaps we could send that child to an anti-bullying program and hope that in that child's "not-completely-developed-mind," he will understand why bullying is wrong.  

Or, we could begin to understand WHO is raising that child and HOW they raise that child and most importantly, WHAT values are taught to that child.  

Nah, let's just have a program to save all of the children because it's always better to be reactionary than solution based when dealing with a problem.


RachelDownie
RachelDownie

2008 was 5, nearly 6 years ago now. I can assure you, that at the coal face as a teacher, covert bullying is rife. Relational bullying is rife. Think about the increase in availability of mobile telephones and bedroom internet access for children since 2008. Traditional physical forms of bullying may have declined but the cyber bully is ever-present and absolutely ruthless.

One in four students at school are bullied, every day; this is a 2013 statistic.

How dare you be ignorant enough to state that bullying has "gotten too much attention." Bullying is unprovoked behaviour, intended to harm. This kind of behaviour can NEVER be given enough attention.

coloradobob1976
coloradobob1976

Most likely what happens is that children are taught that every little ugly look and hurtful comment is "bullying" rather than just the way life is. Real bullying should not be tolerated. SOME kids need to buck up and learn that everyone isn't their friend, they're not the best child in the world, and life isn't fair, really.

jamesf161
jamesf161

Look, a serious problem. But, hey it's been reduced so let's focus on things that can't destroy lives! And do a cost benefit android on kid's happiness.

The lack of compassion is strong with this one.

trekkiebear
trekkiebear

Wow. You mean kids who are actually bullied participate in anti-bullying programs looking for help. I bet the majority of people at a Weight Watcher's meeting feel they're overweight too.

What's not effective is blaming the victim. We've become a nation of adults to ashamed and weak to call out and punish bullying kids for being bullies. We need to stop with the "we need evidence" mentality and understand that kid world is not adult world. While we're giving bullied kids resources and help, we also need to be doing the same thing for bullies - and not in the same groups either.

applefellup
applefellup

The cure for bullying is more bullying. Force solves all problems.

fcs251
fcs251

@applefellup You stop someone from bullying you the same way kids did 30-40 yrs ago.Confront them and wipe the smile off their face with your fist.Guess what they get their asses beat and bullying stops.