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.

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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.

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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.