Study: Bullying Is Serious Public Health Issue, Zero-Tolerance Is Not The Solution

A 300-page report found that bullying is a serious public health issue, and that common policy strategies are not working and should be stopped. The researchers aimed to shed light on this bullying problem, which is still a slippery issue despite tens of millions in spending and legal changes in all 50 states.

The Associated Press reports that the researchers found bullying causes mental and health issues ranging from headaches and sleeping problems to anxiety and depression along with a higher probability of academic failure.

Frederick Rivara is a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s hospital, and she led the multidisciplinary team who created the latest report. She described the difficulty in finding a solution to bullying.

“Bullying has long been tolerated as a rite of passage among children and adolescents, but it has lasting negative consequences and cannot simply be ignored. This is a pivotal time for bullying prevention, and while there is not a quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution, the evidence clearly supports preventive and interventional policy and practice.”

LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk of being bullied and facing the long-term consequences of that harassment. [Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images]
LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk of being bullied and facing the long-term consequences of that harassment. [Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images]

A Swedish psychology professor conducted the first serious study on the behavior back in 1978, but bullying didn’t receive that much attention until a string of school shootings in 1999, according to the Seattle Times.

The recent study shows that bullying affects between 18 percent and 31 percent of children and youth, based on stats from multiple sources. Another 7 to 15 percent faced bullying online in some form.

About 16 percent of public schools reporting bullying incidents from 2013-2014 according to the National Center for Education Statistics, down by 13 percent from 1999-2000. But Rivara’s study found reason to be suspicious of the apparent success.

The White House has made bullying prevention a high priority and has held gatherings, like the Conference on Bullying Prevention, to figure out effective strategies. [Photo by Shawnthew-Pool/Getty Images]
The White House has made bullying prevention a high priority and has held gatherings, like the Conference on Bullying Prevention, to figure out effective strategies. [Photo by Shawnthew-Pool/Getty Images]

Since 1999, the federal government has spent $113 million on prevention programs. Likewise, all 50 states have updated their laws on the aggressive behavior, and every state except Alaska now includes statutes on cyber-bullying. The new emphasis has led to the popularity of zero-tolerance policies, where schools immediately suspend students caught bullying.

Rivara says that’s the wrong approach.

The study found that zero-tolerance policies were often perceived as too harsh or punitive. As a result, some bullying goes unreported, and the problems go on.

Still, the study itself seemed to be short on big solutions. The researchers recommend more efforts to collect data to guide policy makers on the efficacy of anti-bullying laws and their implementation. They also say teachers and school officials need more training, and that federal agencies should partner with local groups to developed “evidence-based” prevention programs. Social media companies need to be involved as well.

Rivara says the tech giants need to post their anti-bullying policies clearly on their websites, and explained, “social-media companies have some responsibility.”

The researchers say that for future studies there needs to be a set definition for the word “bullying.”

They defined it as, “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

They found that the bullying public health problem extended past victims, saying that even bystanders suffer health problems, including anxiety and depression.

Jody McVittie, who coaches teachers on improving school culture, said that’s no surprise.

“What we know about trauma is that when you feel powerless, it’s a source of secondary trauma. We also know that when a bystander intervenes, bullying stops.”

The full study on bullying and its negative effects on public health is available here.

[Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images]