Taking stock of America’s “War on Bullying”

by Justin W. Patchin

The Obama administration arguably declared war on bullying in the fall of 2010 when it convened the first federally-supported Bullying Prevention Summit. In 2011, stopbullying.gov was launched. That same year, I attended a conference hosted by President Obama at the White House, where he said: “If there is one goal of this conference, it is to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.” Since then, significant resources have been directed toward various programs and initiatives, resulting in what could be characterized as a “Bullying Industrial Complex.” Many companies now offer simple “solutions” to bullying. But are any of these efforts working?

Lessons learned from efforts in the criminal justice system

Forty years ago, sociologist Robert Martinson published an article that changed the course of history, or at least the history of the American criminal justice system. He quite appropriately sought to ascertain the effectiveness of programs that were being used to rehabilitate those among us who choose to break the law. Upon reviewing the available evaluation evidence, he came to the conclusion that: “… with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (1974: 25). This was subsequently converted by politicians and the media to a much more concise and headline-worthy “Nothing Works.” If Twitter had been around back then, you can bet #NothingWorks would have been trending.

The reason this article and its subsequent public interpretation was historic can be easily seen in the impact it had on incarceration rates in the US. Martinson’s paper has been credited as being the magnetic force that powerfully and almost instantaneously pushed the penal pendulum away from a medical model–focused on treating the underlying causes of a person’s criminality–to a retributive regime wherein community safety and crime control became Priority Number One. The result was three decades of mass incarceration, fueled by mandatory sentencing schemes, and the abolition of release-readiness determining parole boards. However, most people–even staunch tough-on-crime-minded folks–would agree that this policy has failed miserably, resulting in more crime and not less. To say nothing of the social and economic toll on society.

Bullying prevention efforts in 2015

Some could say that we are at another Martinson moment with respect to our efforts to curb bullying. The work of federal, state, and local governments has definitely prompted increased public discourse about bullying. Simultaneously, though, resource-strapped schools continue to struggle with heightened expectations that they “handle” these situations. Many educators have therefore turned to various bullying prevention programs, initiatives, and campaigns to make some headway in reducing the problem. Unfortunately, only a small handful of these efforts have been rigorously evaluated. And many of those that have, have been shown to fall short in making truly significant gains. If you believe the research, most of what we have done to prevent bullying over the last two decades has not yielded the kind of results we would hope for. University of Illinois Psychologist Dorothy Espelage summarized the sentiment succinctly in a 2013 paper: “the impact of bullying prevention programs in the United States has been disappointing.”

Recent high-profile analyses of dozens of bullying prevention program evaluations have all generally come to the same conclusion: nothing works. Most troublingly, a study published last year suggested that schools that implement a bullying prevention program are actually doing worse when it comes to preventing bullying than schools that do not. Specifically: “…students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to have experienced peer victimization, compared to those attending schools without bullying prevention programs.” This was picked up by the media and shared widely as evidence that bullying prevention programs do not work.

The researchers in this study (one of whom is a friend of mine from graduate school) examined data from 7,001 students from 195 schools across the United States. Sixty-five percent of the schools had some bullying prevention program, presumably as reported by the students from within those schools. Students who said their school had a bullying prevention program were significantly more likely to self-report that they had been both physically and emotionally victimized. Victimization included several different types of behaviors, but it isn’t specified how exactly “bullying prevention program” was defined. So it is hard to view this as evidence of failure, since we don’t know anything about the programs that “failed.” Also of note is the fact that these data were collected nearly 10 years ago – well before the federal and state governments mobilized their efforts against bullying.

More recently, Espelage and her colleagues reviewed 19 evaluations of bullying prevention programs and found that these efforts do ok with younger students (7th grade and lower), but largely fail among students in high school: “Altogether, the present analysis suggests that we cannot yet confidently rely on anti-bullying programs for grades 8 and above.” David Finkelhor, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, and his colleagues surveyed 3,391 5-17 year-olds and asked about their exposure to various violence prevention programs. They found that lower quality programs, and those that targeted older youth, had less success in preventing participation in, and experience with, peer victimization. Taken together, these academic papers paint a generally gloomy picture of the bullying prevention landscape.

So where does this leave us?

Despite the depressing findings, I don’t believe we should give up all hope. Sameer and I travel throughout the United States and speak with educators and students who are doing great things in their schools to prevent bullying and promote kindness and compassion. Our conversations with these people lead us to believe that some efforts are fruitful. The problem is that these initiatives have not been formally evaluated. In short, we are confident that there are effective actions being taken in schools, but they need to be scrutinized, documented, and publicized.

In fact, Maria Ttofi and David Farrington (both from the University of Cambridge) conducted a more sophisticated analysis of forty-four bullying prevention efforts (excluding programs that targeted violence or aggression generally) and uncovered some promising evidence: “…school-based anti-bullying programs are effective: on average, bullying decreased by 20–23% and victimization decreased by 17–20%.” Ttofi and Farrington also go into specific detail about the elements of anti-bullying programs that seem to be the most effective (e.g., parent training, playground supervision, and classroom management). Finkelhor and his colleagues agreed that there were some bright spots in the research: “Peer victimization rates and bullying perpetration rates in the past year were lower for the younger children (ages 5–9) who had been exposed to higher quality programs in their lifetime.” Higher quality programs included “multi-day presentations, practice opportunities, information to take home, and [a] meeting for parents.”

This brings us back to the lessons learned in our attempts to curb crime. Upon closer review of Martinson’s paper, readers will realize that he wasn’t saying that nothing could work, just that our efforts at rehabilitation weren’t being adequately funded to expect much of a change. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We still provide far too little funding to bullying prevention initiatives to help them do what they are intended to do. As with research on how to effectively prevent crime, Ttofi and Farrington find that “…the intensity and duration of a program is directly linked to its effectiveness.” We can’t spend just a few minutes once a year talking with students about bullying and expect it to be a long-term solution to this pernicious problem. A complicated social problem demands a comprehensive solution.

And there’s also emerging evidence that bullying behaviors are decreasing (or at least not significantly increasing). Recently-released data from the National Crime Victimization Survey’s School Crime Supplement shows that the percent of students who said they were bullied in 2013 declined to 21.8 (from an average of 29.3% in the four previous biennial studies conducted between 2005 to 2011). Cyberbullying rates also dropped in the most recent survey (from 9% in 2011 to 6.7% in 2013). It’s still too early to tell if this is the beginning of a trend, or even if the numbers obtained are representative of an actual decrease in bullying behaviors across the U.S. Other national sources of data don’t depict similar decreases. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System data, for example, found that 19.6% of students were bullied in 2013, compared to 20.1% in 2011.

All of this said, I think it is safe to conclude that some programs work for some kids in some schools under some circumstances. In short, something works. The bottom line is that we need to: 1) identify promising programs (with meaningful intensity and duration); 2) fully fund these programs so they can do what they were designed to do; and 3) carefully evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. Armed with this information, legislators and policymakers can work with local school districts to promote best practices in bullying prevention. Only then will we begin to see sustainable reductions in bullying behaviors.

Dr. Justin W. Patchin is a Professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Read his full bio here.