Students on bullying: Important insights

This large-sample national study could be very helpful to parents and educators seeking victims’ perspective.

By Anne Collier

Having someone, especially a peer, really listen and be there for them seems to help bullying victims more than anything, according to students themselves. A new study of nearly 12,000 US students in grades 5-12 offers important insights into bullying victims’ own views on what causes bullying, how it affects them, and what does and doesn’t work in dealing with it. The students, surveyed by the Youth Voice Project, represent 25 schools in 12 states across the US.

The Project’s authors, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, PhD, write that about a fifth of respondents (22%) reported regular victimization (two or more times a month), and that victimization was broken down this way: Of those 22%, 46% characterized the harassment as mild (“bothered me only a little”); 36% moderate (“bothered me quite a bit”); 11% severe (“I had or have trouble eating, sleeping, or enjoying myself because of what happened to me”); and 7% very severe (“I felt or feel unsafe and threatened because of what happened to me”). So the study extrapolated that 13% of the US’s student population, or about 7 million students, are experiencing moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment by peers.

Who’s being victimized: Middle school needs particular attention, since “the majority of traumatized students are in grades 6-8.” Other characteristics: 54% are female, 42% male; about 6% of “traumatized students” (being moderately-to-very-severely mistreated) reported receiving special education assistance, and 10% “reported having some form of a physical disability.” Ethnicity: The majority of “traumatized students” (moderate-to-very severe) described themselves as White, followed by Hispanic American and then Multi-Racial; 32% reported eligibility for free or reduced lunch; 9% of them had immigrated to the US within the past two years.

What bullies focus on: Look at what the results say about the importance of teaching tolerance, empathy, perspective-taking: “Looks” was the focus of 55% of moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment and “Body Shape” of 37%. The next highest focus was “Race,” at 16%; “Sexual Orientation” and “Family Income” came next at 14% and 13%, respectively.

Make it safe to report: A higher percentage than I usually see (42%) say they report their moderate-to-very-severe mistreatment to an adult at school, but that’s still less than half. So the authors write that it’s “important to identify safe ways for students to communicate with adults at school about their negative peer interactions.”

What helps most: Being heard and acknowledged seems to help victims more than most responses by both adults and peers. Adults first: The top three responses (to victims) “likely to lead to things getting better for the student than to things getting worse” were “listened to me,” “gave me advice,” and “checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped.” Coming in at a noticeably distant 4th, interestingly, was “kept up increased adult supervision for some time.” As for responses from peers (including friends), the top three were “Spent time with me,” “Talked to me,” and “Helped me get away.” The authors add that “positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions.”

There are so many more really substantive insights in this report (and future ones Davis and Nixon are planning) that I truly recommend that you read it. But here are three key takeaways:

1. What victims are often advised – e.g., “tell the person how you feel,” “walk away,” “tell the person to stop,” “pretend it doesn’t bother you” – “made things worse much more often than they made things better.”
2. The effectiveness of adult interventions depends a lot “on context, school culture, climate, as well as the way in which each intervention is carried out.”
3. “Our students report that asking for and getting emotional support and a sense of connection has helped them the most among all the strategies we compared.”

Related links

* “Clicks & cliques: Really meaty advice for parents on cyberbullying”
* “Clicks, cliques & cyberbullying, Part 2: Whole-school response is key”
* “Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids”: What many bullying and cyberbullying cases seem to have in common is “the 24/7, non-stop nature of the harassment the teens faced – the tech-enabled constant drama of school life turning into 24/7 cruelty…. [They] indicate an urgent need for all of us to help our children come up for air, to maintain some perspective about the ‘alternate reality’ of school life, especially in the middle-school years.”
* “Social norming: So key to online safety”
* “Bystanders can help when bullying happens”

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