Bullying Behavior Is a Serious Public Health Problem

In October 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy, and Practice. This publication provides the results of a study commissioned by the NAS that aimed to determine what we know and what more we need to know about bullying behavior and its impact. While the entire study results are available for download at the NAS site, a policy brief is also available here.

The findings of this committee are broadly based and noteworthy. For example, the committee finds existing bullying prevention programs that are effective, and it identifies programs and approaches that hold promise, including restorative practices. At the national level, it notes the important limitations of existing civil rights and anti-discrimination laws with regard to bullying. It also exposes the substantial differences in state anti-bullying laws, especially with regard to a common understanding of the term bullying and the accountability of the schools when bullying occurs.

By examining bullying as a "serious public health problem," the  seven recommendations of the committee are federally focused with an emphasis on national, state, and local partnerships. The first two recommendations are specifically charged to the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, an interagency group that includes the US Departments of Education, Defense, and Justice, among others. These recommendations focus on the collection of more accurate information about bullying behavior and its impact:

  1. The term bullying must be consistently defined so that the prevalence of bullying and the effects of prevention efforts can be more accurately determined. This definition is the one most accepted by the research community and the CDC: intentional and repetitive harmful behavior rooted in a perceived imbalance of power. The committee also recommends cyberbullying be considered a type of bullying behavior, rather than be considered in a category of its own. Finally, with a consistent definition, the committee recommends the examination of bullying as a developmental behavior in order to see how that behavior changes through the stages of  child development.
  2. Data collection around bullying must include all types of bullying and should take into account anyone involved in an incident, meaning those who bully, those who are bullied, and those who are witnesses. The committee recommends data collection that involves all school-age children. With this broad brush, the effects of bullying on the bystanders might be determined. It also calls for a specific focus on those groups identified through the study as most vulnerable to bullying behavior, such as our LGBT youth and students living in poverty.
Bullying, in many contexts, has been normalized into a rite of passage. By labeling bullying as a public health problem, we can better understand the prevalence of this behavior and its impact. We can strengthen those preventative measures shown to be effective and collect more compelling evidence on those promising practices. Finally, we can devote our time and energy to the safety and well-being of all children. It is now a health imperative.

"Bullying is not a normal part of childhood and is now appropriately considered to be a serious public health problem."  ~The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine


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