The Puzzling Persistence of Bullying Behavior

Since 1990, the Center for Disease Control's Division of Adolescence and School Health (DASH) has surveyed over four million US students on health behaviors that contribute to physical, social, and emotional problems in adolescence and adulthood using the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). The survey has evolved over the years, reflecting growth in our understanding about youth behavior and technology use. For example, the YRBSS now includes questions about and adverse childhood experiences. The YRBSS included questions about bullying behavior in schools beginning in 2009 and about cyberbullying (electronic bullying) in 2011.

In June 2018 DASH released "YRBSS Data Summary and Trends Report: 2007-2017," presenting  trends of bullying and cyberbullying since each was added to the survey. The following are a few highlights:
  • Overall, the rate of bullying on school property has remained stable since 2009. About 20% of US students report being bullied.
  • The number of males reporting being bullied significantly decreased from 19% in 2009 to 16% in 2017.
  • No significant changes were found in females reporting bullying, and the number reporting being bullied remains stable, around 22%.
  • Overall, the rate of cyberbullying remained stable since 2011. About 15% of US students report being cyberbullied.
  • No significant changes were found in cyberbullying for either males or females.
These highlights are limited to overall trends and gender focus; even so, they bring the impact of our  bullying prevention efforts into question. The rates of students being bullied and cyberbullied remain stable. Since 2015 every state in the US has anti-bullying school policies. In 2016 the National Academies of Science declared bullying a serious public health issue. By 2017 the CDC categorized bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience. We have research- and evidence-based programs proven to reduce bullying, some with 40 years of proven effectiveness. We know that bullying cannot flourish in safe and supportive environments, and that developing social-emotional core competencies within those safe schools is the best line of defense.

Are we really putting into practice what we know? If so, then why do one in five of our young people continue to report being bullied on school property?

Maya Angelou told us that when we know better, we do better. Why aren't we doing better?

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