The State of the Science of Bullying

The mission of StopBullying.gov, a website created through a partnership of the United States Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, is to provide "information from various government agencies on what bullying is, what cyberbullying is, who is at risk, and how you can prevent and respond to bullying."  The website is the most comprehensive online resource for bullying. The "Facts about Bullying" page reflects the most current knowledge about bullying, including definition, statistics, bullying and suicide, and laws and policies. Also on this page is the section "The State of the Science."

While bullying research remains a growing field of inquiry, studies have shown the impact of bullying during childhood and adolescence into adulthood and have confirmed the complex nature of bullying. Even though unanswered questions remain, studies have provided conclusive evidence about bullying. Common understanding includes the prevalence of bullying (between 20% to 28%), the peak of bullying (middle school), and the most common types of bullying (verbal and social).

The following is less commonly known, yet confirmed by research:
  • The growing awareness of the impact of bullying has led some to believe that bullying behavior is more frequent. There is no evidence to support this; however, the prevalence of bullying is still unacceptable and a public health issue.
  • No single profile has emerged those for who engage in bullying behavior. One reason for this is that many who bully others have been bullied themselves; the roles are often changing. Another consideration is the imbalance of power present in a bullying situation. Power is contextual and reflects the norms of the environment. 
  • Adults play a critical role in bullying prevention, in simple but powerful ways. Examples include modeling prosocial behavior, providing consistent emotional support, and engaging in open communication. With regard to communication, it is important to note that students are encouraged to tell an adult when bullying occurs; however, adults often do not know how to respond.
One research conclusion receives very little attention: bullying is a group phenomenon. The traditional image of a two-person interaction, with one person engaging in bullying behavior and another being targeted, is not supported by research. Identifying and holding accountable one or two does not eradicate bullying behavior, nor does it heal the harm that bullying brings to all within the environment. Bullying is social in nature and emerges from peer groups. For this reason, all effective bullying prevention efforts are system-wide and include every community member. Aggressive and unhealthy peer groups, like bullying behavior, cannot flourish in safe and supportive school environments.

As the research community continues this important work and shares its growing knowledge of bullying, educators must commit to put into practice only that which has been confirmed by the research. Additionally, educators must stay aware of the state of the science of bullying so that they are considering only research- and evidence-based initiatives. 

No research is ever quite complete. It is the glory of a good bit of work that it opens the way for something still better, and this repeatedly leads to its own eclipse. ~Mervin Gordon

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