No Single Solution for Bullying

Media reports of bullying and its consequences have become distressingly common, especially for parents of children and teens. A spate of high profile cases that ended in suicide or violence helped fuel a national movement for legislation to define and deal with bullying. All 50 states now have laws designed to prevent and address bullying in schools, but those laws vary widely and their impact isn’t clear. What is clear is that laws alone can’t stop bullying, because it’s a complex problem that requires multifaceted solutions, writes Amy Bellmore in a recent review of bullying research for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Preventing bullying will require the active involvement of parents, young people, schools, and new media entities, her review of the research shows.

Preventing bullying starts with understanding what it is, and what it’s not. Researchers define it as a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior (physical, emotional, or social) that an individual or group directs toward a person who has less physical or social power. It’s not the same thing as occasional meanness or teasing, and it’s not simply a normal rite of passage, Bellmore explains. It can happen in person, over the phone, or online.

Parents can play a particularly important role in preventing and intervening with bullying, Bellmore advises. Studies show that children and teens are more likely to be involved in bullying when their parents are abusive or neglectful, and less likely to be involved when their parents are engaged and emotionally supportive. Studies also show that training parents how to have positive relationships with their kids and to help them develop good social skills can reduce bullying. But parents don’t always know about bullying incidents, even when they have good relationships with their children.

That’s where schools come in, especially because many bullying incidents occur at school. A number of school programs have been tested to reduce those incidents, some of which focus specifically on bullying and others that have a related but broader focus on students’ social and emotional skills or positive school climate. Bellmore finds that studies of those programs show cause for “cautious optimism” about their effectiveness, especially when they are intensive and long-lasting. Regardless of the type of program, researchers agree that the intervention has to target the school environment as a whole, not just deal with specific events or students.

Dealing with cyberbullying gets complicated for schools, because it’s not clear whether they have jurisdiction to intervene, especially if an incident occurs off campus or if it involves some students from the school and others who attend another school. Police rarely see cyberbullying as a crime, a national survey of law enforcement officials shows, and it’s not clear whether the reporting mechanisms on Facebook and Twitter are a deterrent, so the Internet can be both fertile ground for bullying and a kind of no-man’s land for intervention.

Ultimately, of course, young people have to be involved in preventing bullying both online and off. Studies show that bullying often stops when victims’ or perpetrators’ peers stand up and denounce it. And Bellmore points out that online platforms offer the opportunity for large-scale denunciation even as they provide a microphone for bullies. But speaking out can be risky for defenders or those who are sometimes called upstanders, potentially putting them in harm’s way. Experts counsel that it’s important to educate all young people about bullying, including the many ways they can take an active role in dealing with it, including not just defending a victim in the moment, but offering emotional support and friendship to the victim after the fact and getting adults involved.

Dealing with bullying has to be a shared responsibility, the research shows. The prospect of marshalling all of a community’s stakeholders to prevent bullying may sound daunting, but it also has a hopeful upside:  everyone has the potential to make a difference.