Survey Shows Dramatic Drop in Bullying

May 3, 2017

A new study from the University of Virginia shows significant progress in the fight against bullying.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

A new report from UVA Professor Catherine Bradshaw and colleagues finds incidence of bullying dropped by about 50% from 2005 to 2015.
Credit NPR

UVA Professor Catherine Bradshaw and her colleagues surveyed nearly 250,000 kids beginning in 2005.  They explained carefully to students in grades four through 12 what bullying was.

“Aggressive behavior that’s intentional in nature.  It tends to be repeated over time, and it’s something that happens in the context of a power difference.  So that’s different than maybe you and I have an argument, and maybe I slug you.  That would be more like a fight or a disagreement, and I think people’s awareness of  what bullying really is has shifted over that time,” Bradshaw explains.

And so has the prevalence of this problem.  In 2005, a surprisingly high number of students said they were bullied.

“Twenty-eight percent of kids indicated that within the past thirty days they had been bullied, but then when we fast forward to more recently, the number drops to about half that rate,” Bradshaw says.

Bradshaw was encouraged, but she says more must be done to educate kids and adults about this problem.

"By no means have we checked this off the list or solved this problem!" she declares. "In fact there’s some reason to believe that recent events over the past year may actually change some of this trajectory.  We’ve heard some increasing concerns from sub-groups like Muslim youth, LGBT youth as well as some immigrant populations that may not be feeling quite as safe and supported at school."

In addition to physical harm, the survey addressed verbal attacks and bullying online, noting a decline there too.

“We were a little surprised also about the cyber-bullying data in particular," Bradshaw recalls, " because more and more kids have access to phones, but there has been a lot more awareness of these kind of issues and the harm that they can do.” 

Bradshaw argues this is not a situation we should ignore or accept as a routine part of growing up.

"Any time I do a training now of adults, I always ask, ‘How many of you were involved in bullying either as a target or a perpetrator or a witness,” and there’s not a hand that doesn’t go up in that room, and they talk in such great detail about an event that may have  happened when they were 6 or 7. "

And she points to at least one program designed to reduce bullying – an educational effort in schools that appears to be successful.

"There is a high rate of schools that are using a prevention model called positive behavior support where it does try to promote a positive school climate, and through some of our other studies that are randomized we’ve been showing that particular model is effective at improving school climate."

The students in this survey, known as the Maryland Safe and Supportive Schools Initiative,  were from  just one state, but Bradshaw thinks bullying is also on the run in Virginia and other states.

“Generalizability is often a question, but it is a very large and diverse district that has rural as well as more urban areas. People often think it’s big schools or small schools, this school but not that school, but really we found that it was kind of an equal opportunity factor.”

She and her colleagues will continue to track bullying in public schools and to share data with principals so they can watch for trends and take action to address the problem.