Bully for You! The (In)effectiveness of Anti-Bullying Programs

Bullying is no longer seen as a rite of passage during childhood or adolescence. It is recognized as a serious mental health risk that can lead to anxiety, depression, confusion, low self-esteem, and even suicide for the victim.

The definition of bullying varies, whether it is defined by parents, students, teachers, psychiatrists, or lawmakers, but, what it really boils down to is suffering negative consequences – physical, mental, or emotional – because of the repeated actions of another person.

Anti-bullying campaigns became the cause célèbre a few years ago, and Hollywood types rushed to publish multimedia messages to “stop the bullying.” While schools were busy patting themselves on the back for implementing programs and lawmakers were drafting bills that redefined bullying and how to address it, kids still hurt other kids.

Bullying has not stopped – approximately 1.5 million school-aged children self-report as victims of bullying by peers – and a new study found that students who attend schools with anti-bullying programs in place were actually more likely to be victims of bullying than students at schools without such programs. How is that for a low blow?

The study, which was led by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and published in the Journal of Criminology, examined surveys of more than 7000 school-aged children from nearly 200 schools around the United States. Overall, they reported that the most pervasive bullying occurred in high school, but significant bullying took place during the middle school years, as well. Boys were more likely than girls to be victims of physical bullying, but girls were more likely to be victims of emotional bullying.

Though race and ethnicity were not factors related to bullying or victimization, environmental, cultural, and social factors did play a role. Parental support had a protective role against bullying, while a lack of parental support predicted bullying victimization. Similarly, peer support reduced the likelihood of bullying victimization, but negative peer relationships and a lack of social support were associated with increased bullying.

Another protective effect against bullying came from security measures implemented at schools. Surveillance programs that included video cameras, bag and locker searches, metal detectors, and uniformed officers have been shown to reduce the incidence of bullying. Also, teacher awareness and support of anti-bullying programs at the school reduced the risk of bullying.

The most surprising result, though, was the finding that students who attended schools that implemented anti-bullying programs were more likely to be victims of bullying. The authors suppose that bullies at such schools have essentially learned what not to do and what not to say in order to not get caught.

The bullying is still happening, but it may not look like the bullying identified in the anti-bullying program. Anti-bullying programs do nothing to take away the power of the bully.

Bullying is a relationship problem, and strategies that are better equipped to identify why students bully and to understand the dynamics of the bully-victim relationship will likely lead to more useful and effective anti-bullying strategies. Some anti-bullying programs have had success in reducing the occurrence of victimization, but factors like age, type and severity of bullying, culture and family, and comprehensiveness and durability of the program influence the success.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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