Despite a dramatic increase in public awareness and anti-bullying legislation nationwide, the prevalence of bullying is still one of the most pressing issues facing our nation’s youth, according to a new report by researchers from Clemson University and Professional Data Analysts Inc., and published by the Hazelden Foundation.
“Bullying continues to affect a great number of children in all age groups, with the highest prevalence observed in third and fourth grades, where roughly 22 percent of schoolchildren report that they are bullied two or three times or more per month,” said Dr. Sue Limber, co-author of the report and professor in the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson.
Research shows that bullying affects individuals across ethnicity, gender, grade and socioeconomic status, whether they live in urban, suburban or rural communities. Although school bullying is sometimes dismissed as a childhood rite of passage, this form of aggression has been shown to have long-lasting physical and psychological ramifications for victims as well as for bullies. The effects are so severe, in fact, that they can be detected into adulthood, at least 40 years down the road.
In this new study, the research team sought to estimate the current prevalence of bullying among U.S. schoolchildren. Using data collected from the Olweus Bullying Questionnaire, they analyzed a representative sample of more than 200,000 students at schools that intended to, but had not yet implemented, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, an internationally respected anti-bullying program.The sample included 1,000 girls and 1,000 boys from each grade between third and 12th — and the results were broken down by grade level and gender.
Prevalence of bullying victimization peaks in elementary school
Overall, 15 percent of students reported being recently bullied, though this rose to as high as 23 percent among elementary school children. Six percent of students surveyed reported recently bullying others. The prevalence of bullying victimization steadily dropped with age among both genders, while the prevalence of bullying perpetration decreased with age among girls but increased in high school among boys.
The most common types of bullying reported by students included verbal aggression (i.e., called mean names or teased in a hurtful way), rumors (i.e., targeted by false rumors or lies), and exclusion (i.e., purposefully left out or completely ignored) — experienced by 16 percent, 13 percent, and 12 percent of students, respectively.
A substantial proportion of bullied students did not confide in anyone about being bullied, and boys were less likely to confide in others than girls. Although more than 90 percent of girls and 80 percent of boys said they felt sorry for students who are bullied, far fewer reached out to help them. Underreporting is also a major problem in bullying research, suggesting that the new figures could underestimate the true prevalence.
“Many students also lacked confidence in the administrative and teaching staff to address bullying and, by high school, less than one-third of bullied students had reported bullying to adults at school,” Dr. Limber said. “Although half of students in grades three to five believed that school staff often tried to put a stop to it when a student was being bullied, this percentage dropped to just 36 percent by high school.”
One of the best tools that schools have for decreasing the problems associated with bullying behavior is to implement evidence-based prevention programs, the researchers say. Unfortunately, recent studies indicate that many school anti-bullying programs fail to deliver on their intended results.
“We hope that this report helps teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers and concerned citizens raise national awareness about bullying and improve school environments so every child can feel safe at school,” said Dr. Limber.