Bullies May Be Backing Off

Bullying prevalence appeared to decrease over recent 10-year period

With sustained media attention and the advent of cyberbullying, it might be easy to believe that school bullying is more common than ever. But new research is calling that assumption into question.

No cyber bullying: red circle with line through it.Among nearly 250,000 Maryland students in the fourth through 12th grades, bullying appeared to become less common between 2005 and 2014, this new research found.

Lead study author Dr. Tracy Waasdorp, PhD, Med, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and co-authors used an online survey system developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence to obtain data from 246,306 students from 109 Maryland schools. They measured 13 indicators of bullying, including student reports of being bullied through physical, relational and cyberbullying means.

In 2005, 28.5 percent of the participants reported being victimized through bullying. By 2014, that figure had dropped to 13.4 percent, these researchers found.

Dr. Waasdorp and colleagues found a similar decline in cyberbullying. Six percent of the students reported being cyberbullied in 2005, and only 3.6 percent reported the same in 2014.

And 42.7 percent of students reported witnessing bullying in 2014 — down from 66.4 percent in 2005.

Declines in school bullying could be good news for public health, according to a 2010 bulletin from the World Health Organization. Researchers in that bulletin detailed the health effects bullying can have on students.

“Students involved in bullying are at a significant risk of experiencing a wide spectrum of psychosomatic symptoms, running away from home, alcohol and drug abuse, absenteeism and, above all, self-inflicted, accidental or perpetrated injuries,” according to the WHO document.

Despite the declines in bullying indicators this study identified, participants reported only a small decrease in their sense that bullying was still a problem. In 2005, 50.1 percent of the students indicated that bullying in schools was a problem. Ten years later, that figure had only dropped to 48 percent.

That finding is in line with the recommendations of Drs. Stephen S. Leff, PhD, and Chris Feudtner, MD, PhD, MPH, who wrote an editorial to be published alongside the current study.

The pair wrote that, “… the sobering reality is that schools across the country continue to have a large bullying problem: 48% of youth still report that bullying is a problem and upwards of 40% still indicate that they are witnessing bullying behaviors.”

Efforts by adults and schools to reduce bullying should be sustained and improved upon, Drs. Leff and Feudtner wrote.

“Tackling bullying remains a priority for efforts to improve child well-being,” they wrote in their editorial. “Although the notable improvements over the past 10 years in rates of bullying should provide us with encouragement, we need to sustain our focus to continue the decrease of bullying and victimization in schools across the nation.”

The study and editorial were published in the journal Pediatrics.

The US Department of Education, the William T. Grant Foundation and the National Institute of Justice funded this research. Dr. Waasdorp and colleagues disclosed no potential conflicts of interest.

Pediatrics, “Ten-Year Trends in Bullying and Related Attitudes Among 4th- to 12-Graders”
Pediatrics, ““Tackling Bullying: Grounds for Encouragement and Sustained Focus”
World Health Organization, “Prevention of bullying-related morbidity and mortality: a call for public health policies”
Written by: Alex Lindley | Medically reviewed by: Dr. Robert Carlson, M.D.