"Love criticism. It will bring you to your highest level." — Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." – Ancient Wisdom
Author's Transparency Declaration: I declare that I am part of the anti-bullying industry that I am criticizing. I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.
A research study was recently published that is so important it should have been carried by all the media and be creating an uproar. An article about the study in US New and World Report says, “A team of researchers found that students at schools with anti-bullying initiatives are actually more likely to be victims of bullying than students who attend schools without such programs.”
The purpose of research is to help solve problems. Unfortunately, as I will be explaining, the well-intentioned researchers who conducted this study, like bullying researchers before them, are unwittingly promoting the intensification of the bullying problem.
Ever since Columbine spawned the worldwide anti-bully crusade, I have been warning that it could not possibly work and will cause more harm than good. I believe this should have been obvious to anyone who understands psychology and works with real people.
In the ensuing years there has been a slew of research studies confirming my predictions. They have been consistently revealing that the most highly regarded anti-bullying programs rarely produce more than a minor reduction in bullying and often result in an increase. However, people, including psychological professionals, despise bullies and want to see them eradicated, so they refuse to accept what the growing body of knowledge is telling them. They stubbornly insist the solution is to implement the counterproductive strategies more intensively.
Rather than thanking me for showing them the truth and trying to save them from the error of their ways, people barrage me with hateful responses. (Read the comments to my blogs to see what I am talking about.) Rather than becoming furious with researchers who promote expensive, time-consuming programs they know have been proven—often by their own research!—to be largely ineffective or even worse, people would rather kill the messenger.
The symbiotic relationship between reporters and researchers
A powerful symbiotic relationship has developed between the news media and bullying researchers. The media need sensational, heart wrenching stories to promote their ratings. Few subjects have fulfilled this need as well as bullying. There seems to be an endless stream of bullying horror stories in the news. The idea that schools are infested with vampire-like children preying on helpless, innocent victims is the next best thing for them to the actual existence of vampires.
Researchers, in turn, need the media to bring their studies to the general public. They send out press releases with dramatic titles about their research hoping that lots of news outlets will carry them. Being presented in the popular media makes the researchers’ work more influential and enhances their stature within their profession.
The public, too, is mesmerized by these frightening and titillating stories, and can be relied on to clamor for tougher anti-bullying initiatives. Not coincidentally, this free public relations service provided by the media is wonderful for the business interests of researchers who sell anti-bullying programs. (I wish I could call myself a researcher. Maybe then the major news media would publicize my work, too, and get society on the right track to solving the bullying problem.)
The myth about researchers
The danger to society is that the media have bought into a myth (ardently promoted by anti-bullying researchers) that researchers are unbiased conduits of absolute truth and are the ones to turn to for the solutions to life’s problems. Furthermore, reporters need to protect themselves from lawsuits. They believe they are covering their behinds by presenting the work of researchers, for they can defend their stories as being not merely opinion, but scientifically validated truth. Thus, everything a researcher says, regardless of its quality of logic, is accepted as gospel––simply because they are researchers. What the public, including the media, don’t seem to care to realize is that the bullying researchers don’t have a scientifically objective understanding of the phenomenon of bullying and don’t know how to reduce its impact. That’s why their recommendations aren’t working. The entire bullying field is based on the work of a single well-intentioned researcher, Prof. Dan Olweus, who a few decades ago created a flawed paradigm of bullying and recommended an array of mostly counterproductive interventions that are more in line with the thinking of a law enforcement officer than a psychologist. The program he developed is now earning hundreds of millions of dollars despite its questionable effectiveness.
Researchers, by the way, aren’t happy discovering the poor results of their beloved programs and policies. So they invariably put a positive spin in their reports and press releases, in the attempt to make the programs and policies look better than they actually are. Reporters willing to carry the story blindly accept the positive spin because they are given to them by researchers. Thus, the well-intentioned researchers and reporters collude in preserving their––and the public’s––belief in the virtue of anti-bullying programs and policies.
The researchers recommend what hasn't been working
This latest study is really, really important news. Imagine—scientists inform us that we are spending time and money on programs intended to protect children from being bullied and they are putting kids in greater danger of being bullied!
But even worse, the researchers fail to accept the results of their own study. Instead of concluding that we need to get rid of anti-bullying programs because they are making the problem worse, or that we need to look for a radically different approach to bullying, they did what researchers typically do: justify the failing approach and recommend intensifying it:
Jeong and Lee [the researchers] suggested that schools should develop "more sophisticated" strategies that go beyond implementing preventive programs and move towards "systemic change within the schools," such as employing guards, using metal detectors or conducting bag and locker searches."
(By the way, the great majority of bullying is verbal or relational. How will metal detectors and locker searches help? Or do we just hire "speech security guards" to accompany students at all times?)
Why have the programs been failing? It's because they have already been doing precisely what these researchers are recommending. The researchers are misleading when they say we need to “go beyond preventive programs and move towards 'systemic change.'” The popular anti-bullying programs are far more than "preventive." They are "whole school programs" whose goals are to make "systemic changes" as well as to actively apprehend bullies and bring them to justice after the bullying has occurred. They enlist the entire school population to eliminate what they call "the bullying culture of society." They require school staff to monitor all areas of the school campus and all of children's interactions. They require everyone in the school and in the general community to be involved in standing up for victims against bullies. They require schools to conduct comprehensive investigation, reporting, judging and punishing (“administering consequences”) of every act and complaint of bullying. The popular programs are most definitely systemic ones.
These programs are failing because they are remaking schools in the image of totalitarian police systems. Totalitarian police systems are not friendly, happy places. They punish people for speaking and assembling freely. They make the people suspicious and hateful of each other by turning them into spies and informers. They make people suspicious and hateful of the authorities as well for monitoring all their behavior and punishing them for things that should rightfully be none of their business.
So what are the current researchers’ solution to bullying: turn the schools into absolute totalitarian police systems!
Thank heaven for the wisdom of researchers!
My Policy Regarding Comments: I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.