Author's Transparency Declaration: I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.
Trigger Warning: This article may challenge your cherished beliefs about bullying. If it will distress you, you should not read it.
A recent study on the prevalence of bullying, conducted by renowned bullying researcher Catherine Bradshaw, has been making the rounds of news media, most recently in a New York Times article this week called, “In the Fight Against Bullying, a Glimmer of Hope.” The study showed a substantial reduction in bullying over the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, another recent study has shown an increase in youth suicides from 1999 to 2014, the very period that society has been waging its hopeful fight against bullying. The greatest increase was among 10- to 14-year-old girls, tripling in frequency.
A tragic illustration of this trend is the highly publicized suicide of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman in New Jersey. On August 1, her parents, Dianne and Seth, held a press conference at their New Jersey lawyers’ offices announcing a bullying lawsuit against their school district. The bereaved parents are hoping that punishing school districts for failing to stop bullying will eliminate bullying and the resultant suicides. Supporting them in a cameo role were the parents of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student whose suicide helped spur the passage of what New Jersey proudly declared to be the country’s toughest school anti-bullying law.
Shortly afterwards, the Rockaway Township School Administration and Board of Education announced that “claims they did nothing to end the bullying that allegedly led to a 12-year-old cheerleader’s suicide are ‘categorically false.’” This is the same claim made by virtually every school accused of negligence in stopping bullying. (And the schools are usually telling the truth. It's just that their efforts are likely to make the bullying worse.)
In another highly publicized story coming out of Cincinnati, the parents of 8-year-old Gabriel Taye are suing Cincinnati Public Schools for failing to prevent the bullying that led to his suicide. The same news article tells us about a tripling in the region’s youth suicide rate:
Gabriel’s death came amid an outbreak of youth suicide in the region as measured by the Hamilton County coroner’s office. For close to 20 years, the average number of suicide deaths by people 18 and younger was five. In 2016, there were 13. So far in 2017, there have been 10 – the county’s first consecutive double-digit annual tally.
Local mental-health officials have said they do not know the reasons behind the increase in suicide deaths, although bullying, in school and over the internet, is a risk factor for mental health issues.
My heart bleeds for the parents of Gabriel, Mallory, and all who have lost a child to a suicide as a response to bullying. Unfortunately, they are directing their efforts and resources in counterproductive directions. The toughest anti-bullying laws and a myriad of bullying lawsuits have done nothing to stem the tide of suicides. In fact, as I have been arguing for years, they are probably accomplishing the opposite. Jane Clementi, Tyler’s mother and founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, has reported in response to Mallory’s case, “Progress against bullying has been made, but slowly.” Meaning, "too slowly to help Mallory." In fact, an August 13 article reported that “bullying in Rockaway Township tripled” in the period prior to Mallory’s suicide. New Jersey’s heralded anti-bullying law is as dismal a failure as Ohio’s.
The connection between bullying and suicide
For various reasons, it is difficult to establish the precise relationship between bullying and suicide. However, a relationship has long been obvious. In fact, Prof. Dan Olweus, the father of the anti-bullying movement, began his work on bullying in Scandinavia in the 1970s because of a series of suicides committed by students who could no longer tolerate being bullied.
The bullying/suicide connection has been increasingly publicized in recent years, as anti-bullying activists take advantage of every bullying related suicide to promote the passage or intensification of anti-bullying laws and policies. Stories of suicides spurred by bullying appear in the news with heartbreaking frequency. The connection was the basis of the recent Netflix hit series, 13 Reasons Why. Any professional who works with victims of bullying knows how terribly they suffer. It should not surprise us that a small percentage of them take their lives out of despair that nothing is helping.
Suicides are like the canary in the coal mine, a reflection of how well the fight against bullying is working. When researchers find that bullying is going down during the same period that suicides are going up, we must question the research.
Why the bullying research is misleading us
Psychological researchers are smart. The competition to get into a PhD psychology program is fierce. And the cream of the cream achieves the stature of Catherine Bradshaw. So why do they come up with conclusions that are apparently at odds with reality. Why do we read stories like “Bullying on the rise in NYC schools, reports jump 10 percent compared to 2016” at the same time leading researchers inform us that bullying is going down?
First, it must be clear that bullying researchers are not trying to fool us. They have good intentions and try to draw the best conclusions they can from the data they amass. Bradshaw’s study properly includes numerous cautions regarding her study.
However, there are several factors that may have contributed to misleading conclusions. I will list only a couple of them before I get to the most important one.
Confirmation bias: Bradshaw is Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and the Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention. She receives multimillion-dollar grants for researching bullying and its reduction. Without positive findings, her work efforts and their massive funding will not be justified. For example, a few years ago she was in charge of a $13.5 million dollar study of the effectiveness of PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) in reducing bullying. The results found, "By the end of the study, both the signs of bullying and rejection increased at both groups of schools [intervention and control]." Yes, bullying got worse, not better. But she declared the program a success because bullying went up even more in the control group.
Inconsistent data: The study compares bullying in 2015 to bullying in 2005. In 2005 anti-bully passion was in its prime, probably resulting in an intensification of the bullying problem. A better comparison would be with bullying prior to 1999, before Columbine ignited the war against bullying. However, bullying was not surveyed then as it is now, so there is no accurate data available for comparison.
The most important reason
Now, for the most important reason Bradshaw found a decrease in bullying: What bullying researchers are measuring is not bullying.
What? They’re not measuring bullying? But isn’t that exactly what their research studies are designed to do?
Seemingly, yes, but in reality, no. What they are measuring is general aggression. They use the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire. Prof. Dan Olweus created the modern academic definition of bullying, and one of the three basic elements is “repetitiveness.” Thus, bullying is defined in the questionnaire as aggression occurring “twice or more per month.”
The percentage of children involved in aggression twice or more per month is quite high. People, especially children, are not saints and they are often mean to one another. If you are a student who’s involved in aggression a handful of times per month, you are not suffering much. It’s normal life. During my career, I have had hundreds of children come to me for help with bullying, not one of them because they were being picked on a few times a month. They were all being picked on every single day – multiple times per day. In fact, some of them were being picked on more than all their classmates combined.
It’s because of the kids who are being targeted on a daily basis that the anti-bullying movement came into being. These are the children who are miserable, who hate coming to school, and who contemplate violence against themselves or others. The prevalence of such children is what researchers should be surveying if they wish to assess the effectiveness of anti-bullying efforts.
But the researchers don’t focus on these children. They lump together everyone being aggressed against twice or more per month, as though there is no difference between someone who experiences occasional aggression and someone that is scapegoated every day, all day long.
What Bradshaw’s results really reveal about the bullying problem
If we examine Bradshaw’s results , we discover that the percentage of true bullying victims indeed remained stable even while general school safety increased. Table 4 of her report shows that while there were considerable declines in frequency of aggression in the past 10 years, there were three important areas in which there was no change. One is “aggressive retaliation,” steady at around 50 percent of students. Retaliation is not bullying; it is victim behavior, for by definition, retaliation is what one does in response to being victimized. This means that the prevalence of children feeling victimized and attacking in response has not changed.
Another measure is students feeling that “bullying is a problem.” This has remained steady, also at around 50 percent. Students apparently are not noticing that bullying is disappearing from their schools.
But perhaps the most significant measure is that of “belonging,” which has stayed stable over time at around 80 percent of children. This also means that over time, about 20 percent of children feel they do not belong.
And who are the children who feel they do not belong? These are the true victims of bullying, the ones who suffer perpetual ridicule and exclusion by other students. These are the children who are miserable, who hate coming to school, who contemplate violence against themselves and others. And their prevalence has not been reduced despite the schools’ successful efforts in making schools safer, because bullying is a different beast from overall aggression.
Furthermore, considering the extraordinary increase in the suicide rate, we need to consider the likelihood that those 20 percent of students who feel they don’t belong are even more miserable and desperate than their predecessors. Since one of the major changes that have taken place between 1999 and 2014 is the establishment of anti-bullying laws and policies, we need to examine whether these initiatives are unwittingly intensifying the misery of victims of bullying.
In a previous article, I listed several reasons that anti-bullying policies can result in intensified bullying . The following is the most crucial: when a targeted child follows protocol by informing the school authorities, the authorities proceed to fulfill their mandate to investigate and interrogate students, causing hostilities to escalate, especially towards the informing child. If we examine news of bullying that led to serious acts of violence, we discover that the violence almost always occurred after the school authorities got involved.
Only when the researchers find a meaningful reduction in the percentage of children who feel they don’t belong can schools rightfully claim that their anti-bullying procedures are successful.
The faulty assumption of bullying researchers
The general assumption in bullying reduction is that making schools safer will make bullying go down. However, this assumption is unfounded.
It can be relatively easy for a school armed with a strict discipline policy and an effective enforcement system to reduce general aggression and increase safety for the majority of students. Just like adults, children are less likely to engage in aggression if they know they are likely to get caught and punished.
But bullying is a different beast. The reason that bullying induced school shootings shocked us is that they were happening not in crime-and-violence-ridden schools but in quality schools populated by “good kids” from educated middle- and upper-middle-class families, where the only serious violence was occurring on the football field.
Bullying is different from general aggression
The great majority of victims of bullying are not plagued by serious physical violence; they are subject to relentless name-calling, rumors, social exclusion, and occasional verbal threats or non-injurious physical aggression.
Bullying almost inevitably ends up developing whenever groups of children are together for a prolonged period, such as in school, summer camp or even Boy and Girl Scouts. Within groups there is competition for dominance. One way to achieve dominance is to put someone else down. Thus, some group members take to insulting or isolating another member. That member gets upset because s/he wants to stop being targeted, but by getting upset, s/he unwittingly is giving the aggressors precisely what they are looking for, so the attacks become repetitive and the bullying situation becomes chronic. Some other members of the group are likely to join the attacks against the victim as, they, too, discover it can be fun to put someone else down, or to be among the “cool kids” who display dominance.
A group does not make a victim out of every single member. One or two members become scapegoats and the rest of the members are left alone. This process goes on even in groups of the “nicest kids” from the “nicest families.” That’s why you will find one or two victims of bullying in almost every classroom in every school in the world. It is unrelated to the overall level of danger in the school.
There may be an inverse relationship between general aggression and bullying
It would be worthwhile exploring (if it hasn’t already) whether there is an inverse relationship between serious violence and bullying in a school. Perhaps in violence-ridden schools, the sense of danger is generalized, with all students concerned with survival, so that minor aggression such as name calling and social exclusion is not an issue for them. In fact, kids who attend violent schools tend to laugh at kids from safe schools for getting upset by insults or exclusion from a party.
And perhaps it is in safe schools that children have the conditions needed to establish stable cliques, the environment in which scapegoating of an individual member can readily develop.
Suggestions for researchers
If researchers want to do a more accurate job of assessing the suffering caused by bullying and the effectiveness of efforts to reduce it, they should:
Suggestion for activist parents of children who committed suicide
Many parents have established anti-bullying foundations in the aftermath of their children’s suicides. They are supported by funds from the public who sympathize with their tragedy and wish to prevent further suicides.
These parents are not experts in bullying prevention. Hoping to get their money's worth, they turn to renowned bullying experts for advice on the anti-bullying initiatives their foundation should fund. Unfortunately, these experts have not found the solution, either. Their programs have been proven to have little benefit in reducing bullying and often to result in an increase.
If these parent-run foundations truly want to prevent suicides, it is absolutely necessary that they explore non-conventional approaches. I welcome them to read an explanation about how to reduce bullying and suicide with a minimum of financial investment.
Ten-Year Trends in Bullying and Related Attitudes Among 4th- to 12th-Graders http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2017/04/27/peds.2016-2615
Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014 http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/22/474888854/suicide-rates-climb-in-u-s-especially-among-adolescent-girls