US High School Bullying Rates Aren't Going Down

10 years of research on 72,605 US students shows a stunning lack of progress.

Posted Oct 25, 2020

For parents wanting our children to be safe and nurtured to develop into healthy, secure adults, there are too many concerns. Basic needs, the home environment, safety outside of the house, and of course the school environment. Parents entrust children to the custodianship for several hours a day of those who run our schools.

Kids aren't always nice, but bullying crosses the line past "mean kids" and "rough-and-tumble play," violating basic rights, causing humiliation, and fostering an atmosphere of fear and avoidance. Beyond the school, our culture is shot-through with bullying, coercion, harassment, abuse, neglect inequality, bias of more colors than the rainbow—we live in a bullying society. There is plenty of compassion and community... and our cultural systems are also partially grounded in power and abuse of power.

How do schools react? When I've seen this issue brought up in schools, the first reaction is tension. Sometimes, leaders are sympathetic, appearing helpful. At the same time, bringing up bullying leaves one tainted with stigma and mistrust, and more often than not, nothing happens unless denial stops working, e.g. if it gets into the news, if a kid is seriously hurt, if a family pushes it far enough, if there is a group of concerned people, or if something blows up on Instagram.

Even expensive, private schools aren't always doing a good job preventing, detecting and responding to bullying. Playgrounds aren't monitored well, schools don't have clear policies, or if they do they aren't taken seriously, and whistle-blowers are marginalized. Of course, there are exceptions, schools which handle bullying right, and set the standard. What follows is more typical.

What happens to bullied students? Bullied students are often individually pathologized, pressed into mental health treatment (which they often need at that point). The individual pathology can be used later to downplay the impact of bullying trauma in a manner akin to a damage control oriented HR proceeding. They may suggest a different school would suit your child better, an expression of gaslighting considering the ubiquity of bullying. Real caring gets interlarded with circling the wagons, leaving systemic issues unaddressed and people silenced.

What happens to bullies? Kids who bully may be "disciplined" but only a handful of schools adopt a rational, evidence-based approach or are really open to dialogue about the elephant in the room—as with sexual abuse—at least until something really bad happens, rendering denial and silencing no longer viable.

Kids who bully typically have problems of their own, and are best approached with compassion and curiosity, with an attitude of inquiry and learning. The most adaptive responses support systemic improvement, rather than suppressing the truth by pretending it is only an individual problem for the bully as well. 

Failing to address the structural causes of bullying perpetuates the problem. The systemic response is arguably the most damaging, the systemic fix the most useful. 

What defines bullying?

According to StopBullying.gov, the CDC outlines three core elements:. Notably, the definition of bullying is about actions, behavior, not intent. Bullying does not have to be malicious or purposeful:

  • unwanted aggressive behavior
  • observed or perceived power imbalance
  • repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors

Bullying is common, affecting about 1 out of 5 students in the US and more globally. Bully can take place in many locations in the school, hallways, stairs, cafeteria, outside on school grounds, in bathrooms and locker rooms, and other places. Less than half of bullied students tell an adult.

Schools are meant to be working on this issues, and proving what they do is effective1. There are many local initiatives in place to address bullying, and evidence-based programs which have been deployed to change systems. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is one such system, used in many schools. The tools are there, but the will is not, and resources are often scarce.

Who is at risk of being bullied?

Those who:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

This includes kids with learning differences, physical infirmities, those from poorer families, immigrants and ethnic groups, and LGBTIQ youth, among others. Whether in-person or cyberbullying, bullying aims to hurt, potentially ruining kids' lives:

  • Being the subject of rumors or lies (13.4%)
  • Being made fun of, called names, or insulted (13.0%)
  • Pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on (5.3%)
  • Leaving out/exclusion (5.2%)
  • Threatened with harm (3.9%)
  • Others tried to make them do things they did not want to do (1.9%)
  • Property was destroyed on purpose (1.4%)

Are anti-bullying efforts working?

Is bullying declining in the United States? To look at this question, researchers analyzed bullying research in BMC Public Health (2020) of over 72,000 9-12 US graders. Data was pulled from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from 2011 to 2019. They were asked about traditional victimization (Were they bullied in the last 12 months on school property?), cyberbullying, and between 2017 and 2019 about being bullied specifically via social media or texting. Demographic data were also collected, showing an ethnically diverse group, equally boys and girls.

The main findings were as follows. First, bullying rates did not decline from 2011 to 2019, remaining steady around 20 percent. On the face of it, anti-bullying initiatives are not working.

Cyberbullying rates were above 15 percent, and over 60 percent in this sample reported both. Female students were significantly more likely to be bullied for both types of bullying, 23.29 percent for traditional bullying versus 16.14 percent for boys, and for cyberbullying 21 percent versus 9.96 percent, double the rate. 

The inconvenient truth

Photo by Callum Skelton on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Callum Skelton on Unsplash

It isn’t clear why anti-bullying efforts don’t seem to be working. Study authors suggest this may be because initiatives reduce verbal and physical bullying, but not relational bullying, which is reportedly the most common form of bullying in US students, especially girls. Needless to say, bullying has a close relationship with all kind of discrimination.

Do we downplay emotional abuse? Is gender-based discrimination dismissed with bullying as it is in virtually every other part of society? Do we idealize being "tough" emotionally, so that relational bullying isn't considered important? Emotional abuse is just as bad, worse in some ways. The risk for future emotionally-abusive relationships begins at home, rooted in parenting style.

We need to shift culture, starting with school leadership joining with parents, teachers and students. And the overall society has to take bullying seriously—but we tend to worship bullies, turning a blind eye to abuse of power. Organizations have an obligation to provide a safe environment, installing protective factors, identifying and responding to bullying, and building capacity to create safe environments, but whistleblowers get silenced, and often pushed out—rather than embraced.

Because bullying can lead to depression, anxiety and other illnesses, including contributing to suicide risk and problems in adulthood including social anxiety and impaired sense of self with difficulty in personal relationships and professional success, dealing with the bullying epidemic is of paramount importance. Bullying is a form of trauma, one which strikes to the core of one's being.

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1. New York passed The Dignity for All Students Act on September 13, 2010.

“New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act) seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.

New York State has legislation designed to address bullying spelled out at StopBullying.gov as follows:

New York school districts must establish and implement policies, procedures, and guidelines to create a school environment that is free from harassment, bullying and discrimination. School district policies must contain key policy and procedural elements, including, but not limited to: Designation of a school employee responsible for receiving reports of harassment, bullying, and discrimination; Procedures for reporting, investigations, and documentation; Requirements for the school to take prompt actions reasonably calculated to end the harassment, bullying or discrimination, eliminate any hostile environment, create a more positive school culture and climate, prevent recurrence of the behavior, and ensure the safety of the student or students against whom such harassment, bullying or discrimination was directed; Prohibitions against retaliation against any individual who reports harassment, bullying or discrimination; Strategies to prevent harassment, bullying and discrimination; Requirements for notification of law enforcement for any incident of harassment, bullying, or discrimination that constitutes criminal conduct; and Requirements for how the district policy will be publicized within the district. New York anti-bullying laws require districts to regularly report data and trends related to harassment, bullying and discrimination to the superintendent.