- Sixteen years of month-long bullying prevention campaigns have failed in their ostensible missions.
- The indisputable beneficiary of these yearly campaigns is the anti-bullying industry.
- These month-long bullying prevention campaigns are the best advertising, being both free and more trusted by the public than paid ads.
- A never-ending need for the bullying industry is created when the legally mandated approach is counterproductive.
The end of October signified the close of the sixteenth National Bullying Prevention Month. Initiated by Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, they have been taking place since 2006. Their purpose, as stated on their website, is to, “prevent childhood bullying and promote kindness, acceptance, and inclusion.”
During these month-long campaigns, many schools and anti-bullying organizations hold anti-bullying events. The news media ramps us its coverage of stories on bullying, including its great prevalence, the tremendous devastation it causes, and the need to eliminate it.
The campaigns have accomplished very little
The problem is that these yearly month-long campaigns have accomplished precious little, as we see in this typical news story from Louisiana from Oct. 24, appropriately titled, National Bullying Prevention Month. It quotes statistics about how frequently kids are bullied—“once every seven minutes.” How did they come up with this number? It may sound high, but considering there are tens of millions of kids in the country, it is probably a gross underestimation. It’s likely a factoid publicized by some anti-bullying organization years ago that gets repeated when lazy reporters mine the Internet for juicy soundbites on bullying.
More significantly, the story presents an oft-repeated statistic that, "Only four in 100 adults will intervene and only 11 percent of the child’s peers might do the same. The rest—85 percent—will do nothing." Why, with all of these years of intensive anti-bullying prevention awareness efforts, are people still not getting involved to stop bullying? (For my answer to that question, read Burger King Video Proves Folly of Relying on Bystanders.)
The Louisiana article also informs us that:
According to WalletHub, Louisiana…has the fifth highest percentage in the country for high school student being involved in physical fights on school campus. Louisiana has the second highest percentage of high school students that have attempted suicide. This is all due to bullying.
It's all due to bullying? Really? Undoubtedly many bullying researchers and organizations would dispute this statement. But reporters need to alert the public about the devastating problem of bullying during National Bullying Prevention Month, so they publish whatever they believe fits the bill, without engaging in serious scrutiny.
The effect of COVID-19 policies
Not everything in the bullying realm has stayed the same. The school closures during the past two years, in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, have had a substantial effect on bullying. For one, the closures naturally resulted in reduced bullying within schools, bringing a welcome reprieve for many of its perennial victims. On the other hand, many articles have appeared informing us that cyberbullying has increased during the pandemic, as bullying shifts from the classroom to the digital environment. Cyberbullying increases during COVID-19 pandemic is a story that appeared on Oct. 5 in Au Claire, Michigan, citing the scientifically reputable Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC). However, the title is somewhat misleading, as CRC’s Prof. Justin Patchin reports that:
Research has shown that cyberbullying has been increasing across the United States for the last 10 years among middle school and high school students. He also said it has gone up a bit more during the pandemic.
Cyberbullying, then, may have gone up slightly due to the COVID school closures, but it’s been on the rise for an entire decade, well before the pandemic. In other words, the annual National Bullying Prevention campaigns don’t seem to be accomplishing their goals. Why, then, haven't they been discontinued by now?
To answer that question, it is useful to consider who benefits from these yearly campaigns.
Who are the real beneficiaries?
While the answer should be schools and children, the unequivocal beneficiary is the anti-bullying industry. Like the medical industry, it makes money when schools and students continue to suffer.
The Columbine High School massacre of 1999 ignited the worldwide determination to eliminate bullying from schools. To fill this dire need, an industry subsequently evolved. This industry includes the creators and purveyors of bullying prevention programs, non-profit anti-bullying organizations, school bullying coordinators and counselors, researchers, motivational speakers, and lawyers who sue schools for failing to make bullying stop.
The failure to find a reliable solution to bullying
Had this industry, including the myriad researchers who have published thousands of studies, discovered reliable approaches to prevent bullying, the so-called epidemic of bullying might have gone the way of AIDS by now and we would no longer need these yearly anti-bullying campaigns.
Some researchers have discovered such approaches. One of the best examples is Dr. Karyn Healy, the focus of a recent blog entry, Trailblazing Researcher Challenges Antibullying Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, such solutions have not become dominant because they run counter the basic philosophy of the anti-bullying field, which treats bullying as a crime from which children need to be protected and violators need to be apprehended, judged, and punished and/or rehabilitated, rather than as an inevitable aspect of social life that people need to learn to handle.
Furthermore, the anti-bullying industry made a brilliant business move, at the urging of the revered founder of the field of bullying psychology, the recently deceased Prof. Dan Olweus of Norway. It successfully lobbied for laws that hold schools responsible for preventing bullying. This guarantees two things. One, to avoid lawsuits, schools will make bullying prevention a priority, and therefore will need the services of the anti-bullying industry. Two, it requires schools to treat bullying as a crime. Unfortunately, doing so tends to intensify the problem of bullying. While this is bad for students and the school community, it conveniently ensures a permanent need for the anti-bullying industry.
Awareness campaigns, the best advertising
Every industry needs publicity, as well as perceived legitimacy. The public needs to be aware that there is a serious problem and that there are services available to solve it.
Paid advertising can cost huge sums, and the public may realize the advertisers are self-interested and profit-driven. News stories are an entirely different animal. Possessing an aura of objectivity and freedom from monetary interest, they are more readily trusted. Business owners know that a positive, well-positioned article in the news media can generate more response than an expensive, paid advertisement.
That's where official awareness campaigns come in. These are opportunities for highly valuable, free advertising. But they benefit not only the service providers but also the news media, which need a constant stream of new stories. Bullying is a titillating subject that can be counted on to draw attention. Because so many of the news stories are about the terrible frequency and harm caused by bullying, bullying has become a primary fear of parents, the people most likely to demand school anti-bullying services. Thus, a symbiotic relationship has sprung up between the press and the anti-bullying industry.
Furthermore, the public is largely fooled about the objectivity of the bullying stories, which they assume to be produced by independent reporters. In reality, most are reprints of press releases sent to them by self-interested bodies looking for free, quality advertising. This makes the reporters' jobs easier, as they need only copy and paste, or reword to their taste.
While many causes have an awareness day or week, anti-bullying has no less than an entire month. It is a free advertising campaign worth untold millions of dollars.
Please forgive the bad news, but until the orthodox legalistic approach to bullying is replaced by a psychological one that seeks to empower individuals to handle it, we can expect many more years of these month-long rituals that accomplish little for the intended beneficiaries.
Transparency Declaration: the author is a member and beneficiary of the anti-bullying industry that is being criticized in this article.