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Bullying: Serious, Lasting Psychological Consequences
Megan Brooks
May 10, 2016

Bullying is a serious public health problem, with significant short- and long-term psychological consequences for the child who is bullied, the child who is the bully, the child who is both bully and victim, and bystanders, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).

Addressing the problem and making a tangible difference in the lives of children will require a multifaceted approach involving federal and state governments and agencies, communities, schools, and families, as well as healthcare providers and social media, the committee that wrote the report says.

The 311-page report, Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice, provides an overview of the state of the science behind the harmful effects of bullying and a "roadmap" for reducing the presence and impact of bullying on children.

Pivotal Time for Prevention

"Bullying has long been tolerated as a rite of passage among children and adolescents, but it has lasting, negative consequences and cannot simply be ignored," committee chair Frederick Rivara, MD, Seattle Children's Hospital Guild Endowed Chair in Pediatric Research and professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington, said in a news release.

"This is a pivotal time for bullying prevention, and while there is not a quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution, the evidence clearly supports preventive and interventional policy and practice," he added.

Although estimates are hard to come by, bullying likely affects between 18% and 31% of children and youth; the prevalence of cyberbullying ranges from 7% to 15%. Rates are likely higher for vulnerable subgroups, such as individuals who have disabilities, are obese, or who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Children who are bullied may suffer a range of physical problems, including sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, depression, and anxiety, the report notes. Forthcoming neurobiological research suggests that "social pain is physical pain, which underscores the serious nature and problematic impact of these chronic experiences with harassment," committee member Sandra Graham, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, noted during a media briefing.

Children who bully others are more likely to suffer depression, engage in high-risk activities, such as theft and vandalism, and have adverse health outcomes later in life compared with those who do not bully, the report notes. Children who both bully others and are victims appear to be at greatest risk for psychological and social problems.

Children involved in bullying as perpetrators, targets, or both are more likely to think about or attempt suicide, but the committee says there is not enough evidence to conclude that bullying is a causal factor in youth suicides. The role of bullying as a precipitating cause of school shootings is also unclear.

Ditch Zero-Tolerance Policies

Evidence suggests that the most effective multicomponent antibullying programs are those that promote a positive school environment and that combine social and emotional skill-building for all students and targeted interventions for those at greatest risk of being involved in bullying, the committee concludes.

School-based programs that involve all students regardless of their risk of bullying or of being bullied, such as those in which counselors or teachers present strategies for responding to bullying, appear to be of modest benefit.

On the other hand, emerging evidence suggests that zero-tolerance policies that impose automatic suspension or expulsion of students from school are "generally not effective" and may "do more harm than good," reported committee member Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Zero-tolerance policies may lead to underreporting of bullying incidents, because the consequence is perceived as too harsh, the committee warns. The committee recommends that these programs be discontinued.

The report also highlights the important role families play in preventing bullying by providing emotional support to encourage speaking up about incidents of bullying and by fostering coping skills in their children. The role of peers as bystanders and as intervention program leaders in the prevention of bullying requires further research to determine its effectiveness, the committee concludes.

The committee recommends that the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the state attorneys general, and local education agencies work together with researchers to collect data on an ongoing basis regarding the efficacy and implementation of antibullying laws and policies to help guide legislators who may amend existing laws or create new ones. During the past 15 years, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted or revised laws to address bullying, and all except Alaska include cyberbullying in their statutes.

Given the varying use of the terms "bullying" and "peer victimization" in research and practice, the committee also recommends that the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention interagency group work to foster use of a consistent definition of bullying.

The committee also recommends that federal agencies work with relevant stakeholders to develop, implement, and evaluate evidence-based programs to train professionals and volunteers who work with children and adolescents to prevent bullying and to address bullying behaviors.

The report also calls on social media companies to adopt policies and programs to prevent, identify, and respond to cyberbullying and to publish their antibullying policies on their websites.

The report was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Health Resources and Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Highmark Foundation, the National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Foundation, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

National Academies Press. Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Abstract

Full booklet in attached PDF.


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