Bullying Decreases among Middle School and High School Students

NIH study also finds slight increase in weapon-carrying among white students

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Barrett Whitener: A new study found that bullying among students in grades six through ten declined significantly between 1998 and 2010. Fighting among students also declined, although less dramatically. From the National Institutes of Health, I'm Barrett Whitener, and this is Research Developments, a podcast from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

With me today is the study's lead author, Jessamyn Perlus, of the NICHD's Prevention Research Branch. Ms. Perlus and her colleagues defined bullying as taking place when a student or group of students says or does nasty or unpleasant things to another student. This might include teasing someone repeatedly in a way he or she doesn't like; deliberately leaving someone out of activities; hitting, kicking, or other forms of physical violence; or spreading rumors. The study found no decline in weapon-carrying in the 12-year period, but there was an increase in carrying weapons among white students. 

Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Perlus.

Jessamyn Perlus: Thanks for having me.

Mr. Whitener: Ms. Perlus, why did you and your colleagues look at the trends in bullying among students in middle school?

Ms. Perlus: We were interested in bullying because it's a pretty serious issue with lasting emotional, physical and behavioral consequences, not only for the victims, but also for the perpetrators. So, we know that awareness of this problem has been growing recently, but we wanted to look at the 12-year span because we have a unique opportunity with our data set. So, we wanted to look at not only how these four different—bullying, victimization, physical fighting, and weapon carrying—vary, but also what kind of changes there are between gender, grade, and race/ethnicity.

Mr. Whitener: Now, you cite in the study that these violent behaviors are associated with a number of negative behavior emotional outcomes that can last into adulthood, is that true?

Ms. Perlus: Yeah, there are associated problems like emotional, poor psychological functioning, insecurity, anxiety, depression, we also have extreme cases of self-harm or physical injury, and then behavioral problems. Even the bullies show conduct problems or alcohol involvement. So, a lot of previous research has looked into the kind of correlates of these behaviors.

Mr. Whitener: Now, other studies have examined bullying, but your study explores some new aspects of the subject, doesn't it?

Ms. Perlus: Yeah, we wanted to look at both factors that were involved including physical fighting in school and also the addition of weapon-carrying, which is kind of a newly-interesting topic.

Mr. Whitener: Can you tell us please a bit more about the trends you identified?

Ms. Perlus: Sure. First of all, bullying as you said in schools, decreased. We had a rate of about 16.5 percent to 7.5 percent in 2010, which we found encouraging. And similarly, victimization also decreased. We think that the increased attention to bullying and responses by anti-bullying campaigns, perhaps school policies, we hope that these efforts may be connected to the decline in bullying over that 12-year period.

Mr. Whitener: So, a nine percent decrease from 1998 to 2010 overall. Can you go into a little bit of detail about the demographic breakdowns, what happened among different groups?

Ms. Perlus: Sure. We know that boys had higher rates of bullying and victimization than girls, so they had larger declines. And then all of the sub-groups as well declined to a certain extent. For example, the sixth-to-eighth graders and the ninth-to-tenth graders showed declines, and all of our races that we looked at, also showed declines.

Mr. Whitener: Can you discuss the trends you discovered related to being a victim of bullying, physical fighting, and weapon-carrying? You mentioned that those rates went down overall. Can you go into a bit more detail about that?

Ms. Perlus: Yeah, we tested for significant differences and we found that there were differences in grade, which were a little interesting. Sixth-to-eighth-graders had significantly more victimization than ninth-to-tenth graders, in every year that we looked at, but again the rates went down in both of those groups.

Mr. Whitener: And among physical fighting and weapon-carrying?

Ms. Perlus: Those didn't reach significance in every case, but those rates remained stable or went down a little bit.

Mr. Whitener: And the small but significant increase you mentioned in weapon-carrying, what do you think may be causing that to buck the trend, as it were?

Ms. Perlus: One thing that's notable is that the white students started with lower rates than the other groups that we looked at. Now, they are roughly at 13 percent—I'm sorry, 15 percent and that's pretty close to all the other groups. So, while they did have an increase, they're not doubling every other group right now. And our data also didn't capture reasons for carrying a weapon, so this is definitely a finding that's worthy of further attention.

Mr. Whitener: Regarding the decrease in bullying and being a victim of bullying, do you think there are any particular causes we can point to as being behind those, or possibly behind those decreases?

Ms. Perlus: I would mention there's been a lot of growing awareness to the problem.  Forty-eight states have required schools to implement policies responding to bullying that happens in school, even on the school bus as well.  Independent groups have created anti-bullying campaigns and resources for students who are victims of bullying, and so we think that—and you know, the research that is being published and showing all these lasting consequences that I mentioned. It's all kind of, we think, adding to the decline.

Mr. Whitener: I was interested to note in your study that there's been an analysis recently of over 50 different evaluation studies of school-based bullying prevention programs that showed that the average effect of the programs was to reduce bullying by 20 percent to almost 25 percent, and victimization by up to 20 percent.  Those are very encouraging numbers.

Ms. Perlus: Yeah, they are, and we hope that more researchers and programs are able to look into how these programs might impact physical fighting and weapon-carrying as well, because those programs haven't existed long enough yet to really be evaluated in the same way.

Mr. Whitener: Now, since not as much is known about weapon-carrying and the causes for it, and the increase among white students, is it possible nonetheless to think of some possibly effective methods to reduce weapon-carrying?

Ms. Perlus: Yes. Some schools have implemented programs such as zero tolerance policies and also having metal detectors, and it's not clear exactly how effective these are. It probably varies by school. But I'm not really qualified to make more generalizations than that.

Mr. Whitener: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share on the study?

Ms. Perlus: Yeah. We are really excited to see that these rates of bullying in schools declined. It is notable to mention that we did not capture the impact of cyber-bullying, which is bullying through the means of technology. We think that that may show a different trend, particularly as technology is increasing, but we are pleased to see that our rates of bullying in school decreased. And it remains to be seen how further evidence looks at the consequences of bullying and the different forms it can take.

Mr. Whitener: I've been speaking with Jessamyn Perlus, lead author of a study on trends in bullying, physical fighting, and weapon carrying among adolescents.  The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Perlus.

Ms. Perlus: Thank you for having me.

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