Bullying is a serious public health problem, with significant short- and long-term psychological consequences for both the targets and perpetrators of such behavior, and requires a commitment to developing preventive and interventional policies and practices that could make a tangible difference in the lives of many children, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The programs that appear most effective are those that promote a positive school environment and combine social and emotional skill-building for all students, with targeted interventions for those at greatest risk for being involved in bullying. There is emerging research that widely used zero-tolerance policies — those that impose automatic suspension or expulsion of students from school after one bullying incident — are not effective at curbing bullying or making schools safer and should be discontinued. Instead, resources should be directed to evidence-based policies and programs for bullying prevention in the United States.
Until recently, most bullying typically occurred at school or other places where children play or congregate, but an abundance of new technologies has led to cyberbullying, through chat rooms, social media, and other forms of digital communication. Although it is difficult to determine the extent of bullying due to definitional and measurement inconsistencies, bullying likely affects between 18 percent and 31 percent of children and youth, and the prevalence of cyberbullying ranges from 7 percent to 15 percent. Estimates are even higher for subgroups who are particularly vulnerable, such as individuals who have disabilities, are obese, or are LGBT. In addition, children with fewer same-ethnicity peers at school appear to be at greater risk for being targets of bullying.
Adolescents who are bullied experience a range of physical problems, including sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal concerns, and headaches. Although the full consequences of bullying on the brain are not yet understood entirely, there are changes in the stress response systems associated with being bullied that increase the risk of mental health problems, including cognitive function and self-regulation of emotions. Being bullied during childhood and adolescence has been linked to psychological effects such as depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse into adulthood.
Youth who bully others are more likely to be depressed, engage in high-risk activities such as theft and vandalism, and have adverse outcomes later in life compared with those who do not bully, the report says. In addition, individuals who bully others and are themselves bullied appear to be at greatest risk for poor psychological and social outcomes. Children involved in bullying as perpetrators, targets, or both are also significantly more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. However, there is not enough evidence to conclude that bullying is a causal factor in youth suicides. The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report also examined the relationship between bullying and school shootings, concluding that the data are unclear on the role of bullying as a precipitating cause of these shootings.