One of the most important research studies ever conducted on bullying was published this past July (2019) in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. Titled “Telling an Adult at School About Bullying: Subsequent Victimization and Internalizing Problems,” it should shake the foundations of the world’s approach to bullying. But first some background.
The ongoing bullying epidemic
Why is bullying an ongoing epidemic? The war against bullying is now 20 years old, ignited by the Columbine massacre of 1999. Thousands of research studies have been conducted on bullying. Every state has a tough school anti-bullying law. We have had annual Bullying Prevention Awareness Months since 2006. Why isn’t the bullying problem getting better?
This writer has been predicting the failure of the anti-bullying movement ever since its inception. The overriding factor underlying this prediction is the ubiquitous instruction that students must report bullying to the school authorities.
Having worked intensively with students in schools since 1978, it became clear to me that the number one reason kids hate each other is that they tell on each other to the authorities. Telling adults is only likely to help if they actually know how to reduce hostilities among the kids. But when the adults act as law enforcement officers, investigating students, interrogating, judging and punishing them for the way they treat each other, they are bound to make hostilities immediately escalate.
This would not be surprising to anyone in prison, where they say, “Snitches get stitches.” Yet this is precisely what mandated bullying indoctrination is doing: encouraging kids to tell on each other, and requiring staff to play detective, judge and punisher in response. And that, I believe, is why the problem is getting worse rather than better. If you carefully read news stories about bullying that led to serious violence and/or suicide, you will discover that the violence often occurred after the school authorities got involved. (For a detailed explanation of why informing often makes the bullying worse, read “Why Telling on Bullies Backfires.”)
Because telling the adult authorities tends to intensify the bullying problem, I have been advising kids against telling and, instead, teaching them how to handle bullying on their own. For most kids that have been routinely informing on their bullies, simply ceasing to inform is enough to quickly improve their situation.
Yet it is precisely the advice against telling that has earned me heaps of scorn, even a viral campaign of vilification in the media several years ago.
Finally, a serious and complex research study has been conducted that undermines the wisdom of informing on bullying and should crack the foundation of the anti-bullying field.
The more kids tell, the worse they are bullied
This study surveyed hundreds of students in grades 7 through 9, correlating the seriousness of their victimization with their tendency to report to the authorities.
Here are some of the choice findings [the bold emphases are mine].
Victimized students exposed to frequent physical bullying had two-fold higher odds of having spoken with an adult at school compared to victimized students not physically bullied i.e., only exposed to other forms.
…students who felt ‘very upset’ following the bullying had six times higher odds of speaking to an adult at school than those for whom the bullying was ‘not at all’ upsetting. Similarly, students who had stayed home from school more than twice in the previous year due to being bullied had double the odds of reporting the bullying compared to students who were not absent from school.
For students victimized at T1 [during the year prior to the initiation of the study], the odds of being victimized again the following year increased with increasing intensity of victimization at T1, but this trend was mainly evident for victimized students who reported the bullying rather than for those who did not … for those who described their victimization as the least severe, only 16.7% were still targeted the next year, compared with 90.9% of the ‘most severe’ group still being targets a year later.
The caution of the study authors
To be fair to the authors of the study, they overtly support the assumption that informing is good, and are attempting to clarify when students are likely to inform. They present their findings as though they indicate that the more seriously a student is bullied, the more likely the bullying is to cause them to inform (to do the right thing). However, their method merely shows correlation between bullying severity and informing, not causation. The reverse is also possible: the more one informs, the more severe the bullying is likely to become. The authors even suggest that in the following excerpt:
An alternative account is that in telling a staff member, students are further ostracized and targeted. Kochenderfer-Ladd and Skinner (2002) reported that more victimized students who sought social support were less preferred by their peers, particularly victimized boys. Even by middle-school years, students who are overly dependent on their teacher are at elevated risk for peer victimization (Troop‐Gordon and Kopp 2011).
Despite this, the study authors make a considerable effort to portray telling as positive. For instance, they report that for severely bullied kids, telling, though it didn’t reduce bullying, reduced their tendency to show internalizing behaviors, meaning inward-directed signs of distress, as in anxiety and depression:
Although telling an adult did not stop more severely victimized students from being bullied a year later, speaking out was associated with somewhat lower levels of internalizing problems. Hence, while the bullying continued, speaking with an adult at school may have buffered severely victimized students against more adverse psychological impacts as a consequence of the peer aggression.
However, the researchers did not measure externalizing, which may result in anger and hostility towards perceived tormentors. Why the researchers would measure internalization while ignoring externalization warrants clarification.
There also seems to be reluctance on the part of researchers to present the obvious reason why informing the authorities might make the bullying situation worse. This study presents the reason as follows:
Unfortunately, staff responses to disclosure can serve to increase the power imbalance. For example, the social reputation of bullying perpetrators can be enhanced when teachers ignore student reports of being bullied (Houghton et al. 2012) and when more socially adept perpetrators mislead teachers regarding incidents of bullying (Nelson et al. 2018).
The responsible conclusion
The researchers offer the following conclusion:
Our findings and those of other studies which point to the negative outcomes for students following disclosure, indicate it may be time to review actions schools take when responding to telling for this recommended strategy to be effective.
That’s right. We can’t just assume that when kids tell, the adults will make the bullying situation better. The results will only be positive if the schools have interventions that reliably work.
Unfortunately, the leading researchers haven’t yet figured out what rliably works. In a recent mainstream media article titled “How to Stop Bullying in Schools: What Works and What Doesn’t,” in which our leading bullying researchers are interviewed, a 15-16% reduction in victimization is presented as an admirable achievement. The researchers neglect to inform us what percentage of bullying situations are actually intensified by their recommended programs.
The Hippocratic oath requires physicians to first do no harm. This should apply to psychology as well as to medicine: doing nothing about bullying is better than doing something that makes it worse. The responsible conclusion should be, “Until we figure out a school intervention that reliably reduces bullying, we need to stop encouraging kids to inform school authorities.”
Why aren’t the researchers finding a reliable solution?
I addressed this question seven years ago in my article “The First Step to Ending the Bullying Crisis.” The anti-bullying field is supposed to be scientific, and questioning is the basis of science. Religions, in contrast, have articles of faith that must be upheld regardless of evidence. Until bullying researchers are willing to fearlessly question the articles of faith of antibullyism, they will not discover what works.
And what works already exists. It has existed for thousands of years. It is embodied in wisdom, the discipline that involves understanding and solving life’s problems. Wise people throughout history have known and taught the solution to bullying.
The best solution to bullying is to teach people how to effectively handle it on their own. Their self-esteem goes up because “I did it by myself” and they avoid arousing anger over informing.
But the researchers are hesitant to delve into the victim-focused approach because it can get them accused of the cardinal sin of “blaming victims.” A basic tenet of antibullyism is that only bullies can be required to end the bullying. Putting the onus on victims is seen as blaming them and will get you immediately pounced upon by antibullyists.
Let us pray (excuse me for the religious metaphor) that it won’t take another 20 years for researchers to look in the opposite direction.