Twenty years ago, bullying was seen as a rite of childhood, boys being boys, and schools typically advised students to put up or shut up. It took the persistence of academic researchers and non-profits to break through the denial that bullying was damaging the lives of a generation and to uncover the extent of a problem that affects children and adolescents worldwide.
This month many of those same researchers and NGOs joined representatives from UNESCO and UNICEF and industry leaders for the World Anti-Bullying Forum (Dublin, June 4-6), the largest ever summit convened around bullying. Bullying prevention has become a movement, with almost a thousand people attending the Dublin Forum. Every day four research articles are published about bullying, and almost every country now accepts that students have a right to a bully-free education.
Bullying and cyberbullying are the most widespread forms of violence that children experience worldwide. Has any progress been made? It is a complex picture, and bullying is far from eradicated. We have global data going back to 2003 when the World Health Organization (WHO) first conducted surveys of youth with questions around this phenomenon. UNESCO presented their report in Dublin: Behind the numbers: Ending school violence and bullying. Almost one in three students have been bullied in the past month. In some countries, the frequency is a staggering 60 or 70%. Bullying has been reduced in over half of countries since 2003, yet one in three countries have made no progress and one in five countries has actually seen bullying increase.
The way that the research community thinks about bullying has changed considerably during the past two decades. Focus in the early days was on uncovering the characteristics of bullies and their victims, driven by the assumption that these students must to some extent be to blame for behaving in these ways. Researchers then began to see bullying as a group phenomenon and explore the justifications that bullying students gave for their actions. They uncovered what they dubbed “higher levels of moral disengagement”. Many bullies feel that bullying is okay and that it is accepted by their group of friends. They claimed that kids get bullied because they are different and that some kids get bullied because they are weak and deserve it. In simpler language, they were uncovering victim blaming and prejudice.
Prejudice and bullying take many forms. Students who bully are especially likely to target students because of their physical appearance or the color of their skin, or because they do not conform to gender stereotypes. Students with disabilities appear to be particularly vulnerable to bullying by their peers and their teachers but there is not much research in this area. Religion is mentioned by far fewer students (5%) as a reason for being bullied.
Are there any positive takeaways from Dublin? The first is that bullying can be largely eradicated, despite the country differences. Schools that implement the KiVa program in Finland have reduced bullying to less than 12%. The second takeaway is that success is achieved through programs that take a whole school approach, such as No Bully in the US, involving parents, students and teachers in building inclusive school culture. And third, we will only end violence and prejudice among students when we shift the mindset of teachers away from punishment and “unfairness” towards positive discipline.