Long considered nothing more than an unpleasant part of growing up, bullying is now attracting attention as a major public-health problem with long-term effects — on the same scale as youth concussions.
The schoolyard shove each morning. The taunt resulting in red-faced shame at lunch. The gossip whispered via text messages. Long viewed as merely an unpleasant part of growing up, bullying is now attracting federal attention as a serious public-health problem, affecting millions of children with long-term consequences.
Nearly a third of all kids ages 5 to 18 experience some form of bullying — defined as targeted, aggressive behavior from one child against another — and the effects can range from headaches to sleep problems to academic failure.
An additional 7 to 15 percent of students are bullied in cyberspace, which is more difficult for adults to monitor. And for anyone who looks different — minorities, the disabled, overweight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender — rates are even higher.
“Abdominal pain, sleep problems or damage to a child’s academic career — these are things we can’t ignore anymore. Kids have the right to go to school and get an education. If bullying interferes with that, it is interfering with one of their essential rights,” said Frederick Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s hospital, who led the national group of scientists, educators and crime experts in studying existing research.
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Their charge: Determine exactly what is known about bullying.
The behavior shows up as early as preschool, they found, though it peaks between sixth and eighth grade, and a defining feature is its repetitive, day-in, day-out nature.
The report, “Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice,” was released Tuesday and puts a significant focus on bystanders, who also are prone to serious consequences, including anxiety, depression and future delinquent behavior.
No surprise to Jody McVittie, who coaches teachers on improving school culture throughout King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
“What we know about trauma is that when you feel powerless, it’s a source of secondary trauma,” she said. “We also know that when a bystander intervenes, bullying stops.”
Sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other federal agencies, the 300-page report treats bullying with an urgency similar to that surrounding concussions in youth sports.
“We’ve known about those injuries for as long as kids have been playing. But the potential long-term consequences are much more serious than we realized in the past,” Rivara said. “I think of bullying like that.”
Though the behavior was identified more than 100 years ago, bullying did not receive serious attention from scientists until 1978, when a Swedish psychology professor conducted the earliest known study. Only in 1999, after a string of school shootings, did the U.S. devote significant resources to the problem.
Since then, all 50 states have adopted or revised laws to address school bullying, and the federal government has devoted more than $113 million to combating it.
Yet results have been negligible. The most frequent response — zero-tolerance policies resulting in suspension or expulsion — may make things worse, added Rivara.
He and the committee are calling for the U.S. Department of Education to boost data-gathering through the Office for Civil Rights; create new evidence-based programs; and improve prevention training for all adults who work with children.
Lastly, Rivara’s group issued a direct plea to the giants of social media. Publish anti-bullying policies on all social-media websites, it said, and help the federal government track this problem.
“In Seattle, especially,” Rivara added, “social-media companies have some responsibility.”