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Being bullied is no fun and being a bully isn’t a great way to build a social circle. In recent years, parents’ and teachers’ concern about bullying has led many school districts to implement anti-bullying programs. In fact, parents often demand that such programs be instituted.

Now, a new study calls into question the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in schools. It seems that there is more bullying in schools with anti-bullying programs than in schools without.

The study by researchers at University of Texas Arlington and published in the Journal of Criminology, surveyed over 7,000 12-to-18 year-olds in nearly 200 U.S. school districts. They found that older students were less likely to be victims of bullying than younger students but that the most pervasive bullying occurred at the high school level. Race and ethnicity were not a factor linked to more or less bullying. Boys were more likely to party to physical bullying and girls more likely party to emotional bullying.

Most disconcertingly, the study found that the presence of bullying prevention programs was associated with more bullying, not less. The study notes, “Surprisingly, bullying prevention had a negative effect on peer victimization. Contrary to our hypothesis, students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to have experienced peer victimization, compared to those attending schools without bullying prevention programs.”

The authors speculate that bullies may learn better bullying techniques when schools focus so heavily on what bullies do and their effects. It may also be that schools that implement anti-bullying programs have more severe problems with bullying than schools that do not. The study reports that about 68% of American schools have anti-bullying programs.

If bullying is a problem at your child’s school, what should you do?

  1. Remember that anti-bullying programs are not enough to make a change. One cannot simply expect that having a program solves the problem. Bullying is not so simple as that.
  2. Do what you can to change the culture of the school and the neighborhood. Bullying thrives in a coercive environment, where people in power wield power over others. Highly controlling teaching methods, zero-tolerance administrative policies, and blatant favoritism of some groups over others are methods frequently employed by the adults in schools where bullying is a problem. It makes sense that bullies learn by adult examples.
  3. Listen if your child complains of being a bully. Just because her school has an anti-bullying program doesn’t mean you can imagine the problem no longer exists, or exists only in her mind. Remember that boys can be victims of bullies too (and girls can be bullies, as well).
  4. Get help if you suspect your child is a bully. While many bullies learn how to be controlling and coercive at home, some bullies are children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and other mental health issues, raised in homes with responsive parenting. Don’t be embarrassed. Take action.

The take-home message from this study is that parents cannot assume an anti-bullying effort at school solves the problem. Things may actually get worse or at least get no better. As always, parents must still pay attention and take action to protect their children.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.