Anti-bullying programs that are now commonplace in schools may be having the opposite of their intended effect, according to new research from the University of Texas, Arlington.
In a study published in the Journal of Criminology on Thursday, a team of researchers found that students at schools with anti-bullying initiatives are actually more likely to be victims of bullying than students who attend schools without such programs.
The findings contradict the popular belief that anti-bullying programs help prevent physical and emotional bullying. Lead author Seokjin Jeong said in a statement that the programs may help students learn what a bully does and looks like, teaching them how to better hide their behaviors.
"The schools with interventions say, 'You shouldn't do this,' or 'you shouldn't do that,'" Jeong said. "But through the programs, the students become highly exposed to what a bully is and they know what to do or say when questioned by parents or teachers."
Additionally, the study says that although bullies may learn a variety of anti-bullying techniques, they may simply choose not to practice what they have learned.
"Sometimes, bullies maintain their dominant social status among peers in school," the study says. "As a result, the preventive strategies may become ineffective."
Jeong and his co-author, Michigan State University doctoral student Byung Hyun Lee, analyzed data from the 2005-06 Health Behavior in School-Aged Children survey, which has been conducted every four years since 1985. Because the HBSC survey preceded other national anti-bullying efforts, such as 2010's "It Gets Better" campaign, the researchers conducted a separate survey of students and school administrators about school climate and violence prevention strategies for comparison. Together, data for more than 7,000 students from 195 different schools were analyzed.
Jeong and Lee suggested that schools should develop "more sophisticated" strategies that go beyond implementing preventive programs and move towards "systemic change within the schools," such as employing guards, using metal detectors or conducting bag and locker searches.
Additionally, the authors said researchers need to do more to identify the dynamics involved between bullies and their victims in order to develop prevention tactics for the problem, which affects more than 70 percent of middle and high school students, according to the American Psychological Association. Research shows that victims of bullying have a much higher risk of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and suicide.
But an increase in the number of reported incidents might not be a bad thing, according to Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.
“The devil is in the details,” Englander says. “An increase in the number of cases the school is aware of can actually be a good sign … because if you as the adult become aware of an increased number of cases, it means that more students are reporting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual prevalence is increasing. It may just mean that students are actually doing what you want them to do, which is reporting to adults.”