Bullying is way down in schools -- but nobody seems to realise it

The rise of Internet-connected mobile devices has many parents worried for their kids’ online safety. Not only could they face harassment in the hallways at school, but they could deal with it in cyberspace, too.

A new study should assuage those fears.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study of nearly 250,000 American kids in 4th to 12th grade found rates of bullying both in-person and online was cut nearly in half between 2005 and 2014.

In 2005, 28.5% of kids in one Maryland school said they experienced at least one form of bullying. By 2014, the rate had fallen to 13.4%.

The study also found students weren’t aware of the decline. In 2005, half of the students said bullying was a serious problem at their school. A decade later, the new crop of kids still felt similarly. So while 13.4% is still concerning, the researchers did find bullying seemed like a much bigger deal than it really was.

This was important for the researchers because it suggested schools may not realise the progress they’re making in getting rid of bullying. Without an awareness of the progress, they can’t know how to ensure they stay on the right path.

“Our perception of how common something is, is very important,” Catherine Bradshaw, an education researcher at the University of Virginia and one of the study’s co-authors, told NPR.

When parents hear about child abductions on their local news, the stories reinforce what Hungarian professor George Gerbner termed “mean world syndrome.” It’s the false belief that your community is much more dangerous than it really is, because stories of doom and gloom are easier to recall than positive news.

Bullying rates may be falling, in other words, but news stories are more apt to report on instances of torment and violence than schools being safe. The explosion of social media has also given bullying more platforms to be seen by a greater number of people.

The picture students and parents come to see is one of a mean world. As the new study shows, however, when kids were asked to report cases in which they were physically or verbally attacked, either at school or through social media, rates fell steadily over the 10-year period.

There is a cure for mean world syndrome, Bradshaw explains. It’s data.

In 1998, Stanford researchers published a study that showed college kids drank alcohol less often when they learned that many of their peers didn’t want to drink that much themselves. Without pressure to conform, the students suddenly felt free to drink only how much they wanted — or perhaps not at all.

Bradshaw says schools should take the new data to heart, and remind their students that bullying is, in fact, on the decline. A lot of bullies are responding to what they see as threats. If those kids can come to realise the world actually isn’t so mean, perhaps they will be less likely to be mean themselves.

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