Friday, September 13, 2013

Bullying Beats Anti-Bullying Programs?

That's what I read here:

Anti-bullying initiatives have become standard at schools across the country, but a new UT Arlington study finds that students attending those schools may be more likely to be a victim of bullying than children at schools without such programs.
The findings run counter to the common perception that bullying prevention programs can help protect kids from repeated harassment or physical and emotional attacks.
"One possible reason for this is that the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs," said Seokjin Jeong, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at UT Arlington and lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Criminology.
Even the title of the summary is all about that: 

Youth More Likely to Be Bullied at Schools With Anti-Bullying Programs

The writing carefully avoids mentioning explicit causality, but the impression the reader gets is that the anti-bullying programs don't work.

And that can be the case.  However, if you read through the actual study you will find a different reason:  The data the study uses is cross-sectional, meaning that all the researchers can compare are data from the same time period.  So schools with anti-bullying programs can be compared with schools which don't have them, and that's the comparison the summary talks about.

Why is that a problem?  Because we don't know if the schools with anti-bullying programs had the same levels of bullying as other schools, before the programs were introduced.  Perhaps the schools with programs introduced them explicitly because bullying was so bad?  Perhaps the levels of bullying in those schools now are lower than they were before the programs?  Or perhaps not.  The point is that we cannot tell, because the researchers didn't have data over time, only data from one harvesting of information.

Yet it makes sense that schools with or without such programs might differ in other important ways, such as the level of reported bullying.

A second (though smaller) problem is that having anti-bullying programs can make students more aware of the fact that they are being bullied, because it gives the language for expressing bullying.  It's a bit like more people reporting rape after society changes its views on rape and punishes it more severely, even if rape rates are not rising.

I should note that the study itself covers lots of ground and does point out the lack of time-series data.