Rates of bullying among students in grades 4-12 decreased over the past 10 years in a state study, contradicting a common perception of a rising trend in schools, according to a study.

The rate of self-reported, frequent bullying victimization fell from 28% in 2005 to 13% in 2014, reported Tracy Evian Waasdorp, PhD, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and her associates. “These findings do contradict the public’s [mis]perception that bullying is increasing.‍”

“Although promising, it is important to emphasize that a large proportion of youth are still experiencing bullying, and the current prevalence rates continue to be of great concern,” they said.‍

Data collected through a survey of 246,306 students in grades 4-12 from 109 schools in Maryland in 2005-2014 found significant decreases in 10 of 13 bullying indicators (Pediatrics. 2017. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-2615 ).

In the survey, students anonymously reported if they had been a frequent victim of bullying – two or more times within the past month – as defined by the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Bullying often occurs in situations where there is a power or status difference. Bullying includes actions like threatening, teasing, name-calling, ignoring, rumor spreading, sending hurtful emails and text messages, and leaving someone out on purpose.”

The investigators found victimization decreased across indicators including pushing (beta = –0.03), hitting (beta = –0.03), threats (beta = –0.02), cyberbullying (beta = –0.01), and rumors (beta = –0.02), according to the researchers. All values were determined with a P value less than .001.

“It was hypothesized that cyberbullying might increase, but consistent with the other forms of bullying, cyberbullying also decreased,” the researchers wrote. “However, given the rapid change of technology and new social media platforms used by youth and increasingly at younger ages, the nature and quality of cyberbullying may change.”

Dr. Waasdorp and her colleagues also had children report if and how often they had participated in bullying or had witnessed bullying, both of which also declined, from 21% to 7% of students and 66% to 43% of students, respectively.

Along with bullying, students were asked how safe they felt in school and if adults in their school were doing enough to prevent bullying, both of which sentiments increased over the course of the study. While 80% of students reported feeling safe in the school, the number of those who felt as though they belonged remained relatively unchanged.

While decreases in each category were relatively small from year to year, “some of these changes were fairly substantial across 10 years, as indicated by the effect size estimates comparing the first and last years (average difference = 0.325),” according to the researchers.

In fact, Dr. Waasdorp and her peers found the final year of the study to have the greatest improvement, which they estimate may come from more comprehensive bullying laws and school practices.

Looking across grade levels, Dr. Waasdorp and her colleagues found greater declines in witnessing bullying and school safety in high schoolers than middle schoolers, which they say may indicate more support in middle school systems, where bullying peaks.

Because of the large number of outcomes, significant associations between school levels and bullying indicators were limited. The anonymous nature of the survey limited the ability of the researchers to link student data across years. The investigators also did not collect data on why changes to the bullying indicators occurred.

During the study, the researchers were supported in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the National Institute of Justice. The authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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