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Newest data show bullying is down, but challenges remain

Jan 24, 2017

The recent release of data from the 2015 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey provides the latest and most accurate glimpse into the state of bullying in the United States. The new data, which come from by the National Center for Educational Statistics, also include more detail than any previous nationally representative data, including students’ perceptions of the basis of bullying behavior. The data collection also featured a direct test of our assumptions about the definition of bullying.

So what do the data say?

  1. Physical appearance is the most commonly reported perceived reason for bullying. More than one quarter (27 percent) of those who reported being bullied indicated that the bullying was based on their physical appearance. Only 3 percent reported that bullying was based on their sexual orientation. This finding should be interpreted with caution, however, as the data are not able to be disaggregated based on students’ sexual orientations.
  2. The percentage of students who reported being cyberbullied remains smaller than those who reported experiencing more traditional bullying, but the number increased from 7 percent in 2013 to 11.5 percent in 2015. It should be noted that the methodology for asking about cyberbullying changed on the 2015 School Crime Supplement to better reflect how cyberbullying fits into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s uniform definition of bullying. On the 2013 protocol, students were asked about cyberbullying as a separate item from the bullying items. On the 2015 protocol, students who indicated that they had been bullied were subsequently asked whether the bullying occurred online or through text.
  3. More than 1 in 5 (21 percent ) of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied in school year 2014-15. This is stable from the 2012-2013 school year, but represents a significant decline from 2007’s rate of 32 percent. Although we cannot draw causal conclusions, these declines have coincided with a renewed emphasis on bullying prevention during President Obama’s administration, starting in 2010 with the first-ever Federal Summit on Bullying Prevention.
  4. Verbal and social bullying remain the most prevalent forms of bullying. Being called mean names and having rumors spread have consistently been the most frequently reported types of bullying, and 13 percent and 12 percent of students reported these forms, respectively, in 2015. Although all forms of bullying have seen at least some decline since 2007, declines are most pronounced for these behaviors—an 8-point decline for mean names (from 21 to 13 percent) and a 6-point decline for rumor-spreading (from 18 to 12 percent). It is also noteworthy that the percentage who report being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on has declined by over 50 percent since 2007—from 11 percent in 2007 to 5 percent in 2015.
  5. More work is needed to understand the definition of bullying. As part of the 2015 collection of the School Crime Supplement and in an effort to better align with the CDC’s uniform definition of bullying, NCES tested three ways of asking students about bullying. The School Crime Supplement has traditionally considered a student as “bullied” if they respond that they have experienced any of a number of different forms of aggressive behavior, from being called mean names to being threatened with harm. Aggression is only one of three components of the CDC’s definition, which also stresses that an imbalance of power, as well as repetition (or fear of repetition), are critical components. When students were provided this definition and asked whether they had been bullied, only 8 percent of students indicated that they had. Only 4.5 percent of students responded both affirmatively to the traditional aggressive items as well as follow-up questions on power imbalance and repetition. Such differences in response rates underscore the importance of finding an agreement on what actually constitutes bullying—a uniform definition would be the first step toward a widespread, coherent response to the particular harms that bullying inflicts.

It remains to be seen whether bullying has become more widespread in the intervening months, as anecdotally reported. But the picture of bullying among U.S. adolescents continues to sharpen, and we have a greater understanding of young people’s experiences every year. If we want to keep bullying on the decline, we have to continue to improve our understanding of what bullying is and how it evolves.

Deborah Temkin, Ph.D., Program Area Director, Education

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